The extent to which white children from poor families are being let down by the British state-education sector was revealed last week with the publication of a parliamentary report, Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children. The findings show that white children on free school meals (an indicator of economic disadvantage) are ‘consistently the lowest performing group in the country’ with only 32 per cent achieving five or more good GCSEs, compared with 64.5 per cent of white British children not on free school meals. This attainment ‘gap’ is wider for white British children than any other ethnic group.
That close to 70 per cent of children eligible for free school meals will not meet the bare minimum of academic expectations after 12 years in formal education is truly appalling. Yet there is some good news buried in this latest report: schools make a difference. If poor children go to a school considered to be outstanding, they are twice as likely to do well at GCSE level than they would do otherwise. As the report spells out: ‘A good school and good teaching can have a significantly positive effect on the educational attainment of [free school meals] children.’
Unfortunately, the important role schools can play in overcoming economic disadvantage is lost in the litany of excuses for the attainment gap provided by the headteachers, union leaders, campaigning groups and academics who contributed to the report. More shocking than the poor performance of the children is the abdication of responsibility and the apportioning of blame practised by these esteemed members of the educational establishment. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has the gall to argue that the problem of educational failure is simply ‘not of schools’ making’ and that ‘they cannot solve it by themselves’.
The easiest target for buck-passing is, of course, parents. The Sutton Trust, a charity that aims to improve social mobility through education, makes the preposterous and unsubstantiated claim that 40 per cent of children miss out on ‘the parenting needed to succeed in life’. Working-class parents are accused of not talking to their children enough and not using a suitably wide vocabulary. They are blamed for being insufficiently ‘sharp elbowed’ and not choosing the right school for their child. They are condemned for condoning truancy and lateness, for sending children to school without the approved amount of sleep or an officially sanctioned breakfast.
The point is made repeatedly that children spend the majority of their time outside of school so therefore the blame for educational failure lies squarely with the parents. Headteacher Vic Goddard, of Educating Essex fame, is one of many who argue that children ‘spend four times as long at home… as they do in school’. This is undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t take into account the need for children to sleep, eat, wash and dress, as well as physically get to and from school. Nor does it recognise that the reason for the existence of schools is the education of children: it’s what teachers are trained and paid to do.