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Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children - Education Committee Contents

1  Introduction


1.  In June 2013, Ofsted's report Unseen children: access and achievement 20 years on[1] was reported as having exposed the problem of "white working class children" underachieving in England's education system.[2] Ofsted described how white British children eligible for free school meals were now the lowest-performing children at age 16, with only 31% of this group achieving five or more GCSEs at A*-C including English and Mathematics.[3] At the launch of the report, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector (Sir Michael Wilshaw) noted that the size of this group meant that tackling this issue was an important part of the "closing the gap" agenda:

    The underperformance of low-income white British pupils matters, particularly because they make up the majority—two-thirds—of such pupils. So the lowest-performing group of poor children is also the largest. If we don't crack the problem of low achievement by poor white British boys and girls, then we won't solve the problem overall.[4]

PISA 2009 data has shown that in England the impact of a student's socio-economic background is significantly higher than the OECD average; countries such as Hong Kong, Canada, Finland, Iceland and Korea all do better for their socially and economically disadvantaged students than England does.[5] Public attention has also been drawn to the educational prospects of white working class children within higher education. In January 2013, the Minister for Universities and Science (Rt Hon David Willetts MP) suggested that white working class boys should be a particular focus for the Office for Fair Access, in a similar manner to its approach to ethnic minorities and disadvantaged groups.[6]

2.  The Government's stated aim is to "ensure that a child's socio-economic disadvantage does not limit their educational outcomes by age 19, compared to their peers", with a strategy of raising the attainment of all pupils, ensuring that more disadvantaged pupils reach the thresholds that are crucial for future success, and narrowing the attainment gap between them and their peers.[7] As part of this strategy it has implemented policies such as the pupil premium.[8] We therefore decided to investigate the underachievement in education of white working class children.


3.  We launched our inquiry on 23 July 2013, seeking written evidence on the following points:

  • the extent of white working class pupils' educational underachievement;
  • the factors responsible for white working class pupils' educational underachievement, including the impact of home and family;
  • whether the problem is significantly worse for white working class boys than girls;
  • what steps schools can take to improve the educational outcomes and attainment of white working class pupils;
  • the potential for a wider range of educational approaches, for example vocational pathways, to improve outcomes for white working class pupils; and
  • what role the Government can play in delivering improved educational outcomes for white working class pupils.

4.  We received over 30 written submissions from a range of witnesses. We took oral evidence on four occasions, hearing from seven panels of witnesses including the Minister for Schools, Rt Hon David Laws MP, and held a seminar in November 2013 to help steer our inquiry. We also visited Peterborough on 6 February 2014 to explore the issues raised in the inquiry in a local context.[9] We are grateful to all those who contributed to our inquiry, and especially those who organised or participated in our visit to Peterborough.

5.  During this inquiry we benefitted from the expertise and assistance of Professor Steve Strand, who was appointed as a Special Adviser to the Committee for his specific understanding of white working class underachievement in education, and, as ever, from the advice and expertise of Professor Alan Smithers as our standing Special Adviser on education matters.[10]

The scope of this report

6.  We received evidence relating to a wide range of education issues during our inquiry, not all of which were unique to the question of white working class underachievement, or strictly within the boundaries of our education remit. This is a natural consequence of the issue we sought to explore: white children constitute the vast majority of the school population, and their interests are likely to reflect the English school system as a whole rather than occupy an easily-defined niche within it. All of the areas discussed in this report are important and deserving of focused policy attention, but in the interests of producing a report that accurately reflects the time devoted to examining them individually, they are discussed relatively briefly and in some cases are presented without definitive conclusions or recommendations. In doing so, it is our intention that this report will provide a useful 'map' of the issue and its connections to other policy areas, for future reference. Where relevant we have highlighted specific issues for further scrutiny by ourselves or our successor in the next Parliament and by the Government itself.


Defining "working class"

7.  The starting point for our inquiry was "white working class children", but from the oral and written evidence it became apparent that this group was not well-defined. Traditional notions of what constitutes "the working class" are based on a categorisation of employment occupations[11]—the child's parents' occupations in this case—but national education data based on parental occupations is not always readily available or used by commentators. Chapter 2 discusses what data exists and what conclusions can be drawn.

