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.