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White Disadvantaged Pupils (Birmingham)

1.28 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): When people talk about Birmingham, they often refer to its diversity. Diversity means many things, but I am in no doubt that Birmingham’s ethnic, cultural and religious diversity are great strengths in so many ways. If we are to address both the opportunities and challenges that diversity brings, we must understand the diversity of diversity.

The ethnic mix of my part of Birmingham—an outer-city suburb south-west of the city—is not, in comparison with other parts of the west midlands, very multicultural. Yes, there are more people from new communities now than there were 20 years ago, but the make-up of my constituency is still more than 90 per cent. white. The dominance of white communities in Birmingham, Northfield obviously says something about the colour of people’s faces in the area, and it may even say something about the likely religious make-up of the area, but it does not say very much about the diversity of the area in terms of class, life chances, income and opportunity.

Nowhere is that more evident than in relation to education. That is why I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate, arising from a report on the underachievement of white disadvantaged pupils in Birmingham. Although the report, branded “Brighter Futures”, was commissioned in 2005 by Birmingham city council with funding from the Learning and Skills Council, it was not published until the end of last year. However, its message remains relevant today, in Birmingham and at national level, and particularly in white working-class communities such as the one that I represent, which are often at the edge of our great cities up and down the country.

White pupils are the largest underachieving group in Birmingham and across the UK. That may seem a strange thing to say when, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government report, “Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society”, published in February 2009, 49 per cent. of white British pupils who were not on free school meals achieved at least five A* to C GCSEs in 2007. That was exactly the same as the national average for all pupils, but it was the figure for those who did not receive free school meals. When we look at white British pupils on free school meals, we see that the proportion achieving five A* to C GCSEs falls to just 17 per cent. To put it another way, in 2007, 83 per cent. of white British pupils on free school meals did not achieve five A* to C GCSEs.

That is a horrifying statistic, but it is all too often masked when figures for white British pupils are presented as a whole and therefore averaged out. If we stop talking about proportions and start talking about real numbers, the picture is even more disturbing. Why? Because quite simply there are a lot of white pupils. According to Karamat Iqbal, the author of the report that I am introducing today, in Birmingham 2,496 pupils out of a total of 4,795 who did not achieve five A* to C GCSEs in 2007 were white. The numbers are even worse when English and Maths are included, and they are disproportionately bad among boys.


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I say this not to deny that there are huge needs among other ethnic groups or that those groups require effectively targeted action, because they do. I say it simply to show that we must do more to address the huge impact of poverty, disadvantage and inequality within white communities or predominantly white communities. Part of that impact is obviously material. Poor housing, low incomes and family worklessness are bound to affect the practical ability of pupils to take advantage of educational opportunities to build their own futures, but it is about more than that. Disadvantage also undermines the resilience of communities and depresses aspiration in a destructive cycle.

Again, according to the report’s author, disadvantaged white pupils are the least likely to enjoy going to school, the least likely to think that it is important to get a college qualification and the least likely to think that it is important to go to university. How important is all that? In my view, it is very important. According to the report of the independent Social Mobility Commission in January 2009,

I know that it is hardly earth-shattering to note the impact of poverty on aspiration, educational achievement and life chances. The point is what we do about it. All too often, the sheer size of white communities and the tendency of institutions to consider proportional disadvantage between ethnic groups can end up averaging out deprivation statistics relating to white ethnicity. As a result, the scale of specific problems of deprivation in those communities is masked.

What needs to be done? The first thing is to acknowledge the work put in day in, day out, by teachers and other staff, by parents and by so many people to address those issues on the ground. Just the other week, I saw what is being done to inspire pupils’ passion for engineering and technology at the city learning centre in my constituency. It is based at Frankley high school, but it is a collaborative project involving a number of different schools, with welcome support from the Government. We should also acknowledge, in relation to both Birmingham city council and national Government, that a number of different initiatives have been and are being implemented that offer the prospect of addressing some of the problems of underachievement in deprived white areas more imaginatively than has been the case in the past.