FSM eligibility as a proxy for working class

8.  Statements relating to the achievements of white working class children are almost always based on the exam results of children who are eligible for free school meals (FSM).[12] While Ofsted's Unseen Children report does not itself use the term "working class", media coverage of the issue raised in this report issue frequently used working class as a shorthand for this group.[13],[14],[15]

9.  FSM eligibility is more normally used as a proxy for economic deprivation. The Economic Policy Institute (an American think-tank) describes the practice of using poverty as proxy for class in generally positive terms:

    Of course, how much money a child's parents earned last year (the qualifier for the lunch program) does not itself impede learning. But poverty is a good proxy, sometimes, for lower class status because it is so highly associated with other characteristics of that status. Lower class families have lower parental literacy levels, poorer health, more racial isolation, less stable housing, more exposure to crime and other stresses, less access to quality early childhood experiences, less access to good after school programs (and less ability to afford these even if they did have access), earlier childbearing and more frequent unwed childbearing, less security that comes from stable employment, more exposure to environmental toxins (e.g., lead) that diminish cognitive ability, etc. Each of these predicts lower achievement for children, but none of these (including low income) itself causes low achievement, and lower social class families don't necessarily have all of these characteristics, but they are likely to have many of them.[16]

Nevertheless, measuring working class performance in education through FSM data can be misleading. The Centre for Research in Race and Education (CRRE) drew our attention to a mismatch between the proportion of children who were eligible for free school meals and the proportion of adults who would self-define as working class:[17] in 2012/13, 15% of pupils at the end of key stage 4 were known to be eligible for free school meals,[18] compared with 57% of British adults who defined themselves as 'working class' as part of a survey by the National Centre for Social Research.[19] The CRRE warned that projecting the educational performance of a small group of economically deprived pupils onto what could otherwise be understood to be a much larger proportion of the population had "damaging consequences" on public understanding of the issue.[20] The logical result of equating FSM with working class was that 85% of children were being characterised as middle class or above.[21]

10.  Conversely, while a large proportion of adults may self-identify as working class as a result of their backgrounds or their parents' occupations, this does not correspond well with the proportion of adults who now work in semi-routine or routine occupations or are unemployed. The Office for National Statistics uses the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS-SEC)[22] to categorise occupations under eight headings as in the table below. Within this, categories 6-8 might be grouped together as a "working class";[23] data from the 2011 census show that 34% of 16-74 year olds (excluding students) fall within these categories of employment. Extending this to categories 5-8 would create a larger group of 41%, while groups 4-8 represent 52% of the population. However, the NS-SEC does not label any group working class since "changes in the nature and structure of both industry and occupations have rendered this distinction [between manual and non-manual occupations] outmoded and misleading".[24] There is therefore some debate as to whether "working class" gives a meaningful reflection of current occupations.Table 1: NS-SEC Categories (2011 census data, England only)
NS-SEC category Examples[25] Number of people (usual residents aged 16-74) Proportion "Working class" (NS-SEC 6-8)
1. Higher managerial, administrative & professional occupations Lawyers, Architects, Medical doctors, Chief executives, Economists 4,045,82311.4%
2. Lower managerial, administrative & professional occupations Social workers, Nurses, Journalists, Retail managers, Teachers 8,132,10723.0%
3. Intermediate occupations Armed forces up to sergeant, Paramedics, Nursery Nurses, Police up to sergeant, Bank staff 4,972,04414.1%
4. Small employers and own account workers Farmers, Shopkeepers, Taxi drivers, Driving instructors, Window cleaners 3,662,61110.4%
5. Lower supervisory and technical occupations Mechanics, Chefs, Train drivers, Plumbers, Electricians 2,676,1187.6%
6. Semi-routine occupations Traffic wardens, Receptionists, Shelf-stackers, Care workers, Telephone Salespersons 5,430,86315.4% 15.4%
7. Routine occupations Bar staff, cleaners, labourers, Bus drivers, Lorry drivers 4,277,48312.1% 12.1%
8. Never worked and long-term unemployed N/A2,180,026 6.2%6.2%
Total 35,377,075 100.0%33.7%
Not classified (full time students) 7,008,598

Source: Office for National Statistics, 2011 census, Table KS611EW

11.  Thus, FSM eligibility corresponds to a small group of children (15%), NS-SEC classifications 6-8 equate to a larger group of adults (34%), and self-perception of working class produces a larger group still (57%). Overall, the statistical evidence base for an inquiry in this area requires careful interpretation, and it is easy for loosely-phrased statements to be misleading. The CRRE summarises the situation as follows:

    The present debate is largely shaped by crude data (based on free school statistics) that dangerously mis-represent the true situation when they are reported in broad and over-simplistic terms.[26]

The exact nature of the "true" situation will inevitably depend on how working class is defined. The evidence we have received shows that this can vary considerably.

