Given the lack of clarity surrounding the causes of white working class underachievement it is hard to be anywhere near precise about what the solutions might be. In many ways the fact that the issue is now getting attention could be seen as a first step in the right direction: influential people are talking about it and so there is at least some level of recognition from those who matter.
Exactly what they’d do about it, however, is slightly less clear. On occasion the suggestions have been downright unhelpful. When David Willetts suggested that white working class boys should be treated ‘like an ethnic minority’ for the purposes of university admissions he displayed both an eye for a headline and an ignorance of how university admissions actually work. Recent comments from Tim Leunig (an adviser at the DfE) fall into the same category. He drew attention to the issue by suggesting that being white has become the real ‘problem’ in schools. But attributing a level of institutional discrimination to the education system because of the outcomes that it produces denigrates schools without getting us any nearer to solving the problem.
Even some of the well-intentioned suggestions about what should be done from the academic community have been rather vague. Some have attempted to learn from schools where white underachievement appears not to be an issue. The recommendations produced are not dissimilar to those that you’d come up with if you were listing fluffy criteria for what it means to be a good school – ‘strong and inspirational leadership’, ‘high expectations for all pupils’ and ‘effective use of data and rigorous monitoring systems’. In other words, they generally fail to get to into the specifics of addressing underachievement by white working class pupils in particular.
At the other end of the spectrum entirely some have argued that we shouldn’t focus on white working class underachievement at all. According to this line of reasoning the biggest factor determining attainment is wealth and by focussing on one particular ethnic group we are legitimising the attainment gap between those in poverty and the well-off. This is essentially the position taken by some of the contributors to a pamphlet published by the Runnymede Trust on the white working class. As one of them puts it, ‘the contemporary preoccupation with white working class male underachievement…institutes a policy of divide and rule that pits one educational disadvantaged group against another’. Whilst I understand this concern I cannot follow it to the conclusion that we should not address the ethnic dimension to underachievement. If we make the effort it must be possible to be concerned with both the correlation between wealth and attainment and the underachievement of a particular ethnic group. We can try to intelligently address both without necessarily falling prey to a neo-liberal conspiracy.
Having bemoaned the lack of coherent solutions put forward by politicians and having dismissed the suggestion that we ignore the issue altogether, what do I think we should do to try to address the problem? The honest answer is I don’t know. In the absence of any conclusive evidence about the causes it would be foolish to make concrete policy suggestions. Two things would help though. First, we should invest time and effort into trying to get to the bottom of why pupils from white working class backgrounds do particularly badly. Too much of the research so far has – for perhaps understandable reasons – skirted around the really difficult questions. The time has come for research that does not just collapse into a familiar recital of why poverty leads to poor educational outcomes. Second, we should be clear about the particular sensitivities associated with drawing conclusions about an entire ethnic group. These are complex and difficult issues and expecting to find a single, simple explanation is not only liable to offend but it is also likely to lead to error. These sensitivities also have important consequences for the types of policy responses available. Whilst we are in a position where the allocation of extra resources to schools that serve large numbers of disadvantaged pupils (via the pupil premium) is acceptable, it would be inconceivable for those extra resources to be adjusted according to the ethnic make-up of the school. Any potential solution to the problem would have to bear that reality in mind.