The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it Contents


Our Committee is dedicated to championing left-behind groups. As our first step, we decided to examine the decades-long neglect of the let-down White working class, seven years after a previous House of Commons Education Select Committee found that “White working class underachievement in education is real and persistent”, and called on the Government to “take steps” to ensure that they fulfil their potential. We are aware that this is a second report from an Education Committee on this specific group. But the large number of disadvantaged White British pupils that underachieve in education remains a significant obstacle to closing the overall attainment gap. We fully recognise that other ethnic groups also experience disadvantage and discrimination in education and deserve support, and we understand the justified anger that many people feel about racism, prejudice and discrimination. It is vital that we work together as a country to address those issues and we commit to investigating this in our future work on left-behind groups.

To define “White working class” in this report, we have relied on available data: we use free school meal (FSM) eligibility and focused on the White British group. While ‘White working class’ is an imperfect substitute for this group, it is a widely used proxy, and evidence shows that this group underperforms in education compared to their peers from other ethnic groups. In the 2018–19 school year:

While it is important to understand and address underachievement for all pupils, educational attainment is lower for disadvantaged pupils in the White group than for disadvantaged pupils in other main ethnic groups. This is particularly striking because White people are the ethnic majority in the country, and most disadvantaged pupils are White (around 982,950 pupils in 2020, compared to 139,720 Asian students, the next largest group). We are aware of a pressing need to tackle social injustices for pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds, from school exclusions, to degree classifications, to disparities in the workplace, healthcare and justice systems. However, we also believe that the size of the White majority means that addressing their relatively low educational outcomes could significantly shift the overall attainment gap.

We began our inquiry during the covid-19 pandemic, and while this report does not have the scope to look in depth at the impact of the pandemic, we are aware of the consequences of multiple lockdowns on all children, especially the most disadvantaged. We also stress that this inquiry does not seek to diminish the importance of tackling racism, and the additional challenges that children from ethnic minorities face every day. We recognise that there are minor ethnic groups within the White group that face specific challenges, including Gypsy/Roma and Irish Traveller children and White pupils with English as an additional language (EAL). We received evidence about the marginalisation and discrimination that some children face from certain backgrounds. We believe these pupils deserve specific investigation, but the whole focus of this report is on the challenges that White working class pupils face. Here, we focus on the White British group, and commit to pursue the social injustices facing other ethnic groups in future.

The Department, the educational establishment and wider society have fallen victim to muddled thinking with regard to disadvantaged White pupils, insisting that the same policies and generalised approach which has failed to close the disadvantage gap over recent years will redress this long-term, complex issue. The graph below illustrates the failure to close the gap for this group:

There are many reasons for this gap and there will be no simple fix. We are certain that it is not due to any ethnic trait: a person’s ethnicity bears no relation to their natural ability or potential. Neither is it solely an issue of poverty, as the Department seems quick to accept. Children from ethnic minorities are more likely to experience poverty—for students receiving GCSE results in 2020 there were 55,375 FSM-eligible White British pupils, from a total of 383,021 White British pupils (14.5%). For comparison, there were 8,265 FSM-eligible Black pupils from a total of 32,935 Black pupils (25.1%), and 10.443 FSM-eligible Asian pupils from a total of 61,023 Asian pupils (17.1%). While White British pupils are less likely to be FSM-eligible than pupils from ethnic minorities, FSM-eligible White British pupils as a whole are the largest disadvantaged ethnic group. Yet despite being more likely to be FSM-eligible, pupils from ethnic minorities frequently out-perform their White peers in education.

We heard many factors that may combine to put White working-class pupils at a disadvantage, including these key areas:

1.Persistent and multigenerational disadvantage

2.Place-based factors, including regional economics and underinvestment

3.Family experience of education

4.A lack of social capital

5.Disengagement from the curriculum

6.A failure to address their low participation in higher education

We do not deny that children from other ethnic groups experience these challenges. We believe, however, that disadvantaged White children may be vulnerable to a greater cumulation of them, particularly with regard to living in deprived areas with a lack of social capital and historically low outcomes. Much of the evidence we heard, including the importance of high-quality early years support and teaching, careers guidance and mental health support, could apply to all low-income groups. It follows that some of our recommendations will benefit all disadvantaged children. However, the evidence pointed to two key areas which we believe are central to understanding relative underperformance for disadvantaged White pupils:

To tackle this, the Department for Education must first acknowledge the extent of the problem and recognise that its current approach is not working. What is needed now is a tailored approach, with targeted recommendations.

Funding needs to be micro-targeted to level up educational opportunity. To do this, we need a better understanding of disadvantage, and better tools to tackle it.