FSM eligibility as a measure of poverty

12.  Criticisms are also levelled at the use of FSM eligibility as a measure of poverty. Children are eligible for free school meals if their parents receive any of the following payments:[27]

·  Income Support

·  Income-based Jobseekers Allowance

·  Income-related Employment and Support Allowance

·  Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999

·  the guaranteed element of State Pension Credit

·  Child Tax Credit (provided they are not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)

·  Working Tax Credit run-on—paid for 4 weeks after they stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit

·  Universal Credit

13.  A report for the Children's Society noted that the criteria for FSM mean that parents working 16 or more hours per week (24 hours for couples from April 2012) lose their entitlement to FSM since they are eligible for working tax credit; as a result there are around 700,000 children living in poverty who are not entitled to receive free school meals.[28] In addition, not all those who may be eligible for FSM register for it; a recent report for the Department for Education estimated under-registration to be 11% in 2013.[29] This figure varies across the country: in the North East under-registration is estimated to be 1%, compared to 18% in the East of England and 19% in the South East.[30]

Pragmatism versus precision

14.  Nevertheless, free school meals data is readily available, has the advantage of being easy to conceptualise, and has been consistently collected for many years; in contrast, national datasets on education performance based on NS-SEC classifications of parental occupations (or self-perceptions of social class) are less frequently produced. Pragmatism has led us to pursue analyses of free school meals data as an insight into the issue that Ofsted and others have raised.

15.  Statements relating to the underachievement in education of white working class pupils often use eligibility for free school meals as a proxy for working class. Entitlement to FSM is not synonymous with working class, but it is a useful proxy for poverty which itself has an association with educational underachievement.


16.  'White' is a broad heading within classifications of ethnicity which can be used to make comparisons against other aggregated groups such as black and Asian. Within the white group the overwhelming majority of children fall into the subgroup of white British, but other subgroups include white Irish, Gypsy/Roma, and 'Other white', which encompasses a range of white mostly European ethnicities. Thus, information referring to 'white' and 'white British' should not be conflated, and we have been careful to distinguish throughout. The smaller size and greater complexity of other groups within the 'white' category has led us to focus primarily on the performance of white British children, and this matches the focus of Ofsted's Unseen Children report. Chapter 2 examines this in more detail.


17.  "Underachievement" can be defined as relative to what a pupil could be predicted to achieve based on prior attainment, or could be thought of in terms of a comparison with another group, such as children from more prosperous homes, a different ethnic group, or a different part of the country. Again, we have taken our cue from the data that is most readily available, which are threshold performance indicators: at key stage 4, the achievement of five GCSEs at grades A*-C, including in English and mathematics; at key stage 2, achieving level 4 or above in English and mathematics; and in the early years, the proportion of children who achieve the expected level in all 17 Early Learning Goals. Strictly speaking, these are measures of low achievement rather than "underachievement", and where we refer to underachievement in this report we mean that attainment is low, and lower than other comparison groups.

18.  Finally, the data we have used in this report reflects group averages. This is not to suggest that individuals and schools do not buck these trends, as personal anecdotes will readily confirm.


19.  Evidence to our inquiry questioned whether focusing on white working class underachievement carried risks in itself. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) argued that shifting the focus to white working class children could lead to other groups falling back in turn, and that it should be up to schools to decide how to strike a balance in their particular area.[31] NASUWT felt that "In the context of educational achievement, there is a significant risk that focusing on white working class underachievement leads to the assumption that racial discrimination is no longer a problem".[32] Similarly, Professor Gillborn argued that:

    […] while social class is of enormous importance, it does not explain away gender inequalities, disability inequalities, and race inequalities [...] One of the key problems [...] with the current debate about white working class as it is described in relation to free school meals is that it ignores huge inequalities in other parts of the system by focusing on this very particular area.[33]

20.  More generally, Professor Gillborn warned us of the dangers of a "deficit" interpretation of white FSM underperformance, and the extent to which this can obscure the issue of racial bias in the education system:

    [...] it is easy to fall into a kind of deficit analysis: an assumption that, if a group is underachieving, there must be a problem with the group, whereas we have an awful lot of research showing that schools tend to treat different groups in systematically different ways.[34]

