To address the shocking educational under-achievement of white working-class children, we must start talking honestly, and banish the divisive abuse of ‘identity politics’.
The statistics provided by yesterday’s Commons education committee report are certainly devastating.
In 2019, 18 per cent of white British pupils on free meals achieved Grade 5 in English and maths GCSE, whereas the average for pupils on free meals overall was 23 per cent.
Some 16 per cent of white British pupils on free school meals make their way to university, compared to 59 per cent of black African pupils on free meals, 59 per cent of Bangladeshi pupils on free meals and 32 per cent of black Caribbean pupils.
I agree with the committee chairman, Robert Halfon, that it is a ‘major social injustice’ that so little has been done recently to address this gap in attainment.
The MPs were particularly scathing about damage done to white children’s state of mind by the trendy phrase ‘white privilege’.
The report faced predictable opposition from some Labour figures. Kim Johnson, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside and a member of the committee, disavowed it.
But if my party is not able to raise its voice in defence of its former political base of the white working class, it will not have much chance of winning power in future.
To address the shocking educational under-achievement of white working-class children, we must start talking honestly, and banish the divisive abuse of ‘identity politics’, writes David Blunkett [Stock image]
Let’s not exaggerate the use or impact of this term. It is a minority of a minority who believe this silliness, and an even smaller number of those who have sought to influence policy on the back of it.
I, for one, have always found it offensive, divisive and frankly irrelevant to making a difference to the lives of those from whatever background, who deserve our support.
Where I am from, I have never once heard the phrase ‘white privilege’ uttered. The sort of disengagement highlighted in yesterday’s report is to be found all over the country, in market towns of the Midlands and South East, and along the south coast of England. I think I speak with some authority because I might be classed as a classic example of white non-privilege.
I grew up on a housing estate in north Sheffield. I was blind from birth, and my father died in an industrial accident when I was 12. As if that was not enough, my mother developed very serious breast cancer. Money was always tight. I shall never forget the importance of a teacher, Wilf King, who gave up an evening a week, unpaid, to coach me through my physics O-level, Blunkett writes. Pictured: Blunkett as a young boy
I grew up on a housing estate in north Sheffield. I was blind from birth, and my father died in an industrial accident when I was 12. As if that was not enough, my mother developed very serious breast cancer. Money was always tight. I shall never forget the importance of a teacher, Wilf King, who gave up an evening a week, unpaid, to coach me through my physics O-level.
This is the human touch which is so essential for all children, particularly in places where ambition has been snuffed out by rapid de-industrialisation. Back in the early 60s, most of my friends on the council estate moved seamlessly from school into one of the many apprenticeships allied to the famous industries of Sheffield.
When I finally made it to the University of Sheffield at 22, I realised that no one within a square mile of my front door had ever gone to university. But at least my friends had jobs, aspirations and skills. Most of all, they had a sense of belonging to a community.
Of course this all vanished very quickly from the 1970s when heavy industry started to close across many northern towns.
When I am walking, companions sometimes describe to me the sight of disengaged white people who carry that feel of deprivation about them. I’m afraid it’s there in the cigarette hanging out of the mouth.
When I hear of those people, I always think: ‘Pity their children!’
Absence of aspiration becomes the central binding link from parent to child, just as a desire to work in a steel plant used to be the common experience of father and son.
People lost jobs and self-belief, and it was the white working class, which had been embedded in that world of work for generations, who felt the loss most. Rightly, money and time was put over many years into helping Caribbean and south Asian children assimilate and adapt to the education system, and it worked.
Of course, this is not a zero-sum game, whereby non-white advancement must come at the disadvantage of white children. But that is not always how it is perceived in economically-depressed towns and cities.
We need to rebuild this sense of community. I support the Government’s emphasis on technical training and lifetime learning. I was proud of the progress we made with Sure Start when I was Education Secretary in the Blair government. I was devastated it fell victim to austerity, and I support moves to revive it.
It is important we set aside the obsessions of those who fail to understand that it is basic improvement in standards of education, and above all, outreach to work with families and community, that will make the difference, whatever a child’s background.
We all need a leg up, either from a government policy, or a mentor like my teacher Mr King. Until we break the intergenerational cycle of lack of ambition, poorer white children will still fail. But there are things we can do. We can provide through well-targeted vocational courses for those who aren’t academic, and we can inspire those who could achieve academically, not only by raising their expectations, but by changing the mindsets of adults around them.
To put it bluntly, the last thing that young people facing disadvantage need to hear is anything about ‘white privilege’. Hope, support, guidance and, above all, adult role models are what all of them need – wherever they are from.
Blame racism on racists, not pupils, MPs say
By Eleanor Harding, Education Editor
White pupils should not have ‘collective guilt’ for racism perpetuated by others, a prominent Tory MP warned yesterday.
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, said the term white privilege was ‘wrong-headed’ because it blames people purely based on skin colour.
He was hitting back at criticism after he said the term was ‘divisive’ and ‘pitted groups against each other’.
He also warned schools that use the phrase could be in breach of the Equality Act, which says no one should be discriminated against for their race. But yesterday, MPs and teachers accused Mr Halfon of stoking a ‘culture war’.
Race campaigners say white privilege is the everyday benefit white people enjoy over other ethnicities due to systemic racism.
In response, Mr Halfon told Sky News: ‘The concept of white privilege is entirely wrong-headed.
‘It implies a collective guilt when it should be the individuals who are responsible for acts of racism.
‘You’re really saying to the single parent who might live in a small bedsit in my constituency of Harlow that she automatically is someone of white privilege. This is why it’s got to be stopped.’
He later told Times Radio: ‘You’re telling poorer white communities that they are white privileged, when all it does is lead to further disengagement from the education system.’
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, said the term white privilege was ‘wrong-headed’ because it blames people purely based on skin colour
And in an interview with Radio 4’s Today, he hit back at the culture war criticism. He said: ‘I have never engaged in culture wars, all I care about, as our committee does, is addressing the decades of neglect that have led to a situation where white working-class boys and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds are underperforming.’
The row erupted after the cross-party committee published its inquiry stating white working-class pupils had been neglected by the education system for ‘decades’. They are one of the worst-performing groups at ages five, 16 and 18, in comparison with disadvantaged children from other ethnicities.
However, Labour MPs on the committee opposed the criticism of terms like white privilege in the report. Kim Johnson said she disowned the report and had submitted her own version, which was voted down by the Tory majority.
She added on Twitter: ‘Deeply depressing that we are seeing a Government that has presided over deep cuts to education diverting attention from that on to a fake culture war.’
And Labour MP Diane Abbott said: ‘Their attack on the term white privilege is designed to cause division.
‘This is the politics of divide and rule applied to education.’
A Department for Education spokesman said: ‘This Government is focused on levelling up opportunity so that no young person is left behind. That’s why we are providing the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade – £14billion over three years…’
Table shows the extent of the achievement gap for disadvantaged white pupils by comparing the number of pupils in each ethnic group eligible for free school meals (for pupils receiving their GCSE results in 2020)