Last week the House of Commons Select Committee on Education produced an important report entitled Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children.

It charts a story of opportunities lost and potential denied to a huge number of children in the UK because they do badly at school relative to other children. In a world where education and exam results are ever more related to life chances, it should serve as a rallying call to everyone who cares about opportunity for young people.

Why does the report focus on the white working class you might ask? Why not the working class as a whole? The Committee gives two reasons. Firstly because white working class children are by far the biggest group within the working class and therefore if they are underachieving it affects the biggest number of children. Secondly because the gap between educational achievement between working class children and better off children varies hugely across different ethnic groups and is worse for white working class children than many others.

One other point before setting out key points in the report. The definition used for working class in the report is children on free school meals. Access to free school meals is dependent on being on certain benefits. The Committee acknowledges this is an imperfect definition as many working class children are not on free school meals but says it is the best available approximation on which results data are gathered.

And so to the report itself.

It says “PISA 2009 (the international comparison of education results) has shown that in England the impact of a student’s socio-economic background is significantly higher than the OECD average: countries such as Hong Kong, Canada Finland, Iceland and Korea all do better for their socially and economically disadvantaged students than England does.”

The first question is why is this such a big factor in England when it has less of an impact on achievement in other countries?

The key education measure aged 16 is how many pupils get 5 good GCSEs including England and Maths (known as Key Stage 4 in the jargon).

For white pupils as a whole, 64.5% achieve this measure. For white children on free school meals the figure is just 32.3% leaving an attainment gap of 32.2%. Put another way, only half the proportion of white children on free school meals achieve the benchmark standards compared to those not eligible for free school meals.

For Indian children (that is children from an Indian background in English schools) the gap between these two groups is just 15.7%. Indian children on free school meals attain almost the same results as white children not on free school meals.

And when it comes to Chinese children there is almost no gap at all. In fact Chinese children on free school meals achieve exam results higher than any other group (76.8% of them get five good GCSEs) -; except for the Chinese children who are not on free school meals (78.2% of them get five good GCSEs) and even then the attainment gap is just 1.4%.

The conclusion: the attainment gap based on social economic status does not affect all children in the same way. Simply putting underachievement down to economic status doesn’t work as an explanation.

The report also says it makes a “dramatic” difference what school the children attend in terms of Ofsted ratings. Just 25% of children on Free School meals at a school rated inadequate will get five good GCSEs. In a school rated outstanding by Ofsted that figure will be 50%. For non Free school meals children these figures are 47% and 75%.

The report concludes that “twice the proportion of poor children attending an outstanding school will leave with five good GCSEs when compared with the lowest rated schools, whereas the proportion of non Free School Meal children achieving this benchmark is only 1.5 times greater than in those rated as inadequate.”

In other words, the better the school in terms of Ofsted ratings the closer the gap in terms of attainment between poorer and better off children. The more schools an area can have that are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, the better the life chances they will be giving the children who attend them.

This is a particularly important point for Wolverhampton because Ofsted’s annual report last year showed that the city’s children had a lower proportion of primary schools rated good or outstanding than any other area in England. If we can change that picture and get more of our city’s schools to be rated good or outstanding we can make a direct contribution to raising opportunity for all children but particularly for low income white working class children who are underachieving at present.

The report is stronger on analysis of the problem than it is on solutions. It runs through known issues which affect attainment such as parental encouragement, skills and language in the home, space to do homework, and good attendance records. The key point is attainment will rest on a balance of what happens in school and in the home -; and if the home environment is not conducive to learning then extending the school day could make a real difference to educational opportunity.

On the geographical distribution of underachievement, head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw has said it has shifted away from the big cities and is now most concentrated in “deprived coastal towns and rural, less populous regions of the country”. This is not going to fix itself. A good start to a response would be to make sure resources are spent where they are most needed and the most talented teaching graduates encouraged to work where they are most needed.

This is an important report because it goes to the heart of how opportunity is distributed among the country’s young people. Educational underachievement is not preordained. It affects different ethnic groups to a greater or lesser degree and is hugely influenced by how good a school children attend. That is cause for both concern and hope. Funding, leadership and a sense of mission can stop the scandal of talent unused and life chances denied. If we can get more schools locally to be rated good or outstanding we can make a real impact on expanding opportunity for the poorest children in our city and give them a better chance in life. What better mission could a city have?

(25th June 2014)

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