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


1.The educational underachievement of White working-class pupils is clear. They are among the most likely to not achieve a pass in English and Maths GCSE and the least likely to go to university. White pupils are the country’s ethnic majority, with 982,950 White pupils eligible for free school meals in 2020.1 Consistently poor outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in this group is a significant challenge in closing the overall disadvantage gap.

2.The gap has been evident for years, through changing national demographics and assessment systems. Between 2004 and 2013 FSM-eligible White British pupils were the lowest performing group in terms of the percentage of pupils achieving five A*-C grades, including English and Maths, with the exception of pupils from Gypsy/Roma and Irish Traveller backgrounds.2 This has not gone unnoticed. Ofsted published reports highlighting this in 20083 and 2013,4 and a previous House of Commons Education Select Committee published a report specifically on this topic in 2014.5 Following that report, the Department published a “compendium of evidence on ethnic minority resilience to the effects of deprivation on attainment”6 and committed to publishing data on FSM-status in statistical releases.7

3.This is a complex problem and throughout our inquiry it has been challenging to clarify what drives this attainment gap. We were disappointed that the Department’s evidence did not acknowledge the importance of trying to do this. Instead, it relied on muddled thinking and asserted that more of the same policies to drive up standards will solve the attainment gap,8 despite evidence that the gap had ceased closing before the pandemic.9

4.Witnesses stressed that the gap between disadvantaged White pupils and their peers is not caused by their ethnicity or race.10 Like them, we do not believe that someone’s ethnicity points to any inherent difference in ability or potential. Neither did the Department convince us that they are right to attribute all the gap to poverty alone.11 Pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to experience poverty, yet they consistently out-perform their White British peers.12

5.Professor Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, told us that “there is not one single factor that can explain the problem. We need a multivariate analysis.”13 Evidence points at interacting issues in all parts of a disadvantaged White child’s life that may cause them to fall behind. These include intergenerational disadvantage,14 geographic inequalities,15 family experience of education,16 disengagement from school,17 through to a policy failure to strategically address their low participation in higher education.18

6.Children from other ethnic groups also face these challenges, but the evidence suggests that disadvantaged White children may be vulnerable to a greater cumulation of them. As the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities found, there is much to celebrate in the educational success of some ethnic minorities in England, especially in terms of closing the disadvantage gap.19 This inquiry is not about taking away from those groups, but rather acknowledging that disadvantaged White pupils have been overlooked for the help that they also need. This is a long-term problem, and solutions need time and co-ordination across Government. Many of the strategies to close the gap for disadvantaged White pupils will help other groups as well, and some of our recommendations reflect that.

Our inquiry

7.We began our inquiry on 17 April 2020. We received 65 pieces of written evidence, and held eight evidence sessions, including one with the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for School Standards, and Vicky Ford MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families. We are grateful to everyone who submitted their evidence to our inquiry, and to our specialist advisers Professor Matthew Goodwin and Mary Curnock Cook.20

8.We began our inquiry during the covid-19 pandemic and recognise the impact of lockdowns and school closures on all pupils. We have examined this through our inquiry, The impact of covid-19 on education and children’s services,21 and in one-off sessions and accountability hearings. It is not in the scope of this report to address the impact of covid-19 more generally on education, but we reflect on it where relevant.

Definitions and clarifications

Disadvantage and ‘working-class’

9.In the Department’s written evidence, a footnote explains that “Throughout this paper, the term ‘disadvantaged pupils’ is used interchangeably with the term ‘pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM)’”.22 Children are FSM-eligible if their parents receive the following:

10.The National Funding Formula includes additional needs factors.24 The formula allocates funding for socio-economic deprivation at pupil-level based on FSM-eligibility and ‘Ever 6’ eligibility (pupils who have been recorded as eligible for FSM at any time in the last six years), and at area-level based on the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI).25 Schools receive additional funding for disadvantaged pupils through the Pupil Premium, which is allocated to schools based on the number of pupils who are Ever 6 or FSM-eligible, and for pupils who are looked-after or previously looked after.26

