The pattern of underachievement I highlighted in my last post is relatively easy to observe – it is illustrated clearly by hard data collected by schools and the DfE. The causes of that underachievement are, by contrast, more difficult to pinpoint. In part this reflects the complexity of the problem. Explaining the academic performance of a considerable section of the school population is difficult and carries the inevitable risk of crude generalisation. It also reflects the fact that relatively little research has gone into the subject; most of the research looks at why student on free school meals do worse than their more affluent peers, as opposed to why a particular ethnic group fares particularly badly within the FSM category. (Even the literature that purports to address this question often just highlights the particular underperformance of the white working class and then tries to explain why poverty generally is associated with underperformance.)
When the issue has attracted political attention the explanations put forward have been equally vague and imprecise. In an interview last year Michael Wilshaw referred to a ‘culture which is often anti-school and anti-learning’. Perhaps intentionally it was not clear whether he was suggesting that this anti-school culture was particularly strong in poor white communities. Whether or not he was suggesting this, it is certainly fair to say that some people do think that white working class underachievement is partly caused by parental attitudes to education and this is often contrasted with the more positive attitude to education displayed by first and second generation immigrant families. The problem with this popular explanation is twofold. First, it does not seem to have a solid evidence base. As far as I am aware there is no actual evidence that white working class kids have a more negative attitude towards education. Second and even more importantly, even if it was established it would just beg the question why they have a more negative attitude towards education.
In short, we seem to know relatively little about why white FSM pupils do particularly badly. In the spirit of being constructive if I was asked to speculate on the causes I would consider the following questions:
- What does the more sophisticated data on deprivation tell us about white underperformance? FSM is a notoriously crude indicator of poverty. More fine-grained data on poverty and educational attainment may well present a more nuanced picture. For example, it could be that in some ways white pupils on FSM are more disadvantaged as a group than FSM pupils from other ethnic groups.
- Is there a geographical dimension to this problem? Regional inequality in the education system is becoming increasingly well-documented, and although this is often dismissed as an explanation because white-FSM pupils in London (by far the highest performing area) still do badly I think there could well be something in it. Are there specific characteristics of predominantly white working class areas (high unemployment, geographical isolation etc.) that contribute to underachievement?
- How do perceptions of social mobility fit within this picture? Could it be, for instance, that the actual experience of low-levels of inter-generational mobility is contributing to the problem?