This is not an auspicious time to be born a white working class male. A new report, “Is Britain Fairer?”, by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, provides a damning indictment of how our education system is failing boys. Above all, it is failing boys from less privileged backgrounds, as defined by those who qualify for free school meals (FSM). Only 28 per cent of these pupils are gaining five ‘good’ GCSEs – grade C or above including English and Maths.
White working class girls from poor backgrounds do considerably better than their male counterparts, with 37 per cent achieving the five GCSE benchmark. They are, nevertheless, second from bottom of the achievement table. At the top are Chinese youngsters with 80 per cent of FSM girls and 74 per cent of FSM boys attaining five good GCSEs.
Non-Chinese Asian pupils come second in the table with FSM boys and girls gaining 49 per cent and 57 per cent respectively. The equivalent figures for black pupils are 43 per cent and 53 per cent and for children of mixed race, 40 per cent and 48 per cent.
The conclusions to be drawn from these statistics are far from being solely negative. Over the past five years the performance of black boys has improved by 14.2 per cent, that of Asian boys by 13.4 per cent and that of Chinese boys by 10 per cent. In addition, girls are doing comparatively well. Not only do they out-perform boys amongst all groups, even those in the category of white FSM have seen an improvement of 13.2 per cent.
We are left, however, with that 78 per cent of white under-privileged working class boys who are leaving school without, even, the basic qualifications for most worthwhile employment opportunities. Matters are improving for other ethnic groups but hardly at all for these boys. A life of unemployment and welfare dependency beckons.
Failed by the education system and, not infrequently, by their parents, these boys constitute a ‘ticking time bomb’. Unemployed and, often, unemployable not only do they fill many prison cells but they are ripe for recruitment by political extremists of both Left and Right. As a society we ignore them at our peril.
The time has arrived to stop wringing our hands in despair and blaming educational failure on social background. The OECD has made it abundantly clear, time and again, that under-achievement in education cannot be blamed on deprivation. Teaching methodology and the quality of that teaching really do make a difference. We have some very good schools in the UK and some very able teachers but there are not enough to go around. Working class families cannot afford to buy into the catchment area of the best schools or afford private tutoring. True, to some extent, the consequence of poor schooling can be offset by parents with high aspirations and intensely motivated children. This, certainly, seems to explain the capacity of children of recent immigrants and minority ethnic groups to improve.
If we are to ensure, however, that we raise standards because of schools rather than, in some cases, despite them, we need to look at why so many pupils, especially poor white working class boys, are failing.
What is best going to help this educational underclass – a return to disciplined and demanding whole-class teaching, such as is used in the most successful education systems of the Asia-Pacific, or the ‘child-centred’ group and so-called ‘experiential’ learning we currently employ? Do we wish to have teachers well qualified in the subject they are teaching or well qualified in the baggage of political correctness? Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, needs to wake up. Sadly, it may already be too late!