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David Skelton: More needs to be done to help white, working class boys fulfil their potential

Skelton DaveDavid Skelton is the acting Director of Policy Exchange. Follow him on Twitter.

Universities Secretary David Willetts has caused controversy by suggesting that white working class boys should be considered in the same way as ethnic minorities in university admissions.  This provoked howls of anguish from those who suggest that such an idea stifles meritocracy. But Willetts has a point. Not enough working class boys are going to university. It's also the case that working class boys are more likely to struggle at GCSE level and more likely to become disengaged from education. Ensuring that the accident of birth doesn't determine life chances us the major reason that education reform is so important. 

The statistics certainly suggest that Willetts is right. Research for the Sutton Trust found that private school students are 55 times more likely than pupils on free school meals to win a place at Oxbridge and 22 times more likely to win a place at one of the thirty most selective institutions.  They also estimate that 3,000 state school pupils have the necessary grades but do not get a place at these top thirty universities.  15 per cent of schools and colleges offering A’ Levels last year did not send a single pupil to a Russell Group University and 64 per cent did not send one to Oxbridge.

These figures imply a continuing class divide in education. And David Willetts is also right to point to the gender divide.  Last year, 30 per cent of male school leavers applied to university, compared to 40 per cent of female school leavers. Universities are right to value their independence and protest against arbitrary quotas, but they should remember that they are able to charge tuition fees of £9,000 a year because of promises they made about widening access. And plenty of universities are making major efforts to encourage applications, but the figures make clear that more needs to be done if universities are to properly fulfil their role as engines of social mobility. There’s no point in just pinning the blame on university admissions tutors. In truth, the entire education system lets too many working class boys down.  Indeed, according to the IFS, there is a stronger link between socio-economic status and educational attainment than in almost every other Western country.

Just 29 per cent of white British boys on free school meals achieved five GCSEs of between A-C grade last year – well below the 62 per cent achieved by all 16 year olds.  This was the poorest performance of any group other than Gypsy or Traveller children. Indeed, OFSTED have been moved to talk about the “strong association between poverty and underachievement among British white boys who qualify for free school meals or whose household income is well below the national average.”

White, working class boys are also more likely to be disengaged from education than other groups. Both the report by Andy Ross for the Department for Education in 2009 and research by McIntosh and Houghton found that white working class boys were one of the groups more likely to be disengaged from education, often leading to regular truancy and a general disinterest in education.  And there’s evidence that the class divide in education starts at an early age. Children from the poorest fifth of families have been found to be nearly a year behind children from middle income families in vocabulary tests by the age of 5.

The great irony is that working class kids have been let down by the very people who claim to be prioritising their best interests. All too many people are happy to let dogma get in the way of the best interests of working class children, despite compelling evidence that education reform is necessary to improve the life chances of the poorest.

My old comprehensive school, in the working class North Eastern town of Consett, is a great example of that. I saw so many really gifted people at school leave with nothing like the kind of qualifications that matched their talents. Little that was said at the school encouraged pupils to aspire – there was certainly very little mention of university and certainly no mention of Oxbridge. Since then, the school has been revolutionised as a part of Tony Blair’s education reforms – being turned around from ‘failing’ to ‘good’ and, in the words of The Guardian, “gaining a national reputation for school improvement.” In 2003, only 12 per cent of year 11 pupils at the school gained 5 or more GCSE at A*-C, in 2010 that figure was 62 per cent.

There’s a similar story in London’s schools, with the Financial Times suggesting that schools in the capital have undergone a “startling turnaround.” During the six year period of the FT’s study the gap between richer and poorer pupils narrowed in London, this was not replicated anywhere else in England. London’s role as a trailblazer for schools reform has meant that the improvement of its schools has been particularly marked.

There’s substantial evidence that education reform is good for working class people, but still people on the ‘left’ object for ideological reasons. We need to up the pace of schools reform to ensure that the poorest children are given the best opportunity to succeed in life. This also means ensuring that ‘satisfactory’ schools are not allowed to ‘coast’ and let the poorest children down. Failing schools should be forced to join ‘chains’ led by successful schools in order to turn their performance around.

We also need to consider how to narrow the rich-poor divide across the educational spectrum. Some of the lowest quality childcare provision is located in the poorest areas – meaning that many working class kids are on the back foot before they even start school. By making the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit larger and increasing the scrutiny of local authorities’ role we can help improve both quality and affordability of childcare in poorer areas.

And it’s crucial that we take action to tackle the disengagement felt by many working class boys. A proper technical and vocational strand, whilst maintaining core subjects like Maths and English is essential to making this happen. This would help to reengage those pupils who have been turned off by a strictly academic route, as well as providing the skills that UK industry badly needs to compete. The Young Apprenticeships programme, which involved school and college partnerships and some element of work based learning was praised by teachers and led to improved GCSE performance and some 95 per cent of participants remaining in further education or training.  A vocational route would also provide another path to Higher Education for pupils who might otherwise have lost interest in education altogether.

These reforms also need to be accompanied with improved careers advice and guidance in state schools.  All too often, the guidance given to working class pupils is minimal or non existent, meaning that they can lack a sense of purpose and direction, which worsens the disengagement and worsens outcomes. Institute of Education research shows that 31 per cent of people in a study in the North West who started A-levels dropped out. Better advice and guidance could have prevented this by getting them on the courses that were right for them in the first instance. Teachers and other role models have an important role to play in raising aspiration for poorer pupils and encouraging them to make the most of their potential. It’s also useful to consider how voluntary organisations such as ‘City Year’, whose volunteers work intensively with disengaged pupils, could be used to help reengage and boost aspiration.

Class still matters in education. It’s still undeniably and depressingly true that working class boys are less likely to do well at GCSE, more likely to become disengaged from education and less likely to attend university than almost any other group. It’s no longer a situation that anybody should accept, nor is it acceptable to fall back on old, failed dogma. Education reform is essential rather than optional. And it’s essential because it will help people from working class backgrounds make the most of their potential.


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