We Need To Talk About White Low-Income Pupils

Cast your mind back 18 months ago to July 2016, to Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister.

In setting out her priorities for government and personal mission to tackle our country’s deep seated social mobility problem – she highlighted one shocking stat: “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.”

And while last week’s GCSE data showed some small improvements in results for poorer pupils, the figures shone more light on the struggles of the white pupils from low-income communities.

This year is the first time pupils with English as an additional language (EAL) did better than native speakers on every measure reported by the Department for Education.

For those pupils on free school meals – generally used as an indicator of poverty – white boys had the lowest Attainment 8 scores, a new measure of GCSE success, of any ethnic group.

It is important to state here that above all else, the inequality in our education system is to do with family income. The attainment gap between pupils on free schools meals and their peers is 13 points. This compares to just half a point for the attainment gap between pupils with English as Additional Language (EAL) and their peers, for example.

The average attainment score for a white pupil not on free school meals is still higher than the attainment of a pupil from any other ethnic group who is on free school meals, with the exception of pupils from a Chinese background.

But there does seem so be a specific issue for white pupils from low-income families. They do worse than other pupils from low-income families from all other ethnic backgrounds.

What’s behind this trend of poor, white pupils falling behind? In the second half of the last century, white working class families typically moved from poor quality housing in inner cities and onto estates on the edge of cities or smaller towns.

At the same time, the government’s focus and resources were directed at improving education within inner cities that were becoming more and more diverse. It was right to do so– these areas had the greatest levels of poverty and deprivation in the country, and inner-city children were being let down an inadequate school system.

The focus on large cities yielded incredible results. London went from having the worst schools in the country to the best within 15 years. When considering the problem of why the white pupils from low-income backgrounds are falling behind, it’s worth remembering this success, and noting that half of all pupils with English as a second language in the country are in the capital.  

The educational challenge has shifted now to those smaller towns with a predominantly white, lower-income make up. They often to suffer from poor transport links, long distances between schools and the lack of visible employment or progression opportunities.

Our research repeatedly tells us that young people from poorer backgrounds have the same aspirations and dreams as their richer peers. But often it’s much harder for a young person growing up in somewhere like Hastings, Blackpool or Fenland to plot a path to success and realise those dreams.

There needs to be more support for careers education, so pupils can make decisions about their future. And while not everyone wants to go to university, we also need our elite institutions to look at the effectiveness of the vast sums of money they’re spending – £725 million in the academic year 2015-16 alone – on improving access from underrepresented communities.

But most importantly, we need to find and support more great teachers. Simply put, when teachers thrive, so can their pupils. Communities outside London and other big cities that face the greatest educational challenges, but is often these schools that struggle to attract enough great teachers.

That’s why over the last five years Teach First has focused more and more on placing teachers in coastal and rural communities, as the face of social mobility changes. In my first six months at Teach First I’ve been privileged to visit classrooms up and down the country and see the hard work of inspiring teachers and schools.

The first job of Teach First remains the one we began with, to get more great teachers where they are most needed. For all the negative headlines, teaching remains a challenging yet highly rewarding career. The increasing number of career changers entering the classroom is testament to the profession’s attractiveness to those who find the 9-5 office routine is not for them and want to make a real difference.

Where these dedicated individuals are most needed now is not just the inner cities that many people associate with Teach First’s earlier years. The picture is more complex, and we must adapt to meet the challenge.