11.The Department publishes statistics with FSM-eligibility, and eligibility for the pupil premium, as criteria to measure the progress of disadvantaged children.27 FSM-eligibility is critical to the Department’s approach to funding and evaluating disadvantage. As evidence suggested, using FSM-eligibility is pragmatic, given the availability and longevity of the data. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) told us that “Pupil Premium eligibility is the best proxy for disadvantage as it captures the majority of pupils living in poverty and is strongly correlated with educational attainment”.28

12.Evidence also criticised FSM-eligibility as a proxy for disadvantage. The Catholic Education Service said that families who are above the “poverty line but in low paid or zero hours employment” would not be captured in this measure.29 The Social Mobility Commission questioned whether FSM-eligibility can capture “the complex drivers of underachievement, and effectively monitor and address poor pupil outcomes”.30 We agree that FSM status is a blunt and limited tool. It treats disadvantage as a binary, with pupils being FSM-eligible (and therefore, ‘disadvantaged’), or not (and presumably, ‘advantaged’). This is not a satisfactory way to capture how disadvantage affects children. There are many other factors to consider, including:

i)The length of time pupils are FSM-eligible.31

ii)Those pupils who are not FSM-eligible but whose families are in financial hardship, (the ‘working poor’).32

iii)As Anne Longfield (former Children’s Commissioner for England) described in her speech ‘Building back better’, where a combination of FSM-eligibility and other vulnerabilities combine.33

13.The New Schools Network (NSN) said that “While relevant metrics are captured individually, there are limited data that take into account multiple metrics, such as ethnicity, FSM eligibility, gender, geographic area, and performance together”. The NSN say that “this makes drawing conclusions about disadvantaged white pupils, rather than white pupils in general, more challenging”.34

14.Drawing accurate conclusions is also difficult when we consider the term “White working-class”. The term occurred spontaneously in written evidence, and from witnesses, and is widely used to refer to disadvantaged White pupils. The National Literacy Trust said that “reports … tend to use FSM eligibility interchangeably with the term ‘working-class’”.35 Yet there is no single definition of what “working-class” means.36 It is difficult to quantify and means different things to different people. According to the British Social Attitudes survey 33, conducted by NatCen in 2016, up to 60% of the population describe themselves as “working-class”, including “half of people in managerial and professional occupations”.37

15.Professor Steve Strand’s analysis of educational outcomes for the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities used parental occupation, parental qualifications and family income to measure socio-economic status.38 The data came from the Second Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE2) and it gives a more detailed picture of socio-economic status and ethnicity than the data made available by the Department. Organisations and witnesses in our inquiry called for wider access to statistics held by the Department. This included the National Pupil Database, to allow analysis of more detailed information about disadvantaged White pupils at local level and by other measures of deprivation.39 The NSN recommended that the Government convene “new studies into white disadvantaged pupils across all year groups” to improve understanding of “why this cohort underachieves”.40

16.The Social Metrics Commission41 have developed a “new approach to poverty measurement”, that includes “improvements in three key areas”:

17.For our inquiry we decided for pragmatic reasons to focus on FSM-eligible pupils. This is an imperfect measure, but data on FSM-eligibility and attainment is available for multiple cohorts at many stages of education, giving a good idea of the journey that disadvantaged White pupils go on. We know that this group does not map exactly on to ‘White working-class’, but this is a familiar term and one which occurred spontaneously from witnesses and written evidence. In this report we will use both ‘White working-class’ and ‘disadvantaged White’ to refer to White pupils who are eligible for FSM.

18.The Department’s current way of evaluating and funding disadvantage, relying on current and historical FSM-eligibility, does not take account of the full range of challenges facing disadvantaged White pupils. It also makes external scrutiny of Government initiatives challenging. To understand what causes the underachievement of disadvantaged White pupils we need to understand their needs and the barriers facing them.

19.Disadvantage is a gradient, not an ‘either-or’ of FSM-eligible or ‘advantaged’. To support disadvantaged White pupils the Government must refine its key measures of disadvantage and widen public access to its statistics. This should be done in a way that protects pupil anonymity as a priority, for example by redacting figures where they reflect very small groups of pupils. Particularly importantly, the Department must consistently publish statistics that are as locally targeted as possible, at least at local authority or constituency level. These statistics must underpin the targeting of all interventions to those communities that most need them. In the short term, the Department should learn from the former Children’s Commissioner’s approach to capturing disadvantage by including statistics on the length of time children are FSM-eligible, and how other forms of disadvantage (for example, SEND, care experience, and local levels of deprivation) interact with this status. In the long term, the Department should work with other parts of Government to build a more sophisticated measure of how poverty affects children. This could draw on initial work by the Social Metrics Commission to develop a metric of poverty that provides a better understanding of the nature of poverty by drawing on lived experience and identifying those least able to make ends meet.

White British

20.We based our inquiry on the White British ethnic group, as defined by the Department for Education’s school census.43 This is the country’s ethnic majority and disadvantaged pupils in this group perform consistently less well than their peers. We recognise the challenges facing other ethnic groups, including minority ethnic groups within the major White group. We would like to acknowledge these issues which evidence bought to our attention:

21.We began this inquiry because the large number of disadvantaged White British pupils that underachieve in education is a significant obstacle to closing the overall disadvantage gap. We recognise that other ethnic groups also experience disadvantage and discrimination in education and deserve support. We will investigate this in our future work on left-behind groups.

White Privilege

22.The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities defines White Privilege as the “idea that there is societal privilege that benefits White people over other ethnic groups in some societies, particularly if they are otherwise under the same social, political, or economic circumstances”.48

23.White Privilege is used in the context of discrimination and racism and the challenges that people from ethnic minorities face. We recognise the importance of openly discussing and addressing racism in all its forms. Like the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, however, we are concerned that the phrase may be alienating to disadvantaged White communities, and it may have contributed towards a systemic neglect of White people facing hardship who also need specific support. It was noted during our evidence hearings that a lot of children in these disadvantaged white communities aren’t aware of their own disadvantage.49 This is a problem. As a committee we believe that the use of terms such as ‘White Privilege’ doesn’t help this matter. This is coupled with the fact that there is an industry which has emerged to support these other groups in a form that isn’t available for disadvantaged white pupils. White Privilege also fails to acknowledge the damage caused by other forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism and the marginalisation of people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds. Some research from the United States also suggests that learning about White Privilege may reduce sympathy for White people who are struggling with poverty. According to a 2019 US study: “White privilege lessons may lead some people to see a hierarchy in which Whiteness is always privileged to the same degree irrespective of individual-level variability, such as growing up in an impoverished situation”.50

24.In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, terms such as ‘White Privilege’ became increasingly common in public forums in the UK. We are aware of resources seeking to explain the term for children and families that may encounter it in this way. Barnardo’s, a national children’s charity working with around 287,000 White children each year, published a blog post last year entitled ‘White privilege—a guide for parents’.51 The blog post says:

There is a lot of talk at the moment about ‘white privilege’. Your children will be encountering the term in school, and in mainstream media like BBC Newsround. The subject evokes strong emotions from a range of people–some of whom disagree with the use of the term at all …

White privilege is the multiple social advantages, benefits and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race.

This doesn’t mean that, as a white person, you haven’t worked hard for what you have, or that you haven’t suffered.

25.Barnardo’s is not the only organisation with similar material on its website. There are several examples from other organisations, including local authorities.52 We share concerns with the Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch MP, that there is a risk of some “pernicious” ideology beginning to spread to organisations and charities that work with children.53 We understand the justified anger that many people feel about racism, prejudice and discrimination and it is vital that we work together as a country to address those issues. What we also know is that the disadvantaged White pupils our inquiry focuses on do not have “White Privilege” in the education system, and we are concerned about the impact that hearing terms like that presented as fact will have on those children. Organisations which are in receipt of taxpayer money should have full regard to their duties under the Equality Act 2010, and should consider whether the concept of White Privilege is consistent with those duties.

26.The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ would welcome “the Government to set school leadership expectations around political neutrality and transparency on curriculum design”, and recommends that the Department “commission and publish research” on “whether schools are teaching in an impartial way”.54 We share this view, and believe these principles should be applied to the concept of White Privilege. The Commission’s Chair, Dr Tony Sewell, said that “teachers need guidance” on how to handle areas like White Privilege “sensitively and carefully”.55 He also pointed out that for many people living in “very poor backgrounds” the main issue is “not all this academic stuff about ‘White privilege’”, and called for a “focus on the real needs of real people”.56 He added that:

They just basically want to get their kids into a job. Some of those single mothers and single fathers just want to try and get childcare sorted out. These are the very pragmatic things that face ordinary working-class people. What this commission is doing is trying to get practical answers to those parents. On this academia thing about White privilege, I will put it bluntly: it is a fair argument you put forward, but let’s focus on the real needs of real people.

27.When asked about White Privilege, Dr Javed Khan, Chief Executive Officer, Barnardo’s described it as “not an ideal phrase. I personally do not like it”. He acknowledged that it “creates barriers” for “people who want to engage in the debate, want to learn and want to contribute to creating a more harmonious society in this great country of ours, but they find it difficult to get past that phrase”. He also noted that the phrase is “commonly used at the moment” in mainstream media, with “CBBC and Newsround … Radio 4 and local councils” all talking about White privilege.57 Dr Khan also said that “What [White Privilege] means for us is simply that lots of children are disadvantaged … If you happen to be non-White, there is one additional disadvantage that you face”.58

28.Our inquiry has shown that poor White pupils are far from “privileged” in education.

29.Schools should consider whether the promotion of politically controversial terminology, including White Privilege, is consistent with their duties under the Equality Act 2010. The Department should take steps to ensure that young people are not inadvertently being inducted into political movements when what is required is balanced, age-appropriate discussion and a curriculum that equips young people to thrive in diverse and multi-cultural communities throughout their lives and work. The Department should issue clear guidance for schools and other Department-affiliated organisations receiving grants from the Department on how to deliver teaching on these complex issues in a balanced, impartial and age-appropriate way.


30.Evidence highlighted the gender attainment gap. This exists in all ethnic and socio-economic groups and is stark for disadvantaged White boys. The Men and Boys Coalition said that while “there are many complexities within attainment data by ethnicity, on gender there need be no reservations; girls outperform boys in every cohort”.59 The challenges facing boys and young men from ethnic minorities are not confined to academic underachievement. There is a disproportionate rate of exclusion for boys and young men from Black Caribbean backgrounds. In academic results, FSM-eligible boys from mixed White and Black Caribbean, and Black Caribbean backgrounds, sometimes achieve similar or lower scores to FSM-eligible boys from White British backgrounds.60 FSM-eligible girls from a White British background, while scoring higher than boys were also consistently scoring lower than FSM-eligible girls from other ethnic groups.

31.We will focus on disadvantaged White boys and girls, given that in comparison with girls from other ethnic backgrounds, disadvantaged White British girls also have consistently low attainment. We will also consider measures that benefit boys’ attainment in acknowledgement of the challenges they face and the benefits of closing the gender attainment gap.

1 PQ 63494 [on Free School Meals: Ethnic Groups] 1 July 2020

5 Education Committee, First Report of Session 2014–15, Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children, HC 142, 11 June 2014

7 Education Committee, Second Special Report of Session 2014–15, Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children: Government Response to the Committee’s First Report of Session 2014–15, HC 647, 15 September 2014

8 Department for Education (LBP0044)

9 Education Policy Institute, Education in England: Annual Report 2020, August 2020, pp9–11

10 See, for example, Q308 Dr Javed Khan

11 Q361 Nick Gibb

12 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, The report, 31 March 2021, pp37–39

13 Q27 Professor Matthew Goodwin

14 Q308 Dr Javed Khan

15 Q38 Mary Curnock Cook

16 Q5 Professor Diane Reay

17 Nesta (LBP0016)

18 National Education Opportunities Network (LBP0005)

19 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, The report, 31 March 2021 pp31–32

20 Mary Curnock Cook declared the following relevant interests: Chair of Trustees at the Access Project; Chair, The Dyson Institute, Engineering Degree Apprenticeship provider; Council Member, The Open University; Non-Executive Director, the London Interdisciplinary School. Matthew Goodwin did not have any relevant interests to declare

22 Department for Education (LBP0044)

23 Department for Education, Apply for free school meals, accessed 4 March 2021

24 Department for Education, Schools block national funding formula: technical note, July 2020, pp12–17

25 The Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) “measures the proportion of all children aged 0 to 15 living in income deprived families”, and is a “subset of the Income Deprivation Domain which measures the proportion of the population in an area experiencing deprivation relating to low income”. See: Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Open Data: i. Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI), accessed 28 May 2021

26 Department for Education, Pupil premium, 30 March 2021

27 Department for Education, SFR 40/2014, December 2014, and Key stage 4 performance: Academic Year 2019/20, February 2021

28 Education Endowment Foundation (LBP0041)

29 The Catholic Education Service (LBP0014)

30 Social Mobility Commission (LBP0046)

31 Henri Murison Q81

32 Helena Mills Q167

34 New Schools Network (LBP0047)

35 The National Literacy Trust (LBP0020)

36 Universities UK (LBP0030)

37 NatCen, British Social Attitudes 33, 2016, p3

39 See, for example, Nesta (LBP0016) and Dr Alex Gibson Q82

40 New Schools Network (LBP0047)

41 The Social Metrics Commission is an independent Commission founded by the Legatum Institute’s CEO Baroness Stroud. It was bought together to “develop a new approach to poverty measurement” that better reflects the nature and experiences of poverty, and that “can be used to build a consensus around poverty measurement and action”. See: Social Metrics Commission, About, accessed 28 May 2021

42 Social Metrics Commission, Measuring poverty 2020, July 2020, p8

44 Centre for Education and Youth (LBP0002)

45 Centre for Education and Youth (LBP0002)

46 The Prisoner’s Education Trust (LBP0012)

47 See, for example: Q46 Professor Becky Francis, Q77 Sammy Wright

48 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, The report, 31 March 2021, p241

50 Cooley, E., Brown-Iannuzzi, J. L., Lei, R. F., & Cipolli, W. III. (2019). Complex intersections of race and class: Among social liberals, learning about White privilege reduces sympathy, increases blame, and decreases external attributions for White people struggling with poverty. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(12), 2218–2228 (p.2118).

51 Barnardo’s, White privilege—a guide for parents, 30 October 2020

52 For example, Brighton and Hove Council have committed to include “building understanding of the impact on pupil and staff of bias, discrimination, white privilege and institutional racism” in the training the council offers to schools (see: Brighton and Hove Council, Tackling racism and bias in schools, 18 June 2020). A training document by the Department for Transport explains that “When talking about race, some people refer to this as ‘white privilege’ - whatever else someone may be dealing with in their life, they usually don’t have to deal with negative reactions based on the colour of their skin” (see: Department for Transport, How to use the real theme in training, 4 December 2020). The BBC published a video for newsround called “What is white privilege” (see: BBC, What is white privilege, 17 June 2020).

53 HC Deb, 20 October 2020, Column 1012, [Commons Chamber]

54 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, The report, 31 March 2021, p92

55 Q435 Dr Tony Sewell

56 Q441 Dr Tony Sewell

57 Q310 Dr Javed Khan

58 Q317 Dr Javed Khan

59 Men and Boys Coalition (LBP0033)

60 Department for Education, Key Stage 4 performance 2019 (revised), September 2020 (see National characteristics tables’ (MS Excel Spreadsheet, access 20 April 2021)

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