A new report says white working-class children are failing at school, and suggests their attitudes and lack of aspiration are the cause. This sounds like victim blaming to me
It’s not just about poverty. The figures prove it. Just 32% of white working-class children leave school with five decent GCSEs, says a report published this week by the Commons education select committee. But nearly double as many children from a poor Indian background manage it, and more than three quarters of children from a poor Chinese background do. Graham Stuart, the Conservative chairman of the committee, had this to say: “Poor white British children now come out of our schools with worse qualifications than equally poor children in any other ethnic group. They do less homework and are more likely to miss school than other groups. We don’t know how much of the underperformance is due to poor attitudes to school, a lack of work ethic or weak parenting.”
We do know, however, that the one thing that seems to make a big difference is not on that list. It’s pretty simple – attending a really good school. And this rather suggests that Stuart’s list is an exercise in victim blame, with its focus on poor character rather than poor services. The real question is this: What makes white working-class people feel more disengaged from education than working-class people from other ethnicities? Lack of aspiration is a much-cited reason. But again, what makes white working-class people more likely to lack aspiration?
One detail of the report might throw a little light on this much contested matter. Though it has been acknowledged for many years that white working-class boys are failed most by the education system, these figures attest that the girls are faring badly, too. Their particular plight has up until now been masked by the great strides that have been made in the education of girls overall during recent decades. There has been a perception that both the education system and the workforce have been “feminised”. Yet, if it has, these girls haven’t been touched by it. Why?
Critics of the feminist movement often say that its emphasis has too often been on the concerns of middle-class women. These figures suggest that it is middle-class girls who feel that it’s worthwhile to get a good education and to be ambitious about having a career. Working-class girls don’t. Yet neither working-class girls nor boys have been untouched by feminism, which asserted that getting married and being a parent was far from the be-all and end-all of life. If you don’t see yourself as thrustingly ambitious, career-wise, what else is there, nowadays, to be ambitious about? The trouble may not just be lack of aspiration about education. The trouble may be something much more pervasive and debilitating: lack of aspiration about life itself.
This is by no means to suggest that feminism is “to blame” for working-class underachievement. My only point is that it is just one more influence that emphasises workplace aspiration so much that it ends up denigrating aspiration of all other kinds. Baby-boomer middle-class values dominate, and one thing is just a stepping stone to the next thing, onward and upward. But what really motivates the middle classes – and the upper classes – is fear. We fear losing our advantages, or that our children will lose the advantages we are striving to give them. (The rich, in illustration of this point, hang on to their advantages as grimly as the poor hang on to their poverty, and that is a huge barrier to change.)
But what do you fear when you have no advantages? You fear losing the little you have. You fear losing your benefits. You fear losing your place in a community where, even if it isn’t much, everyone knows you, and you know them. You often fear losing your children – to college, to London, to the world, to ambition, to having nothing in common with them any longer. You fear making a fool of yourself, by trying and failing. So, no. It’s not just about poverty. It’s also about abuse. It’s about forcing people into believing that survival is the best they can manage. It’s about letting people know, as often as possible, that they are at the bottom of the heap, a problem, despised and feared themselves.
Yet our politicians see fear as the solution, not the problem. Fining parents for not reading to their children? Refusing Jobseeker’s allowance to young people, if they haven’t got … a job? These are just some of this week’s ideas on how to frighten people into aspiration. It has been the strategy for the last 30 years. Take away job security. Take away wages large enough to pay the bills. Take away decent social housing. Take away welfare provision. Why can’t these so-called leaders see that the more you take away from people, the less they have to lose? Deprivation doesn’t make people aspirational. It makes them deprived.
It seems facile, the idea that better schools have a positive impact on economically vulnerable children, a simple equation whereby quality in equals quality out. But there is a huge psychological aspect to it, too. Providing a community, a family, a child, with an outstanding school teaches a pupil that the pupil is not worthless, but valuable.
Yet, school is just part of it. What does a pupil do with five good GCSEs anyway? It’s a no-brainer to the middle classes (unless the child in question already has a burning aspiration in some direction that it’s prudent to let them pursue). They stay on at school, have a crack at some more exams, go to college or university, aim to get the best job they can. Politicians are fond of talking about “ordinary people”. But what provision is there really, for ordinary? You either sign up to middle-class values and aspirations, or, let’s face it, sooner or later, you’re screwed.
Another report this week, this one by the Poverty and Social Exclusion project, found that the number of people falling below minimum living standards is more than double what it was 30 years ago, even though the size of the economy has doubled in that time. The report also found that “the majority of children who suffer from multiple deprivations live in small families with one or two siblings, with both parents, have at least one parent who is employed and are white”.
And there it is. What could be more ordinary? Mum, dad, job, couple of kids. Thirty years ago, a person who did not have five good GCSEs could earn enough to pay the rent on a nice home for their family, maybe run a car, have a few holidays (nothing fancy) and send their children to school safe in the knowledge that life was good and getting better, and that doing what society asked of you was sensible. I know, because I lived that life, had that childhood and finished school in 1980, just as the shit was beginning to hit the fan. What started happening at that time was the wholesale destruction of the social contract, a contract that told people that “ordinary” was respected and valued, was safe and secure, was important.
We’re not supposed to harp on about Thatcherism any longer. We’re supposed to accept that what’s done is done and that there’s no going back. Perhaps. But one thing has to happen first. There has to be acknowledgement from the establishment that that trust was betrayed; that people who didn’t deserve to be the victims of a socio-economic experiment were abandoned – people who still exist, along with their children and their grandchildren.
The Conservatives are still refusing to admit error, or apologise. Labour pretty much gave up asking them to do so long ago. So, the political obsession with the problem being bad character rather than socio-economic disadvantage continues. Britain needs to be a country where it is OK to be “ordinary”, where “ordinary” pays the bills. For a lot of people, ordinary seems out of reach. That’s not surprising. Ordinary is precisely what was prised away, to make way for a nation where lack of aspiration can never be punished too harshly, lest it proves to be contagious.