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

2The extent of the achievement gap for disadvantaged White pupils

Ethnic majority: number of pupils affected

32.The 2011 census found that 86.0% of the population of England and Wales was White, and that 80.5% of the population identified as White British.61 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%).62 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.

Table 1: Number of pupils in each ethnic group (for pupils receiving their GCSE results in 2020)


Number of FSM-eligible pupils

Total number of pupils

% of pupils that are FSM-eligible

White British








Black African




White other












Mixed White/Black Caribbean




Mixed other




Black Caribbean




Asian other












Black other




Mixed White/Asian




Mixed White/Black African








White Irish








Irish Traveller




Source: GOV.UK, Ethnicity Facts and Figures, GCSE English and Maths results, 6 April 2021

33.According to Department statistics:

Key metrics

Longevity of the issue and lack of progress

34.In 2014, the 2010–15 House of Commons Education Select Committee published its report, Underachievement in education by white working-class children.72 The Department for Education responded in September 2014, saying:

The Committee’s report highlights many of the complex and interwoven factors that influence the educational attainment of poorer White British children, including socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, geographical, and inter-generational aspects. That complexity should never be an excuse for apathy or inaction …73

35.Evidence suggests that despite an earlier rejection of “apathy or inaction”, the Department’s generalist approach and muddled thinking has failed to narrow the gap between disadvantaged White pupils and their peers. This graph shows that the gap between disadvantaged White pupils and their peers has remained stable since 2015:

Source: Key Stage 4 performance: various years, DfE

36.The Education Policy Institute (EPI)’s 2020 Annual Report found that “Policymakers have not succeeded in responding to earlier reports warning of a major loss of momentum in closing the gap”.74 The former Children’s Commissioner for England criticised the Government for working in silos and focusing too much on “school improvement targets without recognising that many of the outcomes for children attending these schools are, overall, getting worse”.75 The fact that the disadvantage gap has not significantly narrowed in the last six years demonstrates that a generalist approach to school improvement will not catalyse pupil improvement in all cases, and that a more tailored approach that acknowledges pupils’ individual needs and circumstances is needed.

37.Despite evidence that the disadvantage gap is not closing and has never narrowed for disadvantaged White pupils, the Department was clear that it intends to “double down” on its current school improvement programme which does not target the needs of specific groups. The Minister stressed the importance of take up of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) at GCSE,76 and said that what “we need to do to address the very issue that this Committee is concerned about is to double down on our education reform programme that we have implemented since 2010”.77 In an evidence session with the Minister the Committee had the following exchange:

Chair: What I am trying to understand is how can you just say it is down to poverty when we know there are different outcomes under the existing system for those of most ethnic groups?

Nick Gibb: There are many reasons why it will differ and why those figures differ for white disadvantaged children compared to other ethnic minorities. This is a very complex area, but what we do know is that white disadvantaged children make up the overwhelming majority of disadvantaged children […]

Nick Gibb: […] what I am interested in is how do we address and improve the attainment of those disadvantaged young people. What we have found is that the measures that we have taken since 2010 work, but they are not easy to implement, and they are controversial. We need support in rolling out higher levels of EBacc uptake, making sure that all schools are teaching reading in the most effective way through phonics, that they are adopting the evidence-based approach to teaching maths …78

38.The Department have not provided us with any convincing evidence that their reforms have closed the gap for disadvantaged White pupils. We believe that this is muddled thinking from the Department, particularly in the context of the number of pupils who are still leaving education every year without a pass in English and Maths GCSE (a key benchmark for progression to further education and employment). In the 2018/19 school year, only 35.9% of disadvantaged White British pupils achieved a pass in these subjects.79

39.The University of Manchester highlighted the challenges facing young people finishing their GCSEs without this benchmark, who may miss opportunities, including apprenticeships, as a Grade 4 or above in English and Maths is sometimes used as an entry requirement. The University of Manchester also found that although many students “do progress between the ages of 16 and 19, a quarter do not achieve a Level 2 qualification and three-fifths do not achieve a Level 3 qualification”.80

40.Disadvantaged White pupils fall behind their peers at every stage of education. Every year, thousands of disadvantaged White pupils leave school without strong passes in English and Maths GCSE. We recognise the efforts that the Government has made to close this gap, but the Department has fallen victim to muddled thinking, and has shown little interest in exploring why disadvantaged White pupils underachieve relative to similarly deprived peers. As a result, the Department has not been able to target support and tackle specific barriers facing these groups. The Department must acknowledge that its reforms are not producing results, particularly for disadvantaged White pupils. A knowledge-rich curriculum is essential, but with progress on closing the disadvantage gap stalling, it is time to invest in a more targeted approach.

