Opening the Stable Doors after the Horse is already Knackered?

Opening Locked Doors: Educational achievement and white working class young people go here.

On 18th January the National Union of Teachers held its Parliamentary Launch of its new policy document ‘Opening Locked Doors: Educational Achievement and White Working Class Young People’. Chaired by Jon Cruddas MP for Dagenham, it reflected a belated recognition by the Government of the importance of social class position on differential educational achievement.

The elephant in the room was the growing influence of the BNP in constituencies such as Dagenham and the desperate need to provide (especially young) white unskilled and semi-skilled workers with some sense of identity, self-respect and hope for the future.

 

Based on research carried out by the Universities of Manchester and Sussex and the Institute of Education at the University of London, the NUT had brought together academics and practising Headteachers under a project agreed with the National College for Leadership in Schools and Children’s Services.

Opening the Stable Doors after the Horse is already Knackered?

Opening Locked Doors: Educational achievement and white working class young people go here.

On 18th January the National Union of Teachers held its Parliamentary Launch of its new policy document ‘Opening Locked Doors: Educational Achievement and White Working Class Young People’. Chaired by Jon Cruddas MP for Dagenham, it reflected a belated recognition by the Government of the importance of social class position on differential educational achievement.

The elephant in the room was the growing influence of the BNP in constituencies such as Dagenham and the desperate need to provide (especially young) white unskilled and semi-skilled workers with some sense of identity, self-respect and hope for the future.

 

Based on research carried out by the Universities of Manchester and Sussex and the Institute of Education at the University of London, the NUT had brought together academics and practising Headteachers under a project agreed with the National College for Leadership in Schools and Children’s Services.

Class: a pervasive influence

The research recognised that social class background was much more of a pervasive influence on educational achievement than either gender or ethnicity. Yet the 2005 Government White Paper ‘Higher Standards: Better Schools for All’ had ignored the need for resources to be directed towards areas of social deprivation as such. The NUT report argued that ‘the only group not offered specific additional support was white working class pupils’.

It continued by identifying that ‘there continues to be a group of people in society whose children are extremely likely to reproduce the social and economic conditions of their parents’ lives, if not see a deterioration in life conditions relative to their parents’.

In her analysis of Government policies, Dr Gillian Evan’s of the University of Manchester argued that ‘Part of the problem is that Black and Asian young people in Britain are typically classified, for example in statistics and reports about education, in terms of their race, religion, ethnicity … and cultural background. White young people in contrast, are usually described in terms of their social class position. This means, by default, that young white people in Britain appear to have no ethnicity or culture at all, except insofar as they are not non-white immigrants from the Commonwealth and the class position of black and Asian young people is rendered irrelevant’. She concluded that ‘Perhaps, then, black and white working class boys have far more in common than anyone ever thought to imagine, and perhaps part of what they share is the challenge of having to overcome at school and in university … an institutional class prejudice’.

Referring to her earlier research for her book ‘Education Failure in Working Class White Children in Britain’ Dr Evans commented ‘white, working class people are divided amongst themselves and across closely defined ideas of territory, lamenting the death of their community and struggling desperately to define their way of life against the increasing influence of immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean …. white working class people crying out in defiance of this victory [the success of multiculturalism]: ‘What about us?’ ‘Why are we feeling under threat in our own neighbourhoods?’ ‘What about our way of life?’ and even ‘What about our culture?’’

Cultural backlash

It is this ‘cultural backlash’ that the BNP exploit in their attempt to appoint themselves as the champions of the ‘indigenous Britons’. However Dr Evans argues that ‘The challenge for educationalists is to understand these forces, to gain an appreciation of their complexity and history in particular locations; to acknowledge the concerns of the white working classes in Britain and to avoid the temptation (in a multicultural climate) to force the white working class to have to conceive of themselves as a new ‘ethnic group’. A more productive and perhaps necessary strategy, in the short term, is to find a language that makes it possible to support and follow the lead of those collective organisations in working class neighbourhoods and elsewhere that aim to bring black, white and Asian people together in their common struggle for improvements in health, housing, schooling, neighbourhoods and employment conditions, etc. … and employment is crucial’.

However Dr Evans also explores another often unasked question: ‘Why are working class people relatively poor?’ This question, Dr Evans believes, forces us to focus on the decline of manufacturing and industrial employment in many working class areas of the country and on the fact that the people who relied on labour in these economies are now communities in transition to a service economy which is, itself, in deep recession.

 

Inequality and education

The NUT report argues correctly that ‘The increasing inequality in the United Kingdom over the past three decades is a substantial cause of why millions of girls and boys are growing up in deprivation in one of the wealthiest countries in the world … The share of income for the bottom 80 percent of households has declined slightly but steadily over this period while the share of the top 20 percent has risen from 34.7 percent to 41 percent. United Nations data from 2007-08 shows that the United Kingdom was tied with Italy and Lithuania for the 3rd most unequal society in the European Union, above only Latvia and Portugal’.

The NUT report of course is weakest when it comes to consideration of how such inequalities can be overcome. Necessary as it is for schools and the staff who work within them to implement the recommendations advocated by the Union, it will take far more than this to combat the rising tide of the far-right in Britain.

The BNP are successfully appealing to a nostalgia for ‘the Labour Party that used to be’. As Dr Evans responded to comments from the audience at the Parliamentary Launch, ‘If the Labour movement is lost all that remains is a multiculturalism that creates a vacuum for the BNP to exploit’.

While the subtitle of the Government’s ‘Extra Mile’ pamphlet , ‘how schools succeed in raising aspirations in deprived communities’, indicates that it is finally listening to the evidence of research into the impact of social class position on educational achievement, it will be far from enough to repair the damaging effect that increasing social division has had over the past 30 years.