It’s Not ‘White Privilege’ That’s To Blame For Failure Of Poorer White Students
The underperformance of white working class students over decades has been one of the education system’s biggest – and seemingly most intractable – failures.
And while many factors have been held to be responsible, the latest culprit to be identified is the concept of ‘white privilege’, according to a committee of MPs in the U.K.’s House of Commons.
‘White privilege’ – the idea that society is structured in such a way as to benefit white people over other ethnic groups – has taken attention away from the problems facing white working class students, according to today’s report by the Education Select Committee.
And the promotion of the idea of white privilege is both divisive and damaging to the children themselves, the MPs say.
But while working class students have been let down for generations, it is ludicrous to suggest that the idea of white privilege, a concept that has only gained currency in the last few years, is even partly to blame.
And citing white privilege as a factor in the underachievement of white students smacks of nothing less than an attempt to provoke division and stoke the culture wars.
White working class students have long been identified as one of the groups that do least well in education.
They are less likely to get good grades and less likely to go onto college or university than students from more advantaged backgrounds.
But they are also less likely to do well than students from similar socio-economic backgrounds but from ethnic minorities.
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For example, just 23% of white British students eligible for free school meals – a proxy measure for deprivation – get a grade 5 and above – considered a pass – in English and maths at 16, compared with 28% of all students on free school meals.
White British students are also the least likely of any ethnic group to go into higher education, with the exception of Gypsy/Roma and Irish Traveller students.
Just 16% of white students on free school meals go to university, compared to 59% of students of Black African origin and 32% of those from a Black Caribbean background.
And just 2% of white students on free school meals go to high tariff, or more selective, universities, compared with 11% of students from an Indian background.
Disparities such as these demonstrate that white working class students do not have white privilege, the MPs say.
And what is more, the MPs say they are “concerned about the impact that hearing terms like that [white privilege] presented as fact will have on those children.”
But the obstacles faced by white working class students long predate any recognition, much less discussion, of white privilege. White working class students were being failed long before the concept of white privilege was even a twinkle in its begetters’ eyes.
There are long term factors that feed into the underachievement of white working class students, such as social attitudes that assume some students are not suited to higher education, or would not fit in at the more exclusive universities.
Coupled to this, white working class students are disproportionately from small towns and the U.K.’s former industrial heartlands, where lack of investment and blighted employment prospects means children grow up devaluing education.
In contrast, working class students from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to live in London and larger cities, which have seen big improvements in the standard of education and where students can see opportunities all around them.
Rather than looking for a solution to the problems of white working class children, the committee’s report seems more like another salvo in the culture wars, sowing division and blaming Black Lives Matter activists for the failures of the last 50 years.
In this, it is of a piece with the report published in the U.K. in the spring by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, much derided for its denial of institutional racism and condemned by experts on the U.N.’s Human Rights Council.
But instead of trying to set different ethnic groups against each other, the MPs would have been better focusing on trying to bring people together to solve a problem that has so far proven hard to budge.