It has been noted time and time again that students from a poorer background achieve lower grades than their richer counterparts in the UK. But what’s happening in the UK education system that means huge percentages of these students are failing to meet even the basic five GCSEs at grade C or above?
A report from the Sutton Trust released at the beginning of June this year revealed that children who grow up in poor homes have less than half as much chance of getting top GCSE grades as those from other families. Within this group, boys perform particularly badly.
In fact, according to the same report, more than a third of boys who receive free school meals who are in the top 10 per cent of performers at the age of 11 fall outside of the top 25 per cent by the time they complete their GCSE exams at age 16.
Interestingly, this phenomenon is particularly prevalent among the white working class, whose educational performance is worse than any other demographic group. Just 28.3 per cent of white boys eligible for free school meals earn five GCSEs at grade C or above. In comparison, at least 39 per cent of mixed-race, Asian and black male students do.
“There are unacceptable attainment gaps at every stage of children’s development,” Sir Pete Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, says. “These now affect the white working class more than any other community.”
While London’s schools have received various initiatives – academies, the London Challenge, Teach First – to improve the quality of education that students are receiving, other areas have been neglected and white working-class pupils have suffered as a result. “We made the same mistake many implementations make – starting in the place where it's easiest to implement things, the big cities, and taking a while to get to the areas which really need it,” admits Brett Wigdortz, the chief executive of Teach First, to the New Statesman. “A lot of great interventions start in London, go to big cities and then go to the east coast 10 or 15 years later.”
As such, this September, 13 years after it launched, Teach First will expand into Great Yarmouth and Thanet, bringing talented graduates to teach in difficult or failing schools. It’s not surprising that Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of schools for England and the head of Ofsted, warned in 2013 that underperforming pupils in many market and seaside towns were “invisible”.
However, it’s not just in these places where the Sutton Trust identified ‘missing talent’. They named 20 places across the UK where students who performed well at Key Stage 2 (age 11) then went on to seemingly under perform at GCSE. 16 of those places are in the Midlands or the North and many of those are cities.
Despite this, over the last 15 years, politicians have focused on improving education within London, where the poor quality of schools was apparent to them. And what they have done in London has worked – white children in the UK capital are performing better than the national average, even though they are more likely to be on free school meals.
But the politicians are failing students in places like Stoke-on-Trent – a city “without a culture of formal education” as noted by local MP Tristram Hunt. He says that changing this requires “parents, who themselves often have poor experiences of education, stressing the importance of education and supporting teachers and head teachers”.
It’s this lack of ambition from white working-class children – from their parents too – which is a further problem. White children on free school meals who do considerably worse than those from other ethnic backgrounds “seems to be quite closely connected with aspiration, which leads onto achievement,” Les Ebdon, the director of the Office for Fair Access says. “Many people came to this country to make a better future for their children, and they realised the way you get a better future is through education and so they pushed their youngsters and aspire strongly for them.”
But what is to be done to encourage white working class children to aspire to more and achieve better grades? The expansion of initiatives such as Teach First is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done if the UK is to keep from failing its working class students.