This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2021. You can download the full supplement for free on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
In 2019, the average Attainment 8 score for pupils who were not eligible for free school meals (FSM) was 45.6. Currently, around 10 per cent of white pupils, 20 per cent of black pupils, and 45 per cent of Bangladeshi pupils receive FSM. In total, there were 33,697 boys on FSM who sat their GCSEs in 2019. Of these:
- 1,093 Bangladeshi boys achieved an average score of 42.8.
- 2,880 black boys achieved an average score of 34.5.
- 22,720 white boys achieved an average score of 28.5.
This data shows that white boys in receipt of FSM (who we might term “white working class boys” although, of course, FSM eligibility is not synonymous with working class) underperform compared to all other groups.
Of course, it is true that white British pupils perform slightly better, on average, than BAME children. But, because girls perform significantly better on average than boys, and pupils who are not eligible for FSM perform significantly better on average than pupils who are, then white boys eligible for FSM perform markedly worse than pupils from every other category, including FSM pupils from every other ethnicity.
The MP Ben Bradley, speaking in a House of Commons debate in February 2020, said: “We know that on average boys consistently underperform against girls, and white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds underperform against boys of all other races and ethnicities.
“Only around a third of white working class boys pass their maths and English GCSEs,” he said, “(and) disadvantaged white working class boys are 40 per cent less likely to go into higher education than disadvantaged black boys.”
He added: “According to UCAS, only nine per cent of these boys will go to university, compared with around half of the general population.”
A report from Impetus, Digging Deeper, claims that “white working class boys have been left to underperform academically for decades” (2014).
Impetus believes that part of the problem is a lack of aspiration. The report states: “Many of our charities identified parents who had had miserable educational experiences of their own as barriers to their children’s own attainment.
“This is a challenge to schools, who may be up against multiple generations who have no faith in schooling’s ability to equip their children with qualification or skills.”
Mr Bradley MP also believes that one of the causes of white working class boys’ underachievement is a lack of ambition: “We need to understand the communities that these boys grow up in. In former coalfield areas such as Mansfield, not so long ago boys generally left school before they were 16, and they went to work down the pit or in a factory.
“There was a simplistic kind of certainty to that, in that regardless of what happened at school, they would have a job and a career. (But) that certainty of career does not exist anymore … many parents in the poorest communities do not have qualifications and therefore are not able to extol the virtues of school – indeed, they do not necessarily see the point of that education – and they cannot help their children to study because they do not have that level of attainment themselves.”
Impetus recommended that, in order to address this issue, “there must be a strong link between education and employment”, adding that “better careers advice and guidance, alumni networks in every school, and school engagement with local employers are crucial here”.
Who are white working class boys?
For my part, I think it might be helpful to deconstruct the moniker of “white working class boys” – which is in danger of masking the true issues at play – and consider each element of this group’s dynamic in turn, asking whether it is class, race or gender that provides the main barrier to school success.
Let’s consider the “working class” element first of all. While working class is not synonymous with FSM or Pupil Premium eligibility – I dissect this point in much more depth in my SecEd Best Practice Focus on Pupil Premium practice (Bromley, 2019) – it is a helpful starting point. In addition, I have written extensively in SecEd about socio-economic deprivation. For example, in my articles for the supplement on vulnerable learners published in this edition (SecEd, 2021), I explain that pupils from poorer backgrounds tend to do less well in school, not because they are less able than their more affluent peers, but simply because they were born into poverty.
I also explain that, although poverty may be the primary cause of a child’s disadvantage, it is often the consequences of poverty that create the barriers to learning. For example, poverty may mean a child suffers from a lack of sleep or poor nutrition which affects their concentration and energy levels in school and thus hampers their achievement.
As such, I recommend that, when deciding how to support learners from poorer homes, we need to identify, on a case-by-case basis, the tangible consequences of their socio-economic deprivation on their education.
We know that the poverty gap emerges early in a child’s life and that, by the age of three, disadvantaged children are – on average – already almost 18 months behind their more affluent peers in their early language development. Around two-fifths of disadvantaged five-year-olds are not meeting the expected literacy standard for their age (Hutchinson & Dunford, 2016).
Research also shows that, by the age of seven, the gap in the vocabulary known by children in the top and bottom quartiles is something like 4,000 words; children in the top quartile know around 7,000 words (Biemiller, 2004).
It surely follows then that we can help overcome some of their disadvantage by improving their literacy and language skills.
So, to what extent does being “white” place these students at an added disadvantage? Actually, we might better ask: Does being white disadvantage them? Or might this be an unhelpful misnomer?
Certainly, Kenan Malik, writing in the Guardian (2018), believes ethnicity is not, as widely claimed, a primary cause of academic disadvantage. Rather, ethnicity masks the true issue: class.
“So fixated (are) academics and policy-makers by ethnic categories, that they largely ignored (social class). The 2000 Ofsted report, for instance, demonstrated that the impact of social class on school performance was more than twice as great as that of ethnicity. Yet, it disregarded its own data and focused on the problems posed by ethnic differences.”
Malik went on: “The debate about the white working class … poses the problem as a zero-sum game. It pitches the interests of working class whites against those of minority ethnic groups and imagines that too great a focus on black and Asian children has undermined white working class culture.”
I think he might be right. I suspect the focus on white working class boys is misguided and we should instead focus on socio-economic deprivation – and thus social class – as well as gender, and not concern ourselves too much with ethnicity as a cause of disadvantage.
After all, as I explained in my article on socio-economic deprivation (SecEd, 2021), the attainment gap caused by poverty is multi-racial.
Boys perform markedly worse than girls in every ethnic group. The difference between the attainment of girls and boys is now markedly greater than that between white and BAME pupils.
In 2016, the Higher Education Policy Institute calculated that, if current trends continue, a boy born in 2016 will be 75 per cent less likely to attend university than a girl (Hillman & Robinson, 2016).
But why? Well, on the one hand, the attainment gap between boys and girls may be the result of biological differences. After all, there are more than a hundred genetic differences between the male and female brain.
According to Rich (2000), a girl’s prefrontal cortex is generally more active than a boy’s, and her frontal lobe generally develops at an earlier age. These are the decision-making areas of the brain (as well as the reading/writing/word production areas) and the difference can lead to girls being less impulsive than boys but better able to sit still and read, and to read and write earlier in life.
According to Gurian and Stevens (2005), boys’ brains go into a “rest state” many times each day. For some boys – especially those with behavioural difficulties – self-stimulating and disruptive behaviours such as tapping a pencil (although it can be symptomatic of emotional or psychological problems in some boys) may reflect male brains trying to stay awake in a classroom that is not well-suited to their kind of learning.
But, on the other hand, the gender gap might be explained by differences in attitude not biology. According to many international reports on the gender gap in education – most notably perhaps an OECD report called Closing the gap (2012) – boys and girls, men and women, when given equal opportunities, have an equal chance of achieving at the highest levels.
In another paper called The ABC of gender equality (2015), the OECD expands on this and argues that gender equality in education relies on addressing not biological differences but differences in “attitude, behaviour, and confidence”.
In other words, gender disparities in performance do not stem from innate differences in aptitude, but rather learned, societal differences in students’ attitudes towards learning and their behaviour in school, from how they choose to spend their leisure time, and from the confidence they have – or do not have – in their own abilities as students.
When considering the issue of white working class boys, it might not matter whether we believe the gender gaps are the result of biology or attitude – or indeed, as seems most likely to me, a combination of the two. What matters most is that we believe that the gaps can and should be closed. White working class boys are not innately less able and we can do more to level the playing field and overcome their disadvantages in school.
So, what can we do to help close the gender gap specifically? I have written previously for SecEd about improving boys’ literacy (Bromley, 2015), which provides a good starting point. Below there is some further general advice.
A pupil’s home life is vital to their academic success and so it seems logical to suggest, when looking at ways of closing the gender gap, that parents have a major role to play. We might assume that all parents give their sons and daughters equal support and encouragement for all of their school work, and articulate equal aspirations for their futures, but PISA results show that this is not always the case. Giving boys and girls an equal opportunity to realise their potential, therefore, demands the involvement of parents who can encourage their sons and daughters.
According to a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation called Closing the attainment gap in Scottish Education (Sosu & Ellis, 2014), to help this happen, schools should ensure they have in place effective parental involvement programmes that focus on helping parents to use appropriate strategies to support their children’s learning at home rather than simply seeking to raise aspirations for their children’s education.
Teachers, too, have a vital role to play by becoming more aware of their own gender biases and how these might affect how they award marks to pupils.
The report cited above says that teachers should use carefully implemented nurture groups and programmes to increase social, emotional and behavioural competencies (Sosu & Ellis, 2014). Collaborative work in small groups can also be effective, as can peer-tutoring, metacognitive training and one-to-one tutoring using qualified teachers, trained teaching assistants, or trained volunteers.
Mentoring schemes work best when they adhere to particular characteristics associated with efficacy, and after-school activities – such as study support – work best when they are academically focused.
The same report also says that school leaders can help close the gap by developing policies which better create, collect and share knowledge of:
- Interventions that improve the performance of different groups of pupils.
- Ways to deploy staff and resources to raise achievement in different groups.
- Ways to make curriculum design and planning (at school, class and individual level) more nuanced and effective for different groups of pupils.
- Methods to monitor and evaluate pedagogies, resources and initiatives for impact on different groups as well as general average attainment.
Although now 12 years old, I think the recommendations contained in Ofsted’s 2008 good practice report on white working class boys are worth considering. Ofsted found that schools that were successful in raising the attainment of this group shared the following features:
- An ethos which demonstrates commitment to every individual and which treats staff and pupils with fairness, trust and respect.
- Consistent support to develop boys’ organisation skills and instil the importance of perseverance; any anti-school subculture “left at the gates”.
- Rigorous monitoring systems which track individual pupils’ performance against expectations; realistic but challenging targets; tailored, flexible intervention programmes and frequent reviews of performance against targets.
- A highly structured step-by-step framework for teaching, starting with considerable guidance by the teacher and leading gradually to more independent work by the pupils when it is clear that this will enhance rather than detract from achievement.
- A curriculum which is tightly structured around individual needs and linked to support programmes that seek to raise aspirations.
- Creative and flexible strategies to engage parents and carers, make them feel valued, enable them to give greater support to their sons’ education and help them make informed decisions about the future.
- A strong emphasis on seeking and listening to the views of these pupils.
- Genuine engagement of boys in setting individual targets, reviewing progress, shaping curricular and extra-curricular activities and making choices about the future.
- Key adults, including support staff and learning mentors, who are flexible and committed, know the boys well and are sensitive to any difficulties which might arise in their home.
- A good range of emotional support for boys to enable them to manage anxieties and develop the skills to express their feelings constructively.
- Strong partnership with a wide range of agencies to provide social, emotional, educational and practical support for boys and their families in order to raise their aspirations.