Today
Thu 29 July 2021

MPs’ report on the disadvantages faced by white working-class pupils received submissions from people who call discussions of privilege ‘woke dogma’ and believe diversity drives are ‘racist’

The report into Left Behind White Pupils From Disadvantaged Backgrounds, published by Parliament’s Education Select Committee today, has hit the headlines for its suggestion that discussion of “white privilege” in schools is causing white, working-class pupils to fall behind. 

In March, the controversial report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities defined 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”.

Today’s report suggests that the term “may be alienating to disadvantaged white communities” and that “it may have contributed towards a systemic neglect of white people facing hardship who also need specific support”. 

It recommends that “schools should consider whether the promotion of politically controversial terminology, including white privilege, is consistent with their duties under the Equality Act 2010”.

The concept of ‘white privilege’ has come under intense focus over the past year, after the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and the UK. It recognises that white people may experience poverty and disadvantage, but that they do not experience systemic and structural barriers as a result of their race or ethnicity. 

Many Conservative MPs and right-wing commentators have been critical of the concept of privilege and academic disciplines such as critical race theory that explore the impact of racism on public policy. 


‘Woke Dogma’

One advisor to the Education Committee, Professor Matthew Goodwin, has called the current discussion around race, gender and privilege “woke dogma”, with the left replacing “an obsession with class” with “an obsession with the ‘trinity’ of sexuality, gender and racial equality”.

Writing in the Daily Mail after the publication of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report into race in the UK, Goodwin said: “There are now only two groups in society – the virtuous ‘good’ groups like women, non-whites, immigrants and people who are LGBT+, and the ‘bad’ groups, like straight men and the white working-class… Increasingly, the only groups given status, esteem and recognition in society are those that can claim to have been offended along the lines of sexuality, gender or race.” 

Conservative MP Philip Davies also submitted written evidence to the Education Committee, focusing on white working-class boys. He has a long association with men’s rights activists, including speaking at a men’s rights conference in 2019 and attacking “feminist zealots”. Davies has also been critical of schemes that seek to redress racial imbalance. In 2015, he said that the BBC’s plans to raise the proportion of employees from minority backgrounds was something he considered to be “a racist approach” and that “the true racist sees everything in terms of race, or colour. Surely what we should be aiming to be is colour blind”. 

The Coalition for Men And Boys gave evidence quoted in the final report, stating that “there are many complexities within attainment data by ethnicity” but that “on gender there need be no reservations; girls outperform boys in every cohort”.

The Coalition has many worthy members doing important work on men’s physical and emotional health, as well as around issues of fatherhood, domestic abuse and sexual violence. However, its co-founder Martin Daubney has stated that “white male privilege is a lie” and claims that the concept of privilege is “agenda-driven brainwashing, designed to make white kids feel terrible about their very existence”. Another of the Coalition’s members, Neil Lyndon, has argued that making misogyny a hate crime is “totalitarian insanity” and that “anti-male prejudice… dominates our age”.


Behind the Data

The Education Committee’s report reveals clear and troubling issues with the educational attainment of white working-class children on free-school meals linked to, among other issues, geographic inequality, persistent and multi-generational disadvantage, poor parental experience of education, a lack of social capital and feeling disengaged with the curriculum.

The Committee heard how “multi-generational disadvantage, particularly amongst white (and black Caribbean) families, has inculcated feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness to break the cycle of poverty”. It also recommended a greater diversity of subjects to better engage pupils with their school work.

However, while the focus is on white working-class pupils, the report’s findings recognise that other ethnic groups fare worse or the same as their white peers on some measures. The Committee heard evidence highlighting that “there are performance measures on which pupils from ethnic minorities, particularly free school meal (FSM)-eligible black Caribbean pupils, perform similarly or less well than disadvantaged white pupils”.

This included how children from ethnic minorities are also disproportionately likely to be excluded or end up in custody. Children with Roma and Irish Traveller heritage performed worst of all ethnic groups when measuring GCSE grades 9-4 in English and Maths.

Looking at gender disparity, the report noted that “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”. However, “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”.

Writing on Twitter, former senior policy advisor to the Department for Education Sam Freedman explained: “If you break down other ethnic groups into smaller gradations there’s huge variation – e.g. pupils with a Somali background do worse than Ghanaian ones”. He added that this is “complex data and [we] have to be careful with it”.

The Education Committee has said that the report was not aiming to detract from the achievements or struggles of other ethnic groups “but rather acknowledging that disadvantaged white pupils have been overlooked for the help that they also need”.

It criticised the Department for Education for “muddled thinking” with its assertion that “more of the same policies to drive up standards will solve the attainment gap, despite evidence that the gap had ceased closing before the pandemic”.


Austerity

While the mention of white privilege has grabbed the headlines, austerity – including cuts to Sure Start centres, the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the wider benefits safety net – cannot be ignored in any conversation on educational outcomes. 

According to 2019 data from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, spending on pupils in the UK has suffered a real-term cut of 8% since 2009. Promises to increase spending in schools in England would just about reverse the cuts. The cancellation of Educational Maintenance Allowance in 2010 in some cases reduced the number of students seeking further education. 

During the Coronavirus pandemic, the Department for Education implemented a “stealth cut” to Pupil Premium funding worth £125 million, while its much-criticised catch-up scheme only equates to £50 being spent per pupil per year. 

Beyond schools, austerity measures taken since 2010 have led to the closure of 70% of youth services that could support disadvantaged young people with education and life skills. This includes the closure of 940 youth centres and cuts to 4,500 youth worker jobs. 

Up to 1,000 Sure Start centres were closed after 2010, impacting early years childhood and parental support. The importance of early years was highlighted in the Education Committee’s report, with its authors recommending investment in family hubs – a policy announced earlier this year and which some have called Sure Start Centres “in new clothes”.

Cuts to welfare include: the two-child tax credit limit for a third or more child born after 2017; the benefit cap; the bedroom tax; and a move to the new Universal Credit system. Black and Asian women paid the highest price for austerity, with those on low incomes losing around twice as much money as low income white men as a result of tax and benefit changes.

The United Nations has criticised the UK for the “great misery” caused by austerity, with 31% of children now living in poverty. Black, Asian and ethnic minority families are more likely to be in poverty than their white peers.

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