The impact of covid-19

41.We are concerned about the impact of lockdowns on children and young people during the pandemic. Research from the Department found that “All year groups have experienced a learning loss in reading. In primary schools these were typically between 1.7 and 2.0 months, and in year 8 and year 9, 1.6 and 2.0 months respectively”.81 It seems that there are geographic disparities and a greater learning loss in schools in disadvantaged areas. This is troubling, especially when combined with evidence of the pandemic’s impact on children and young people’s mental and physical health,82 development in the early years,83 and employment prospects.84 The New Schools Network (NSN) said that the pandemic’s effects “in terms of schooling, economy, mental and physical health–are all likely to disproportionately affect disadvantaged white students”.85 The NSN points to a range of factors that may cause this, including:

42.The International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) said that it would be “wrong to focus efforts too heavily on pure academic achievement” and also call for support for “emotional recovery”.86 In the light of the pandemic, is it important that schools prioritise students’ mental health and wellbeing. Nesta said that: “During and after this pandemic it is critical that provision for pastoral and mental health support is prioritised, especially for disadvantaged young people who have suffered neglect, anxiety or bereavement”.87 The National Health Service (NHS) found that for 5 to 16 year olds, “18.8% of White ethnic backgrounds had a probable mental disorder in 2020”.88 Children from lower income households were more likely to have mental health challenges,89 and there is evidence that young people’s mental health has suffered during the pandemic.90 We heard similar concerns in an evidence session with mental health professionals in our inquiry on the impact of covid-19. Dr Alex George, the Government’s Youth Mental Health Ambassador, said that:

One teacher said to me that, to be honest, if you did a mental health lecture a year, you could tick the box of wellbeing and mental health at the school … I feel that we should look to rebalance that and consider that it is not just about coming out with grades and things, it is what you create in terms of that child coming out of school as a whole person, rather than just the academia.91

43.On 31 March 2021, we wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and suggested that the Department consider focussing catch-up plans for longer school days on pupils’ mental health and emphasising sport and wellbeing activities alongside academic catch-up. We also called for the Government to fast-track their commitment for every school and college in the country to have a designated mental health lead by 2025, and recommended adaptations to the Ofsted inspection framework to put more emphasis on mental health support in schools and colleges.92 Through our other inquiries we will continue to hold the Government to account for how it deals with the challenges of covid-19.93

44.Schools have an important role in how well disadvantaged White children recover from the pandemic. This relates to academic progress, emotional development, and good mental health. This is as true for disadvantaged White pupils as it is for other groups, particularly given NHS statistics indicate that around 18% of White pupils may suffer from mental health challenges.

45.The Government must develop a more rounded view of what children need and what positive outcomes for children are as we recover from the pandemic. Specifically, with regard to mental health, we believe that the Department must fast-track its commitments under the 2018 Green Paper, particularly with regard to ensuring all schools have a designated mental health lead or counsellor. All catch-up plans, including enrichment activities and longer school days, must include a specific role for activities that focus on mental health and wellbeing. These plans must also be targeted to those areas of the country where the disadvantage gap is currently greatest, particularly outside London.

61 Office for National Statistics, Ethnicity and National Identity in England and Wales: 2011, 11 December 2012

62 GOV.UK, GCSE Maths and English results, 6 April 2021

63 The early learning goals set out the expected level of development for children in the final term of the year in which they reach age 5. Practitioners assess whether children are meeting expected levels, exceeding expected levels, or where they have not met the expected levels.

64 GOV.UK, Development goals for 4 to 5 year olds, 12 February 2020

65 Department for Education, Key stage 4 performance 2019 (revisited), 6 February 2020

66 GOV.UK, GCSE English and maths results, 11 December 2020

67 GOV.UK, Development goals for 4 to 5 year olds, 12 February 2020

68 Attainment 8 “measures pupils’ attainment across 8 qualifications” including Maths and English. See: Department for Education, Secondary accountability measures, February 2020

69 Department for Education, Key stage 4 performance 2019 (revisited), 6 February 2020

70 Department for Education, Key stage 4 performance 2019 (revisited), 6 February 2020

71 Office for Students, White students who are left behind: the importance of place, 26 January 2021

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

73 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, 10 September 2014

76 The EBacc is a set of subjects at GCSE, which includes English language and literature, Mathematics, the sciences, geography or history and a language. See GOV.UK, English Baccalaureate (EBacc), 20 August 2019

77 Q378 Minister for School Standards

78 Q399 Chair (Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP) and Nick Gibb

79 GOV.UK, Key stage 4 performance 2019 (revised), 6 February 2020 (see ‘National characteristics tables’ (MS Excel spreadsheet)

81 Department for Education, Pupils’ progress in the 2020 to 2021 academic year: interim report, 24 February 2021

82 St Christopher’s Fellowship (LBP0024)

83 The Sutton Trust, Covid-19 impacts: early years, 1 July 2020

84 Professor Liz Atkins (LBP0011)

85 New Schools Network (LBP0047)

87 Nesta (LBP0016)

90 The Lancet, by Tamsin Newlove-Delgado, Sally McManus, Katharine Sadler, Sharon Thandi, Tim Vizard, Cher Cartwright, Tamsin Ford, Child mental health in England before and during the covid-19 lockdown, January 2021

91 Education Committee, The impact of covid-19 on education and children’s services - Q1396, Dr Alex George

Published: 22 June 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement