White Working Class Underachievement

It’s a difficult one, isn’t it, when you’ve got an issue that is particularly thorny.  I’ve been mulling this one over for a while now. Thanks to today’s Independent article on falling rates of literacy in the poorest children (‘Three in five of the poorest 11-year olds lack basic literacy’), I’ve been spurred on to contribute to the debate on the aforementioned issue.  The article purports to be about literacy; however, it points out that the “vast majority of the 165,000 pupils covered by the research [are] white Britons” and that they are “twice as likely to be unable to meet minimum GCSE standards”. 

I am yet to work in a school in an inner city London that deals with the problem of white working class underachievement in education.  I once attempted to raise the idea as part of a wider discussion on ethnic minority underachievement.  Some schools have external providers to support their African-Caribbean pupils, or their Turkish/Kurdish pupils; some schools use charities to raise the attainment levels of these groups of students, people who may have an insight into cultural experiences that I, as a classroom teacher, may be unaware of.  The groups have culturally specific names to allow them to create a sense of identity within the school like “The African-Caribbean Forum’ or ‘The Turkish Achievement Group’, to show those students that their ethnicity and cultural heritage is celebrated.  Our discussion on having a similar group to raise attainment in the white working class didn’t last very long.  We got stuck on a name.

A raft of uncomfortable questions ensued.  What do you call a group targeting white working class students?  How do you explain that this achievement group is for white students only?  If you have African or Turkish groups, it is called celebration, but if you add a white group, does it become segregation?  Do we slip into the murky realms of feeling a little bit racist? It wasn’t really spoken about after this.  It seemed that the issue was just a little bit too large for this conversation. 

It’s not like the problem hasn’t been identifed.  Type into Google ‘Ofsted white working class’ and you will find a plethora of articles and academic research into the problem; in particular, you will find extensive research into underachievement by white working class boys.  So why, then, is it so hard to stand up and say: “Yes, it is a problem in our schools and we can’t ignore it because it makes us feel slightly nervous”? 

I’m not someone who often uses the term ‘political correctness gone mad’, and in order to keep your readership and respect, I won’t say it.  But you have to admit, there’s something we should be talking about and we’re just not.  Fear can be an incredibly powerful inhibitor of action and if teachers are afraid of discussing something because they may be accused of racism, or ridiculousness, then we leave the problem to fester.  I feel decidedly uncomfortable with that notion, simply because the long terms effects of ignoring this problem may be much worse than the twinge of discomfort felt in useful and important discussions, where clear strategies are established for the re-engagement of the white working class.


  1. Tactless snob

    A thorny issue indeed. Class is so difficult to discuss without sounding either chippy or condescending. This blog avoids both, which makes it useful. My comments will be far less adept… I think there are three issues: culture, attitude in the ruling classes and attitude in the working classes.

    White working class underachievement will worsen until white working class culture changes. Until parents stop seeing school as a place where they can offload their children and start thinking of education as a way of avoiding a repetition of their own grim adulthood. Until poor children stop thinking of the brutality/indifference of street life as some kind of norm and importing it into school. And until being educated and successful is seen as something to aspire to (and something within reach), rather than a reason to hate those who do try to reach it. Clearly, this change will take time and investment.

    Change in Britain is normally sanctioned by the white middle and upper classes. At the moment, these decision-makers (largely) don’t sympathise with the white working classes – they look down on them. Even those who have successfully ascended from working to middle class looks down on those who haven’t, as if to show how far they’ve come. This is something largely unique to white Britons. Despite the litany of failures attributed to political correctness, the one thing it has certainly succeeded in doing is making middle class people feel that they must take issues of disadvantage in ethnic minorities seriously. If the white white-collars, as it were, do innately look down on people of different ethnic origin, they mainly do it in secret. Sneering at the white underclass is part of the day-to-day.

    But this won’t be fully solved with more investment or a commitment from government to put better schools in poor areas, although both will probably help. Initiatives can only do so much. At some point, responsibility must be devolved. The only people who can fix the underachievement of the white working classes is the parents of white working class children. Failure to nurture a love of learning combined with an inherited chippiness which suggests anyone who wants to become a manager, a musician or a medic is some kind of nancy boy, is the responsibility of parents.

  2. Gareth

    Another great article. It is indeed challenging to “celebrate” being white and/or being working class, let alone both together. Well raised, and nicely put.

  3. Rachel Ann Gray

    A few thoughts on education and socioeconomic class:
    Proper work habits pertain to more than the economic realm. Particular personality characteristics and behavioral codes facilitate the transitions to successful employment (successful: enables survival with some degree of comfort). Academics are not as valued here “on the loading docks” as it is in the middle class – values which may inadvertently feed into maintaining social class roles. For instance, working class parents are more likely to value obedience, conformity to external authority, neatness, and other behavioral characteristics in their children. Middle class parents emphasize more internal and interpersonal characteristics like curiosity, self-motivation, self-control, and consideration. Lower level jobs are continually supervised and are best performed by someone willing to obey the rules and conform to external authority. Moving up on the hierarchy requires different psychological characteristics: managerial, professional, and such require middle class workers to take initiative and carry out the goals of the organization, making those goals and organizational values their own. That is why (in part) parental child-rearing values and practices tend to differ in the matter of formal education.

  4. Pingback: Educational underachievement and possible racism | Reading all the Books

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