However, more needs to be done to address the issues both nationally and locally. We have to be confident enough to debate this issue openly. A specific recommendation in Karamat Iqbal’s report is that the white ethnic category should always be subdivided according to eligibility for free school meals when statistics are compiled to inform education policy. The report makes several other recommendations, and I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister and other colleagues, both in this place and outside, to examine them. It stresses the need for a national strategy backed up by action at local authority level, including in Birmingham, with the involvement of parents and the wider local community and collaboration between schools.

Beyond the recommendations in Karamat Iqbal’s report, I emphasise the importance of addressing the realities of deprivation in white working-class communities
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when initiatives to tackle worklessness during the current recession are brought in, whether through the mainstream budgets of councils and Government agencies such as primary care trusts, regional development agencies, the Learning and Skills Council and Jobcentre Plus, or through the use of targeted funds such as the working neighbourhoods fund.

It is good that super output areas are increasingly being used instead of local government wards to identify pockets of deprivation, but there is still a problem. In the Birmingham city region area, as much as anywhere, super output areas—those local areas that are used to target deprivation—are all too often grouped together into priority wards when resources are allocated. In Birmingham, where we are talking about wards of between 15,000 and 20,000 people, the averaging effect of that causes massive unfairness to the deprived white communities who live near, but not in, more affluent areas.

Today is an anniversary: it is exactly 17 years since I made my maiden speech as the new MP for Birmingham, Northfield. The focus of that speech was deprivation in Britain’s outer cities. Column 185 of Hansard for 19 May 1992 records that I said the following:

Yes, the Labour Government have made many improvements since 1997, but many of the problems that I highlighted in my maiden speech sadly still exist, and the racism that those problems breed is still being peddled by groups such as the British National party, which preys on the real problems that people face at this time of recession and their real fears for themselves and their families. In this week of all weeks, and today of all days, we should remember that it also preys on people’s alienation from the political process. The truth is that the simplistic solutions laced with hate that the BNP and their friends peddle are blind alleys that offer nothing to our communities, but it is up to us to show in practice that there is a different way. Doing far more to respond to the reality of underachievement among white pupils in disadvantaged areas must be an essential part of that.

1.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on securing the debate, and I certainly agree that it is well worth having such a debate. My hon. Friend works hard to ensure that people in his constituency and around Birmingham get the opportunities that they deserve. Indeed, he has been working hard to achieve that ever since he entered the House, as evidenced by his quote from his maiden speech.

Before I move on to the specific issue of white disadvantaged pupils, which my hon. Friend raised, let me cover some more general points. Of course, no barrier should prevent a child from learning—whether
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that barrier is a disability, a special educational need, how much their parents earn or their occupation. There should be no barriers of gender, class or ethnicity. Black or white, boy or girl, advantaged or disadvantaged, every child should be able to make good progress at school, and that is what personalisation is about. That is an ambition that everyone can share.

We have made significant progress over the past decade. On poverty, about 15 per cent. of children come from homes that are poor enough to be eligible for free school meals. In primary schools, 20,000 more free school meal pupils now achieve level 4 in maths at the end of key stage 2 than was the case 10 years ago. In secondary schools, the chances of an FSM pupil getting a good maths GCSE have increased from 25 per cent. to 35 per cent. over the past four years.

However, there is more to do to tackle the gap between disadvantage and achievement. We know that that gap starts early—even before the age of 22 months—and it is vital that we address it as soon as a child starts their learning experience. By key stage 4, the odds of a non-FSM pupil achieving five good GCSEs are three times greater than for an FSM pupil, so we need to sustain support through primary school and on into secondary school.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are taking steps to tackle the problem vigorously. During the early years, we are ensuring that families get the specific support that they need from our 3,000 children’s centres. For children at school, we are modernising the curriculum by strengthening our focus on personalised learning, improving parental engagement and encouraging schools to work together to improve standards. Across our wider children’s services, we are ensuring that health, mental health and social services are even more accessible and better co-ordinated through strengthened children’s trusts.

