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The Tories want to talk about failing working class students? Bring it on.

Instead of blaming 'white privilege' for neglecting disadvantaged white schoolkids, maybe Tory MPs should check their party's recent history.

23 Jun 2021

A day ending in ‘y’ brings with it another desperate Tory attempt to deflect from their own failures. 

Yesterday, a report claiming to examine the continued underperformance of “white working class pupils” in England was published by the Education Select Committee , despite opposition of all four Labour MPs on the body who “disowned” the document. It was a masterclass in obfuscation; off the bat the report attempted to attribute the educational underachievement of poor white British children to the mythical spectre of ‘reverse racism’. White British children from low-income backgrounds are falling behind, it suggested, specifically thanks to the use of the term “white privilege”. 

“We are concerned that the phrase may be alienating to disadvantaged White communities, and it may have contributed towards a systemic neglect of White people facing hardship who also need specific support,” the report stated. 

“They want to talk about failing the white working class? Then let’s talk about it”

At this point, I could spend some time outlining the real definition of ‘white privilege’, which simply suggests that people racialised as ‘white’ won’t experience oppression because of the colour of their skin, rather than suggesting their lives will be free from other forms of discrimination. Or I could cite the myriad and bemused teachers who came forward to refute claims of ‘white privilege’ ever making an appearance in classrooms filled with disadvantaged white children (something the report couldn’t provide evidence of either). 

But why waste time firing blindly into well-defended Tory trenches when I can eschew the culture war altogether and instead say: they want to talk about failing the white working class? Then let’s talk about it. I’m glad they brought it up, in fact, because I’ve been dying to talk about this for a fucking hot minute. And why simply stop at just the white working class? As we know, the Tories simply hate to make divisions along racial lines. So let’s just talk about working class students full stop. 

The Tories have been in power for over a decade. It’s Tory cuts and underfunding responsible for creating a deprived social class of people whose options are being stymied in and out of the classroom. Since 2009, school spending per child in England has fallen by 9% to an average of £6,100, the largest cut since the 1980s (in comparison, Scotland spends £7,300 per pupil). Austerity measures – the baby of blank-faced David Cameron – ripped through England’s schooling systems from 2010 to 2020, hitting the poorest hardest. 

Funding for the most deprived schools shrunk by 10% from 2010 to 2019, despite programmes like ‘Pupil Premium’ being introduced in 2011 to address the attainment gap via financial boosters. Last year, 900,000 households applied for free school meals (the measure by which the Education Committee defined ‘working class’ in their report), on top of the 1.4 million already claiming them, with Bangladeshi and Pakistani children most likely to be living in “material deprivation”.

Covid-19 has only served to widen the gulf in attainment between the poorest and their wealthier peers, thanks in large part to a lack of government support. Schools had to privately fundraise for equipment for low-income families to be able to engage in home-learning, after the government was accused of failing to provide the right materials to all households that needed them. A 2020 study from the National Foundation for Educational Research found that the learning gap had increased during the pandemic to an estimated 46% between disadvantaged students and those from comfortable backgrounds. 

“The Tories have been in power for over a decade. It’s Tory cuts and underfunding responsible for creating a deprived social class of people whose options are being stymied in and out of the classroom”

It is not “lazy”, as Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Committee, suggests, to attribute educational attainment gaps to poverty. It is borne out in data from the last ten years. While the Tories flail about in ideological warfare, at least 4.3 million children – disproportionately from minority ethnic groups – are living in poverty. 

Even their ‘solutions’ to educational underachievement show the height of disdain for the people they’re elected to represent – and our short term memories. The Education Committee report calls for the creation of a national infrastructure of “Family Hubs’, local support centres where “families with children and young people aged 0–19 can access a broad and integrated range of early help”.

Funny – ‘Family Hubs’ sound suspiciously similar to New Labour’s flagship ‘SureStart’ programme, which invested £1.8bn into 3,600 local children’s centres designed to “boost the educational and life chances of socially and economically disadvantaged children”. Up to 1,400 SureStart centres are estimated to have closed in England since the Tories came to power, while services in those remaining open have been significantly cut thanks to the pressures of austerity on local government funding.

Once examined in the light, ‘Family Hubs’ are not the only Tory measure that falls far short at addressing the educational attainment crisis. A much-touted £1.4bn “catch-up” fund, allocated by the Tories to rectify the impact of Covid-19 on the most disadvantaged students, has been rubbished by teachers as a “tenth” of what’s needed. The sum – which works out to £50 per pupil – was so paltry in comparison to the recommended £15bn per year, the government’s own ‘catch-up tsar’, Sir Kevan Collins, resigned in protest. Similarly, the social mobility programme Uni Connect, which seeks to increase higher education participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, had its government funding cut by a third this year.

Of course, there are factors that intersect with poverty to act as further barriers to educational achievement. But they fall under the umbrella of deprivation: geographic inequality, particularly in rural and coastal areas, precarious housing situations, limited – and expensive – public transport, a lack of job prospects, and vocational alternatives to higher education.

“It’s the cheapest of tricks to try and pit the ‘white’ working class against people of colour in similar situations of scarcity”

When looking for the source of these increasing miseries, a grim paper trail of evidence seems to lead back to the doors of Conservative Party HQ every time. Don’t forget that less than a year ago, over 300 Tory politicians voted against feeding England’s poorest children – some of them the very same students cited in the Education Committee’s report – over the school holidays. When browbeaten into a U-turn the government then outsourced the continued provision of food to a company who provided rations akin to that of a Victorian pauper’s. Starvation isn’t conducive to getting an A on your maths test. 

It’s the cheapest of tricks to try and pit the ‘white’ working class against people of colour in similar situations of scarcity. The Tories have been increasingly relying on this ‘divide and rule tactic’ as financial inequality widens in the UK and they flail to point fingers anywhere but at themselves. The likelihood is, it will succeed in some spaces – that’s how systems of white supremacy operate, by blasting through ready-made class solidarities. 

But please, let’s cut through the noise and get real. Cruel and consistent Conservative cuts have created this mess for England’s most disadvantaged school kids – many of whom are of colour – not the concept of ‘white privilege’. Perhaps low-income students would be better served if Robert Halfon and co. spent less time fuelling culture wars and went back to the classroom for some lessons in cause and effect.

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