Last week I gave evidence at the Education Committee’s inquiry into why poor white children do so badly at school. It’s an inquiry that was long overdue.
The fact that I was there at all was something of a miracle because I am white and come from a single-parent, working-class family where money was always a problem.
Against the odds, I went to university – not Oxbridge or even a traditional Russell Group establishment, but a ‘low-tariff’ university, at Salford in Manchester.
So, yes, it’s a problem with which I’m very familiar. The statistics would speak for themselves, were anyone to pay attention.
Because white, working-class boys from low-income homes are by far the most underprivileged children in Britain in comparison with any other major ethnic group.
According to the Department for Education, just 13 per cent of white boys entitled to free school meals (because their families are on benefits) go on to higher education.
Yet 27 per cent of similar black Caribbean boys go to university, 42 per cent of Pakistani, 51 per cent of black African and 66 per cent of Chinese boys.
It is a staggering fact that only two per cent of white, working-class children get into the most prestigious universities, yet we fall over ourselves to help other groups make it.
Pictured: Professor Matthew Goodwin with his brother Owen (left) and his grandfather George
The only groups with worse educational outcomes than white, working-class boys are their peers from gypsy, Roma and Irish traveller backgrounds. So will we see a campaign on behalf of Britain’s poor white children? I’m confident the answer is no.
These boys and girls are treated as if they are invisible by politicians and by universities, as I know all too well.
Today I am a professor, lecturing in politics at the University of Kent, yet my own upbringing still marks me out as an outsider, particularly if I dare to show support or understanding for working-class views.
Brexit is a particular case in point. There are times when I’ve been made to feel a pariah thanks to my support for the outcome of the referendum (although I was by no means a Brexiteer myself).
It is my opinion that the British working class had every right to stick up two fingers to the Establishment and I’ve not been afraid to say so.
But that’s not a popular view in the rarefied world of universities, where children, especially boys, from poor backgrounds have been shoved to the margins. It is simply not fashionable to talk about white, working-class kids.
There is now a strong push among academics to promote diversity and inclusion, to unleash what some refer to as the ‘untapped potential’ of children from minority ethnic backgrounds.
It is understandable and laudable. As part of this, staff at universities are frequently asked to take tests to establish whether they are unconsciously biased or racist. Yet the conversation is all about multi-culturalism and almost never includes the role of class. Why?
Nobody wonders aloud why there are so few white, working-class students in higher education.
My own roots are in the terrace house on the outskirts of St Albans, Hertfordshire, where I grew up. My younger brother and I were raised by our mum after my dad left when I was about five.
My abiding childhood memory is of standing outside the school gates waiting for Mum to come tearing round the corner to collect us after she finished work in the human resources department of the local NHS trust.
Much of the job of bringing us up fell to Mum’s parents. They belonged to the old-fashioned working class, solid members of the greatest generation. They looked after their neighbours, went to church and gave to charity.
Their lives were shaped by the lingering values of the Victorian period. I worshipped my grandfather, who was born into complete poverty in Brixton.
As a young man he fought in Burma with the Chindits and met my grandmother at a wartime Army concert in India.
A girl from South Wales with a prize-winning soprano voice, she was singing for the troops with Vera Lynn.
My grandfather always said that once he caught sight of her, he couldn’t stop staring.
He was so besotted that, as soon as he was demobbed and returned to Britain, he jumped on a motorbike and rode to Llanelli, where he proposed at once… even before he’d gone home to see his own family.
They settled in Castle Bromwich, in the suburbs of Birmingham, where my grandfather worked in a stationery business and tended his garden.
He helped to support my mum financially but, by the time I reached the sixth form at my all-boys secondary school, I was having to work at two jobs to help pay the bills.
One of these was at a fast-food restaurant, where the manager was keen to take me on full-time.
This was the late 1990s and there was pressure on me to do a management training course – which would have meant abandoning my A-levels – so that I could start to earn proper money.
At the time, it was a tempting option, not least because it felt as though this was what was expected of me, not by my family but by society in general. I just wasn’t the type that was meant to go to university, much less become an academic.
But one of my teachers, Mr Brands, who taught history and Latin, saw that I had an aptitude for study and an interest in politics – even if it was the politics of Disraeli and Gladstone, which was on the curriculum at the time.
Last week I gave evidence at the Education Committee’s inquiry into why poor white children do so badly at school, writes Professor Goodwin. Pictured: Stock image
Mr Brands inspired me, not just because of his lessons and the fact he encouraged me to complete my A-levels. I had another job at the time – as school cleaner. After the other boys went home, I stayed behind with a mop and bucket, to earn an extra few quid.
