MPs investigating underachievement among disadvantaged white pupils in England have been told that the communities they come from are suffering “a status deficit” and the use of terms like “white privilege” could create further problems.
Prof Matthew Goodwin, who has written on populism, immigration and Euroscepticism, was giving evidence to a virtual hearing of the Commons cross-party education committee.
He told MPs the national conversation in the last 10 years had become “much more consumed with other groups” and disadvantaged white families felt they were not afforded the same recognition, respect and esteem as others.
White pupils from poor communities – in particular boys – perform worse on average at school than their peers from most other ethnic backgrounds. The Department for Education’s 2018 GCSE performance statistics show that while the national average attainment score across eight subjects was 46.5, white boys who are eligible for free school meals score an average of just 28.5.
Goodwin, who is professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, said terms like “white privilege” and “toxic masculinity” signalled to poorer white communities that they were the problem.
“If we are now going to start teaching them in school that not only do they have to overcome the various economic and social barriers within their communities, but they also need to start apologising for belonging to a wider group which also strips away their individual agency, then I think we are going to compound many of these problems.
“My fear now is with the onset of new terms – toxic masculinity, white privilege – this is even actually going to become more of a problem as we send yet another signal to these communities that they are the problem.”
Prof Diane Reay, emeritus professor of education at the University of Cambridge, said white working class communities did not have any sense of being powerful, or having any power in wider society. “I think there’s growing levels of social resentment and a sense of being left behind among white working classes.”
Dr Sam Baars, director of research and operations at the Centre for Education and Youth, told the committee he did not see whiteness as a marker of disadvantage, and that at other stages in education those gaps were flipped on their head.
Dr Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, who also gave evidence to the committee, said later: “I do think we should avoid pitching one working class group against another – this shouldn’t be positioned somehow as a zero-sum game. As I argued we’ve created a narrow academic race system that is unwinnable for white working class communities.”
Prof Kalwant Bhopal, director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education at the University of Birmingham, commenting after the hearing, added: “This argument presents a discourse that you cannot discuss race and class together.
“It suggests a hierarchy of oppression which ignores the evidence that Black, Indian and Pakistani/Bangladeshi poor working class pupils are disadvantaged in their educational experiences due to the structural and institutional racism they experience.
“Furthermore, it is not white working class groups who are the most disadvantaged, it is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups who have the worst outcomes at all stages of their educational experiences.”
Tuesday’s hearing was the first in a seres of a series of inquiries by the education committee into the issues faced by disadvantaged and left behind groups who are likely to be disproportionately affected by the impact of Covid-19 on education and children’s services.