Let me move on to my hon. Friend’s concerns about children in Birmingham from disadvantaged backgrounds. Let me first give some evidence of the progress that has been made in dealing with all children from disadvantaged backgrounds, before coming in a moment to the specific case of white children.

At key stage 2, data for 2008 showed that Birmingham’s FSM gap for English had decreased by two percentage points, from 19 to 17 per cent., from 2005, while the gap for maths had reduced by three percentage points, from 18 to 15 per cent., over the same period. At key stage 4, data for Birmingham show that the gap between non-FSM and FSM pupils who get five A* to C GCSEs has narrowed from 25.3 per cent. to 23.5 per cent., although that is still way too large.

My hon. Friend is particularly interested in the case of white children. I note his concern that we risk masking the combination effect of disadvantage and ethnicity at local level by publishing data that show only one or other of those two effects, but not both in combination. He is correct that we do not publish data on the attainment of white children who are eligible for free school meals for every local authority, but that is simply a matter of manageability. Doing that for every underperforming group and every local authority would require us to publish an additional 150,000 items of data each year. However, we can supply such data on request for a given local authority, and I would be happy to give my hon. Friend the data that he requires.
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We also publish national attainment data by a combination of characteristics. Specifically, we publish data by gender, ethnicity and FSM—three characteristics in combination —in table A1 of the annual statistical first release.

My hon. Friend referred to a report produced in conjunction with Birmingham city council and published last November, which dealt specifically with the underachievement of white British pupils, and I welcome the contribution that the report makes. I agree that we need to acknowledge the problem of underachievement among white children from disadvantaged backgrounds and to make the issue more visible at national and local level. That is why, from January this year, we are requiring local authorities for the first time to set targets for the progress and attainment of children who are eligible for free school meals, as well as for those from underperforming ethnic groups, so that they get the help that they need.

Where those targets are insufficiently challenging, national strategies advisers have held detailed conversations with local authorities over the past few months, examining the scale of the issue, discussing local strategies to raise attainment for disadvantaged pupils and working with authorities to set more stretching targets for those pupils’ progress and attainment.

I agree that a national strategy is needed to narrow the attainment gaps between disadvantaged young people, whatever their ethnic group, and their more advantaged peers. That is why we published “Breaking the link between disadvantage and low attainment—Everyone’s Business” this March, as well as the accompanying evidence report, “Deprivation and Education”. I commend those reports to my hon. Friend. Together, they spell out the progress that this country has made in reducing attainment gaps over the past decade. More importantly, they signalled our future policy direction.

Among the highlights of the strategy are: an extension of free early learning and child care to around 23,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds a year; tailoring learning experiences in school to children’s needs—for example, through the use of one-to-one tuition; a new school report card, which will focus schools on the progress of all pupils and on narrowing the gaps not just in academic attainment, but across all five Every Child Matters outcomes; an expansion of extended services to disadvantaged families; and a full review of the relevant school funding—the £3 billion that we allocate under the direct school grant for disadvantage—to ensure that it is properly targeted to meet the needs of disadvantaged pupils.

I agree that we need a focus on community cohesion, the importance of which is reflected in the new duty on maintained schools, which came into effect in September 2007. That duty recognises, and builds on, the good work that many schools are already doing to promote community cohesion. Since September 2008, Ofsted has inspected schools against that duty. The issue needs to be everybody’s business.

I agree that we need to know what works. Sharing examples of best practice pushes forward positive change. Our Extra Mile project, which focuses on engaging children from deprived communities in their education, is based on approaches that we have seen make a real difference for disadvantaged pupils. The project currently runs across 23 schools, but it will be rolled out to another 60 secondary and 40 primary schools later in the year. Case study material will be published at the
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end of the summer term and made available to all schools and local authorities.