It was an unconventional arrangement but I was glad of it. And as I did my rounds of the classrooms, I started to notice that Mr Brands stayed behind, too.
He would walk around, picking up litter, and was sometimes still there at 7pm. There was an indefinable quality to the man, an old-school decency and moral fibre I admired very much.
And if he thought I should continue my studies, I felt I should listen to him.
I didn’t apply to university until I had my A-level results and I picked Salford because I knew my father was living in Manchester. I thought I might get the chance to know him a little better.
My grandfather was deeply proud of my decision. His parents had nothing and now his grandson was going to university.
I will always be grateful that he lived long enough to see me get my first lectureship, at Nottingham. In his eyes, I was an ‘intellectual’. The idea makes me smile but it’s also touching. He did what he could to help with my living expenses but like most of the students on my course I had to work part-time to support myself throughout my degree and beyond.
I took all sorts of jobs but the most reliable was delivering pizzas. I wouldn’t change that experience for the world, yet I’m constantly aware few of my colleagues went through anything similar.
Many are themselves the children of academics, or even the grandchildren of academics.
Their lives in education were written from the start: prep school, private school, ten years at Oxbridge to do a masters and PhD, then a career in elite universities.
They cannot begin to fathom what the people of Blackpool and Clacton, Hartlepool, Rotherham and Dover are thinking.
Our universities seem oblivious to the problem of raising educational standards for the white working class, despite the fact this is the biggest single social group in Britain – in fact, precisely because they are the biggest group.
These boys who underachieve so badly do not come from a minority, let alone a fashionable one. They are too unfashionable to have a hashtag.
This does not explain the shocking failure of politicians to recognise and support them. In particular, the Labour Party, which was set up to speak for the working class, seems to have turned its back.
Its narrative is now dominated by race and gender discrimination. It speaks volumes that it was a Labour MP at the Education Select Committee who linked the underachievement of these kids to their so-called ‘white privilege’.
But as I explained in reply, telling working-class boys they are suffering from white privilege is nonsensical. What do we even mean by that?
If we’re going to start teaching them in school that, not only must they overcome the existing economic and social barriers but that they must now start apologising for being white, that’s only going to compound their problems.
They are falling through the cracks as it is.
The suggestion that these and other groups of boys are infected with ‘toxic masculinity’ is another modish criticism which is likely to make things worse, not better.
It is another way of suggesting they are to blame for their own plight, that they should somehow make amends simply for being who they are.
This is a very dangerous state of affairs, the more so as few in authority show any understanding.
Just 1.5 per cent of MPs have ever worked in blue-collar jobs. In fact, Labour MPs are even more likely than Tories to have gone to university. The party that was supposed to fight hardest for the workers has been taken over by middle-class professionals and careerists.
How can they relate to these children? They’re from a different galaxy. Grasp that, and you begin to understand why we are not talking more about these problems.
This has been exacerbated by divisions over Brexit. Ten years ago, concerned that I met so few people like myself in higher education, I turned my research to communities in regions that had suffered a continual lack of investment for decades.
Britain’s economy was increasingly centred on London and the South East and many people were either withdrawing from political engagement altogether – because they felt that, however they voted, nothing would change – or they were shifting to the marginal parties such as Ukip.
When the Brexit vote happened, I wasn’t surprised. Nor was I surprised when Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit Tories won the biggest Conservative majority since 1987 at the last General Election.
The middle-classes from the big cities and university towns were comfortable talking about the rights of trans-sexuals and ethnic minorities but preferred to ignore the white working class.
So it is no surprise that academics have largely dismissed the Brexit vote as xenophobic and racist.
Today, attempting to do anything on behalf of white boys from lower income backgrounds is seen as tantamount to fostering racism.
When Professor Bryan Thwaites, the 96-year-old mathematician and philanthropist, tried last year to set up a £1million bequest to benefit poor working-class boys at his old school, Dulwich College, he was turned down. Winchester College also rejected the gift.
The very idea was treated as toxic. Yet when the grime artist Stormzy set up scholarships for poor black children, he was widely praised.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is crackers. We seem to be talking about how every other group in society is victimised and left behind, yet when the figures show how badly young white males are being let down, we shut our eyes and ears.
We ignore them, deride them, look down on them and treat them as failures – and then we wonder why so many people in these communities are rebelling against the status quo.
After winning the Election, Boris Johnson promised he was going to ‘level up’ the country.
The obvious place to start is by levelling up the life prospects for these boys.