A report published by a group of British MPs has caused controversy by suggesting that discussing concepts such as “white privilege” in school has contributed to white pupils from low-income backgrounds falling behind in their academic achievement.
The report titled, “The forgotten: how white working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it” was published on Tuesday by the UK parliament’s education committee — a cross-party group of politicians whose role it is to scrutinise education policy.
It concludes that white pupils from low-income families are “far from privileged” because of data that reveals lower exam scores and lower levels of participation in university education.
But while these comments on privilege dominated press coverage, the report also pointed to inter-generational family poverty, a lack of community assets and social organisations, a lack of job prospects, and parents with low levels of "educational experience and engagement", as among the reasons this group of pupils could be struggling at school.
Critics of this report have therefore said that focusing on any recent use of terminology to better understand racial inequality, such as “white privilege”, is distracting from the real issues impacting education.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of a union representing school head teachers, said the focus on discussions about race was “likely to divert attention from the rest of the report."
Meanwhile Maurice Mcleod, chief executive of Race on the Agenda, an anti-racist campaigning organisation, told the Guardian he felt the report was “just the latest government salvo in the culture war it seems hellbent on stoking.”
“Instead of honestly accepting that children from all backgrounds have been badly let down by decades of neglect, this report attempts to create unhelpful divides between children based on their race,” Mcleod said.
Others, such as Professor Kalwant Bhopal, an expert in race and education, have argued that focusing on exam results doesn’t tell the whole story of the ways that racism impacts young people’s life chances.
“Black Caribbean pupils are five times more likely to be excluded [from school] in some areas in England compared with other groups, and teachers consistently fail to address the overt racism that many Black pupils experience in schools,” she wrote in an article in March on the same topic.
She also noted recent research finding that UK schools have recorded over 60,000 incidents of racism in the past five years.
What is “white privilege”?
The education committee’s report says it is "concerned the phrase ‘white privilege’ may be alienating to disadvantaged white communities" who do not feel privileged in their lives — resulting in a knock-on effect in education.
But this is a mischaracterisation of what the term means. It does not mean that everyone who is white is well-off and experiences no hardship or difficulties in life. “White privilege” instead refers to how white people won’t experience additional issues in their life resulting from racism, as Kehinde Andrews, Black studies professor at the University of Birmingham, explains for the BBC.
#WhitePrivilege is really a straightforward concept. As @JohnAmaechi says here: “it doesn’t mean that your life isn’t hard or you’ve never suffered. It simply means that your skin colour has not been the cause of your hardship or suffering”.pic.twitter.com/w3xsuyxwam— Dr Nisreen Alwan 🌻 (@Dr2NisreenAlwan) June 22, 2021
As John Amaechi, a psychologist and author, explains in this video widely shared on social media after the education committee report was published, any form of privilege is better understood as an “absence of inconvenience.” While you can be a white person who has suffered, “your skin colour has not been the cause of your suffering,” he says.
But if discussions about white privilege are not at the root of educational underachievement, what does hold children from poorer families in the UK back at school?
As footballer Marcus Rashford has so successfully brought to national attention — food poverty has a massive impact on children's development and ability to learn.
Last summer Rashford’s taskforce against child food poverty backed the recommendations in the government-commissioned National Food Strategy. It recommended that the government expands access to the free school meals programme in order to deal with rising child food poverty that had been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The effects of hunger on young bodies and minds are serious and long-lasting,” the National Food Strategy report said.
Only the poorest pupils are eligible for free school meals, so thousands of families who receive benefits or who are on low incomes are excluded from the scheme, which ensures a child gets one hot meal a day while at school.
COVID-19 has made families more vulnerable to food poverty. Research done by the think tank the Food Foundation had found that by May 2020 over 200,000 children had been forced to skip meals during the UK’s first lockdown, which started in late March.
But it was an issue before the pandemic too — in a 2019 survey of over 8,000 teachers more than half (57%) said their pupils were hungry at school because of poverty.
Meanwhile food bank use in general has increased over the years. In 2010, the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank network, handed out 41,000 parcels of food, but by 2017, that number had grown to 1.2 million.
Libraries are a free community resource for learning — not only providing access to books, but to computers and internet access.
But it’s not only community libraries that are threatened. Research commissioned by the Great School Libraries campaign in 2019 found that 1 in 8 schools do not have a library, and it’s schools in lower-income areas that are more likely to not have one.
The children’s author Cressida Cowell said of the research, “inequality in library provision is a social mobility time bomb.”
“Nobody has yet answered this question for me: if a child’s parents cannot afford books, if there isn’t a library in their school, and they don’t have opportunities to visit a public library, how on earth can they become a reader for pleasure?” she added.
Cuts to school budgets
Last September, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an economics research institute, said that schools serving more financially deprived areas had “seen the largest falls in spending per pupil in the last decade.”
School spending per pupil in England fell by 9% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2019–20, the IFS says.
Looking forward, the government announced plans in 2019 to inject schools in England with a funding boost, allocating an extra £7.1 billion through to 2022–23. However, the IFS research finds that this will actually benefit schools in poorer areas less — with schools serving poorer communities seeing funding increases that will be 3% to 4% lower than those in more affluent areas.
According to the campaign group Stop School Cuts, a coalition of schools and education unions, the reduction in funding over time has impacted education because it has meant “fewer adults in the classroom providing essential teaching support, larger class sizes, and less funding per pupil each year.”
As well as cuts to schools, wider issues contributing to rising child poverty such as poor housing and cuts to early years centres called “Sure Start” have been cited by critics of the report and opposition MPs as more pressing reasons why disadvantaged pupils might be falling behind.
Sure Start centres provide learning and play opportunities for children under 5. A report from the charity Action for Children in 2019 found that the numbers of children accessing them had fallen by 22% in the 30 most deprived local council areas in the previous five years.