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Chris McGovern: White working class British parents fail their children


As white British pupils progress through school, they fall behind other ethnic groups. This a key finding of the CentreForum think tank’s first Annual Report into the state of English education. At the age of five, white British children are ranked third in terms of attainment but after 11 years of schooling this plunges to twelfth.

The report notes that non-English speaking youngsters make faster progress than native English speakers:

“… pupils for whom English is an additional language (EAL) are less affected by poverty. Among disadvantaged pupils, EAL pupils perform consistently better than others and the difference between the two groups widens as they become more acutely disadvantaged.”

Recently arrived immigrants are doing especially well:

“Despite having relatively low prior attainment, we find that these pupils go on to achieve close to the national average in terms of overall attainment by the end of Key Stage 4. In some cases these pupils make around 2 years of additional progress over the course of secondary school, compared with their peers, as their English fluency improves.”

Ironically, it seems that the population group best equipped to counter the negative impact of our low aspiring and low attaining education system is the poor immigrant who arrives here unable to speak English:

“… belonging to certain minority ethnic groups is a protective factor associated with greater resilience against low achievement at all levels of deprivation than is observed for white British pupils.”

The extra support provided at school and, above all, by parents at home, for non-English speakers is allowing them to realise their potential. Far from being seen as a problem, as they often are, immigrants and ethnic minority children in this country are a success, as the CentreForum report makes clear:

“Pupils for whom English is an additional language are a success story in educational progress and performance.”

Future immigration may impose unsustainable pressures on schools but, currently, we are doing very well by both immigrant and by ethnic minority pupils in our schools.

An immediate problem facing our education system, however, is how are we going to improve the relative under-performance of the majority ethnic group – the white British? Are their needs receiving less time and attention than minority groups? Evidence that non-English speakers are likely to take up more teacher-time remains largely anecdotal. Common sense tells us that this is likely to be the case. To some extent, however, this may be balanced by the energising and motivational energy that immigrants, in particular, can bring to the classroom and from which all children should benefit.

Just as parental support underpins the success of immigrant and ethnic minority pupils, so, too, does it contribute to the under-achievement of many white British children. Products of a dismal education themselves and, not infrequently, addicted to welfare support, many parents have little interest in education. They see it as the school’s job. Lacking basic literacy and numeracy themselves, some are simply unable to help. Mostly, though, it seems to be a lack of interest and a ‘can’t be bovvered’ attitude.

By chance, as I am writing this blog, an immigrant mum has emailed to me in response to the CentreForum report appearing in the press. She sums up the parent problem rather well:

“Any ‘foreign-to-the-UK’ parent will not be surprised by this [Centreforum report] at all. British working class parents I know simply do not do anything with their children and don’t understand why they should.”

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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