White working class boys and Higher Education: widening participation

18th July 2016

Target parents and primary school pupils to get more white working class boys into university

Today we are publishing a new report, ‘The underrepresentation of white working class boys in higher education: the role of widening participation” commissioned by King’s College London’s Widening Participation Department. The report could not be more timely, coming less than a week after the historic decision to bring responsibility for universities and skills into a newly expanded Department for Education as well as Prime Minister May’s speech in which she noted that “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university” .

The report provides new analysis of why so few white working class boys progress to higher education and how this can be addressed. Uniquely, it brings together the insights of teachers, universities, academics and sector professionals. It finds that:

  • Some white working class boys feel forced to conceal their identity in order navigate the world of Higher Education (HE).
  • Parents should be targeted as part of efforts to increase white working class boys’ participation in HE.
  • Efforts to increase white working class boys’ access to HE should begin at primary school.
  • Young people’s belief in the value of attending university can be reduced by their awareness of successful high profile entrepreneurs who have not been to university or by friends who have left university and failed to secure jobs.
  • There is no agreed definition of the term ‘white working class’ and this makes it difficult to target the group and monitor support.
  • White working class pupils’ access to some courses is limited by their limited awareness of subjects like Economics and Philosophy.
  • Participation by SES and ethnicity graph imageUniversities need to do more to emphasise the practical and vocational elements of HE to white working class pupils.
  • Highly selective universities consistently fail to meet equality targets but this might be explained by pupils’ grades and subject choices.
  • Further Education apprenticeships are failing to act as a springboard to HE
  • Interviews and personal statements may act as a barrier to white working class boys’ access to HE.

The report will prove invaluable to the newly appointed Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening who is the first Secretary of State for education to have attended a fully comprehensive secondary school, and who is expected to make social mobility for white working class communities a priority.

Commenting on the report’s publication lead author and Director of Research at LKMco Dr Sam Baars said:

 “Low attainment at school accounts for much of the problem of low participation in Higher Education by white working class boys. However it does not explain it away. Likewise, higher tuition fees appear not to have driven participation rates downward. This report therefore digs beneath these factors and asks what it means to be a white working class boy and how this can make it more difficult to progress to higher education. We find that fears about the value of higher education in the workplace and a lack of knowledge about applications and interviews are key barriers to participation.”

Director of Widening Participation at King’s College London Anne-Marie Canning said:

“This important report is essential in helping schools and universities improve the progression rates for white working class pupils to higher education. The report recommends that working with white working class pupils from an early age and engaging parents are key in ensuring all young people have the opportunity to participate in higher education.’

You can download the full report here