Why Are White “Working Class” Students Falling Behind?

9th December 2013

First, the oddnesses

Probably the best of the weirdness was when David Ward, a Liberal Democrat MP, argued that he couldn’t understand definitions of working class based on income or occupation. Instead, he argued, “When I think of people I know it is diet, it is social activity, it is the politics, it is the dress….that’s how I define and differentiate between middle class and other classes“. < Yes, he said dress.

A second oddity was the lengthy debate led by Robert Plomin, behavioural geneticist and Deputy Director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre. Plomin’s argument is that most things we focus on in education – teachers, schools, country, class – only account for a small amount of the differences seen in children’s achievements. Using assessments and statistical modelling researchers find that about 50% of children’s abilities are related to capacities inherited from their parents. But even assuming this is true, LKMCo director Loic Menzies kept making the point: If schools can only influence 20% of achievement variance, give that’s the thing under our control why not concentrate on doing it well rather than worrying about genetics? After all, 20% is still a decent amount to play with.

Plomin didn’t have a good answer, until things took a turn for the sci-fi.  Plomin suggested that within 5 years everyone will have their personal DNA sequenced on a chip. From this, teachers might identify the genetically “lower performers” and throw resources at them from a young age. (He didn’t vocalise the alternative, e.g. selecting out the brightest, but it hung in the air as an uncomfortable possibility). In some ways, if this chip thing happens and we are all sensible about how the information is used, it could be really great. But given it’s at least 5 years off I couldn’t understand at all why it was relevant to the current debate about working class achievement.

So what of the sensible discussions?

The first panelists did a good job of explaining that the problem of under-achievement is not really among “working class” students so much as among those who live in low income families and/or have parents with low educational achievement. As David Gillborn, Director of the Centre of Research in Race & Education, pointed out – 60% of white British people think of themselves as “working class” but 60% of white British students are not underperforming, so conflating the two is problematic. Thinking instead about family income and parental education is more useful.

Secondly, one of the most important differences between white British low-income families versus low-income families from other demographics is that parents in the British group usually went through the British school system themselves and probably didn’t do that well in it. Migrant parents are often highly educated, OR if they were not well-educated are approaching the school system with fresh eyes and very high hopes. Their attitude is therefore quite different to a white British parent who may well have gone through school in a low set, absorbed the idea that school was not valuable to them nor were they valued by school, and then in wanting to protect their own child from the same feelings of inadequacy they subconsciously prep their child against the importance of school. This was a new argument to me, but it rang very true with my own experiences and it is worth thinking more about the way this might mean current curriculum and assessment changes are perceived by such parents.

Third, if we know that parent behaviours and attitudes matter – how do we best influence them? Becky Francis, of King’s College London, suggested a means-tested system where poorer parents are given vouchers to spend on extra-curricular activities for their children from their early years. Being encouraged to make decisions about voucher use would means parents being involved in their child’s education from early on and would create a useful habit of active decision-making. Loic also suggested that more communication to parents about what they can do to support their children – e.g. providing space for homework, taking children to libraries – is very important.

Finally, the issue of geography was raised. In London, teaching in schools with the most disadvantaged schools is mostly good or outstanding. In the North East, only 1/3rd of the most disadvantaged schools have good or outstanding teaching. Why? This remained a mystery in the session, but raise the question of how the government might motivate people to go into areas struggling with the recruitment and retention of highly effective teachers. There was also a recurring issue about local employment. David Gillborn raised the fact that many white working class areas have lost major employers in recent years which has a knock-on impact to motivation and attitudes towards school.

In sum: the committee scratched the surface of what is clearly a complicated but important issue. White students in poor families with parents who had bad experiences at school are at risk of doing badly. The solutions may well lie in considering how to more effectively spread out excellent teachers, improve local employment opportunities and providing parents with more ways to influence their child’s education. Genetics, at least for the next 5 years, is unlikely to be a useful basis for policy decisions.