Further examples of good practice in supporting disadvantaged communities are included in the “Breaking the link” document, in the recent Ofsted report “White boys from low-income backgrounds: good practice in schools” and in the National College for School Leadership publication “Successful leadership for promoting the achievement of white working class pupils”.

I agree that we need to engage parents and the wider community in the work of schools. Parents are the single most important influence on a child’s attainment, and we are taking forward a range of measures to strengthen parents’ engagement in their children’s learning. Our parental engagement strategy will ensure that parents get more regular information about progress and that their voices are heard; legislate to ensure that there are strong children’s trusts in every area, with schools, children’s services and the voluntary sector working closely together to improve outcomes for children and young people; intensify the focus on personalised learning and on tracking the progress of every child through one-to-one tuition and catch-up programmes such as Every Child Counts; and legislate to ensure that there is a children’s centre in every community, so that all children can get off to a good start in life.

We recognise the significant impact that the community has on a young person’s aspirations and attainment. Our Inspiring Communities programme will support people in deprived communities as we look to raise the achievement of young people, broaden their horizons and build self-esteem. The programme is designed to put local people— parents, neighbours, businesses, teachers, voluntary groups and councils—in the driving seat to harness their collective knowledge, energy, resources and enthusiasm. Expert help and funding of up to £450,000 will be made available to up to 15 neighbourhoods over the next two years for the design and delivery of projects and activities. The deadline for applications is 3 June 2009.

My hon. Friend made the point that we need to provide opportunities for disadvantaged white pupils to celebrate their culture and identity. Experience in our Extra Mile project reveals successful strategies for developing an atmosphere in which that can happen. Our Extra Mile schools go out of their way to bring in local heroes, characters and successes as role models, so that people can see that success is possible for people from their walk of life. They teach pupils what they need to know about ways of talking, writing and behaving in the wider world, so that they have the repertoire to succeed in formal and unfamiliar situations. They educate for equality. They define non-negotiable standards of behaviour and a culture of mutual respect, which plays well with local parents, who value the twin traditions of discipline and personal caring. They apply that culture to teachers as well as pupils.

Extra Mile schools provide cultural opportunities beyond the budget of local families, so that pupils get a taste of sports, arts and activities from which they would otherwise be excluded. The schools are socially attuned. New teachers tour the catchment area before they start to teach, take time to talk about local concerns with pupils each day and learn how to meet, greet and converse in ways that are not patronising. They empathise with the local community and local values. In the
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knowledge that poverty can induce feelings of emptiness and hopelessness, the schools work harder than others to provide rewards and incentives to pupils. Their notice boards are invariably plastered with honours, rewards, mentions, certificates and prizes. All those are successful strategies that can be used in any school serving a disadvantaged community, whether it is predominantly white or more ethnically mixed.

In Birmingham, our national challenge programme provides extra support to the schools serving its disadvantaged communities. We have agreed a plan with Birmingham city council to provide it with a significant amount of national challenge funding— £2.8 million—in the academic year 2008-09. That will help 30 Birmingham schools to meet their wide-ranging set of specific school improvement solutions, as defined by their national challenge adviser. Those include one-to-one support for disadvantaged pupils, particularly in schools that serve disadvantaged communities; a focus on the wider Every Child Matters outcomes; and support for the schools’ senior and middle leadership teams, which is intended to raise the effectiveness of the school and, crucially, its aspirations for its children.

Richard Burden: On the point about the national challenge, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that local authorities should modify their departmental funding streams to ensure that different areas of policy merge together in the right way? The point I am getting at is that if a major regeneration scheme is going on where there is a national challenge school it should not be impossible to get the departments that deal with the regeneration to talk effectively with the departments that deal with children and families, and to get them working together to the benefit of the people in the area.


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