    [...] the debates about poverty get lost amid a wider question of whether white people are suffering because of multiculturalism, which I think is hugely dangerous.[35]

He also cautioned against inferring that white children had somehow lost out as a result of previous attention to other ethnic groups. As Jenny North (Impetus—the Private Equity Foundation) described the situation, "[...] ethnic minority acceleration of performance has not pushed white working-class boys' attainment down. It has simply exposed what was already there".[36]

21.  Nevertheless, as Chapter 2 demonstrates, there are some worrying trends in the data that warrant investigation.

1   Ofsted, Unseen children: access and achievement 20 years on (June 2013) Back

2   "White working class boys are consigned to education scrapheap, Ofsted warns", The Daily Mail, 15 June 2012 Back

3   Ofsted, Unseen children: access and achievement 20 years on (June 2013), p 30 Back

4   Ofsted, Unseen children - HMCI speech (June 2013), p 4 Back

5   Department for Education, PISA 2009: How does the social attainment gap in England compare with countries internationally?, Research Report RR206 (April 2012) Back

6   "Universities should target white working class boys, minister says", The Guardian, 3 January 2013 Back

7   Department for Education (WWC 28) para 51-52 Back

8   "Raising the achievement of disadvantaged children", Department for Education (accessed 29 April 2014) Back

9   See annex for an outline of the visit programme. Back

10   Professor Alan Smithers (Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham) and Professor Steve Strand (Professor of Education, University of Oxford) declared no interests relevant to this inquiry. Back

11   "What is working class?", BBC News Online, 25 January 2007 Back

12   See, for instance, Centre for Research in Race and Education (WWC 15) para 17, and Q9. Back

13   "Ofsted chief says England's schools failing white working class children", The Observer, 8 December 2013 Back

14   "White working class boys are schools' worst performing ethnic group by age of 11", Daily Mail, 20 March 2009 Back

15   "White working class boys 'worst performers at school'", The Telegraph, 11 December 2008 Back

16   "Does 'Poverty' Cause Low Achievement?", The Economic Policy Institute Blog (8 October 2013)  Back

17   Centre for Research in Race and Education (WWC 15) para 11 Back

18   See Table 2, para 23 Back

19   "What is working class?", BBC News Online, 25 January 2007 Back

20   Centre for Research in Race and Education (WWC 15) para 17 Back

21   Centre for Research in Race and Education (WWC 15) para 12 Back

22   "The National Statistics Socio-economic Classification", Office for National Statistics Back

23   The NS-SEC categories of Routine & Semi-routine occupations (or what were conventionally known as 'semi-skilled' or 'unskilled' occupations) "entail a 'labour contract' where employees are closely supervised and given discrete amounts of labour in return for a wage [...] that was typical of working class occupations" (Rose & Pevalin, 2001, p10). Also "Because a basic labour contract is assumed to exist for both positions it would be normal to consider (categories 6 & 7) as forming a unified class" (p18). Back

24   Office for National Statistics, Standard Occupation Classification 2010: Volume 3, The National Statistics Socio-economic Classification: (Rebased on the SOC2010) User Manual (2010), para 7.4 Back

25   Examples are taken from Office for National Statistics, Health Gaps by Socio-economic Position of Occupations In England, Wales, English Regions and Local Authorities, 2011 (November 2013); The reduced NS-SEC class to which an individual belongs is not solely based on occupation but also other factors such as whether they are employers and how many people they employ. For example, a window cleaner who is self-employed or is an employer would be in NS-SEC class 4 while a window cleaner who is an employee would be in NS-SEC class 7. Back

26   Centre for Research in Race and Education (WWC 15) para 19 Back

27   "Apply for free school meals",, 8 November 2013  Back

28   The Children's Society, Fair and Square: a policy report on the future of free school meals (April 2012), p 6 Back

29   Department for Education, Pupils not claiming free school meals 2013, Research report DFE-RR319, December 2013 Back

30   Department for Education, Pupils not claiming free school meals 2013, Research report DFE-RR319, December 2013, p 9. Figures based on comparing HMRC benefits data from December 2012 and the January 2013 School Census. Back

31   Association of School and College Leaders (WWC 5) para 22 Back

32   NASUWT (WWC 26) para 6 Back

33   Q15 Back

34   Q4 Back

35   Q4 Back

36   Q53 Back

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Prepared 18 June 2014