First, we need better data on disadvantage, to pinpoint barriers and geographical areas that need more support and address stark geographic differences in educational outcomes. There is good data available about education related to ethnicity, sex, geography and socio-economic background, but it is rarely cross-referenced to provide a richer analysis. Using FSM and Ever-6 FSM as the primary measure of disadvantage is a blunt and imperfect instrument. The Government should develop more multivariant data sets that facilitate a sophisticated view of which areas, schools and pupils need the most help.

Then, the Department should reform the Pupil Premium, using these data sets, by introducing weighting for long-term disadvantage and geographic factors, as well as more accountability for schools themselves, to ensure the funding is always spent on the most disadvantaged. Should the Department’s latest changes to the conditions of the Pupil Premium grant not prevent schools spending the money on plugging other gaps in their budgets, the Department should consider measures such as ring-fencing the Pupil Premium for disadvantaged children.

Disadvantaged White families must have access to strong early years support and Family Hubs.

‘Aspirations’ and ‘culture’ are recurring themes in the debate about how to help the White working-class. We heard evidence of an ‘immigrant paradigm’ that leads some families to place greater value on education, while multi-generational disadvantage, particularly amongst white (and Black Caribbean) families, has inculcated feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness to break the cycle of poverty. We also heard suggestions that disadvantaged White parents may find it difficult to engage with schools or access the full range of support that they are entitled to, and that some families’ low educational achievement made it harder for them to help their own children with their school work.

The Department must do more to support disadvantaged White families, and in doing so it will help their children reach their full potential. They can do this by:

We need to communicate the different but equally valuable vocational training and apprenticeship options alongside traditional academic routes.

The Department must revisit the benefits of greater diversity of subjects in the pre-16 curriculum, so that the lower rungs in the skills ladder are in place. The focus should be ensuring that all pupils achieve the essential level of qualifications they need with academic rigour and high expectations, while acknowledging the value of practical and vocational subjects, such as Design and Technology and their potential to engage otherwise disengaged groups, such as some disadvantaged White pupils. We are clear that this does not mean introducing a two-tier system, with practical subjects a second-rate alternative for children perceived to be less able. The Department must reform accountability measures by reforming the Ebacc, with a curriculum that includes both academic subjects and at least one technical, creative or vocational course in KS4. By doing this, the Department could super-charge its technical and skills agenda, inspiring all young people to consider alternatives to the well-trodden academic pathways.

Boosting access to higher education through improving careers guidance and specifying targets for disadvantaged White pupils.

Strikingly, just 16% of disadvantaged White pupils went on to higher education in 2018/19, while 21.1% of FSM-eligible Mixed White and Black Caribbean pupils and 31.8% of FSM-eligible Black Caribbean pupils did go on to higher education. We acknowledge that there are very concerning disparities in outcomes within higher education for different ethnic groups, most notably the tendency for pupils from ethnic minorities to attend lower tier universities and have lower degree classifications. For example, the proportion of Black Caribbean and White and Black Caribbean students entering a higher tariff institution is the lowest of all groups, even lower than White British. We will pursue these issues in our future work. We also believe that the higher education participation rate for disadvantaged White pupils is a clear indictment of the failures and attainment gaps that accumulate throughout primary and secondary education for this group. We do not believe that university is the right destination for everyone, but we also believe that disadvantaged White pupils deserve as wide a range of options on leaving school as any other group, and that should include university.

Like all young people, disadvantaged White pupils therefore need early exposure to the advantages of higher education and much better careers guidance to help them make genuinely informed choices about their future. Organisations such as Chambers of Commerce and local businesses could play a much stronger role in providing exposure to a range of career options. Ofsted must also be stronger in their enforcement of schools’ compliance, by linking schools’ inspection results to compliance with the Baker Clause, and where there is non-compliance schools should be limited to a “Requires Improvement” rating.

Higher education providers must also do more to help disadvantaged White pupils access their institutions. We were concerned to hear that higher education providers are failing to tackle this problem proactively through their (regulated) Access and Participation plans. The money that universities spend on access (we heard that in 2019 this was around £800 million), should be sent “upstream” to inform pupils about the opportunities offered by higher education earlier in education, or to encouraging more students to consider degree apprenticeships. This funding should also be allocated with disadvantage and low participation rates as a key priority. The Office for Students must set clear expectations for the sector around participation rates specifically for this cohort and highlight them as ‘under-represented groups’ and insist that all plans contain relevant targets.

Finding a better way to talk about racial disparities

Finally, we need new and constructive ways to talk about racial disparities. We agree with the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that current discourse around White Privilege can be divisive, and we hope that by highlighting the hardships faced by many White people from disadvantaged backgrounds, our inquiry may help advance a new way to discuss disadvantage without pitting different groups against each other.

Published: 22 June 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement