Underachievement in education by White working class children – submission to the Parliamentary Select Committee


I welcome this opportunity to make a submission to the Education Select Committee inquiry into the educational underachievement of white working class children. 

In summary, the submission

  • ·         Provides information on my background, how I became involved in the needs of the white working class, referring to a number of my research reports and publications;
  • ·         Uses data from Birmingham, as a case study, to highlight the extent of white working class educational underachievement.
  • ·         Calls for a number of possible interventions, namely, greater investment through Positive Action, inclusion of whites into any discussion of multiculturalism and diversity including through the possible convening of a working group of people who would be able to take an anti-racist approach on white identity

My background

I am a practitioner in education and equalities, with over 30 years of involvement. During this period, I have worked in a range of roles including youth worker, teacher, community relations officer, FE lecturer. Since 2000, I have worked as a Consultant for the Forward Partnership, providing support to a range of local and national organisations, including the Department for Education[1] and the Cabinet Office. Between 2001-2011, I was also employed as a Schools Adviser for Birmingham local authority. 

My current work, also focussed on Birmingham, is concerned with the needs of the Pakistani community. This has resulted in the publication of a book: Dear Birmingham[2], which draws attention to Pakistani exclusion. Since 2011, I have been engaged in doctoral research, through University of Warwick, into Pakistani boys’ achievement in the city. The findings are being made available to key stakeholders and will be launched at a national conference on 28 April 2014. 

My involvement in the needs and issues facing the white working class goes back to when I was commissioned by Birmingham Local Authority to produce a report [3]. Later, I had brought the report to the attention of Richard Burden, MP for Birmingham Northfield. His efforts resulted in an Adjournment Debate, on 19 May 2009, one of the few times when Parliament has specifically debated the underachievement of the white working class.


Birmingham as case study

Much of my work has had been focussed on Birmingham, treating the city as a case study. It has been one of the few authorities which has commissioned research and initiatives aimed at the white working class. It is also necessary to point out that Birmingham continues to be a high performing local education authority. For example, in 2012, its pupils achieved 88% 5 A*-C and 60% 5 A*-C with English and Maths which was two percentage points higher than the core cities average. 

Extent of white working class underachievement

Of the tens of thousands of young people who leave school each year, without the benchmark qualifications, the great majority continue to be white. Boys always outnumber girls. The large majority come from poor families and live in deprived neighbourhoods. In the education system they are usually identifiable by the FSM (free school meals) label.

In Birmingham, for the white working class young people, the picture is a typical one. Each year, the Report to the Scrutiny Committee shows white FSM pupils to be the least achieving, with boys at the bottom and the girls second from the bottom. While each year they improve on the previous year, so do most other pupil groups. Therefore, the gap between White FSM and their city peers continues. In fact, it is now getting bigger, as shown in Table 1 below:

Table 1: Gap between white FSM boys and girls and their Birmingham peers, in terms of achievement of 5A*-C at GCSE, including English and Maths

  2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
White FSM boys 27 28 26 26 30
White FSM girls 18 22 24 18 20

                Source: Birmingham City Council[4]

When one looks at 30% White FSM boys leaving school with the benchmark qualifications, it is not difficult to work out that 70% did not. The problem takes on a particular seriousness when one considers the human count, after all that is what parents send to schools, not percentages. In Birmingham, in 2012, out of 4934 pupils leaving school without the benchmark qualifications, the largest group, at 2191, were white (with the second largest, at 1133, being Pakistani).

One does not need to wait until end of their schooling to find out the extent of the problem. According to the Birmingham Scrutiny Report:

Key Stage 2 remains a weakness for white disadvantaged pupils. Although boys in the group made more improvement than the LA in the proportion of pupils achieving level four or above in English (9 percentage points compared to 7 percentage points), they are still 16 percentage points below the LA average   

In summary, white working class:

          are the largest underachieving ethnic group across the country”[5]

          fall behind from the early years

          tend to have the lowest aspirations of all groups[6]

          often attend schools that face additional cost pressures[7]

          do not have sufficient opportunities to participate in extra-curricular and enrichment activities[8]

          are not always included meaningfully in discussion of identity and diversity[9]

Interventions and responses

There is much that needs to be done to address the educational underachievement of white working class. Overall, I have made a case for the development of a strategy which is based on principles of Positive Action[10] in order to address their needs. 

Acknowledgement of the problem: in my 2005 report I recommended that the ‘White’ category should be sub-divided to highlight separately the white working class. While some progress has been made, much more needs to be done when disseminating data and in the subsequent analysis and policy responses.

Investment in schools serving disadvantaged communities: while Pupil Premium has begun to make a difference, much more is needed in terms of investment to help schools meet their resource pressure. They need to be helped to recruit and retain the best quality teachers, through financial and other incentives.

Parenting and family learning: many parents do an amazing job at providing ‘good at home parenting’[11] but need further help. Many of them are the same people who were failed by the education system in the past and now would benefit from second chance education. This calls for greater investment in localised adult education and FE provision as well as universities doing more through their widening participation for mature students.

Inclusive multiculturalism: Schools and others have made a significant contribution on multi-cultural education, resulting in greater societal inclusion and tolerance. But much more needs to be done to bring white communities into the picture when recognising and celebrating diversity. Otherwise, in major towns and cities such as Birmingham, talk of diversity and even super-diversity has the potential of excluding whites and pushing them even closer towards the extremist and racist groups. Since this issue was recognised in the Government-commissioned Ajegbo Report on Diversity and Citizenship, little follow-up action appears to have been taken. I would recommend the convening of a top level working group to advise and guide how an anti-racist approach can be taken within the education system on white identity. At the same time, I would want to guard against the kind of parochialism being promoted through the newly revised curriculum on subjects such as history. In areas such as Birmingham, it is important for young people, across all ethnic groups, to learn local history with a wider backdrop- to learn about British Empire, how their parents and grandparents – across all ethnic groups and social classes – made their contribution.


It is worth stating that we have been here before. We have many years of experience in the education system of responding to underachievement of ethnic minority young people. Much of it, in my view, has the potential of being transferred to the white working class[12]. Furthermore, there are a number of schools across the country who have shown how to effectively respond to the needs of white working class. One such, Colmers School and Sixth Form College, in Birmingham, deserves a particular mention as it was extensively researched by me and other colleagues[13]

It is important to point out that not all white working class pupils underachieve. Some, with right intervention and levels of resilience, do manage to succeed against the odds. But for the thousands of low achievers the prospects can be very bleak indeed:

Consequently many of them have few prospects in the job market. Not surprisingly, they may end up unemployed and vulnerable, and a proportion will become single parents or involved in drugs and crime. For many of them being full members of society will be difficult. Young offenders and the prison population generally are disproportionately those who were excluded from school or had poor educational results. Low achievement is a misfortune for the individuals concerned and a considerable social problem. The costs to society of not addressing the issues discussed here are high.”[14]



[1] Iqbal K (2000). Consultations with Black and Minority Ethnic Voluntary Organisations about the New Connexions Service Home Office and DfEE; Iqbal K (2009): Equality and diversity issues within Family Intervention Projects – some observations on advice in publications, and from Key Workers DfE

[2] Iqbal K (2013). Dear Birmingham – a conversation with My Hometown Xlibris Publishing

[3] Iqbal K (2005). Underachievement of White Disadvantaged Pupils in Birmingham

[4] Overview and Scrutiny Committee (2013). Examination and Assessment Results 2013 Birmingham City Council

[5] Cassen R and Kingdon G (2007). Tackling low educational achievement Joseph Rowntree Foundation

[6]Strand, S. & Winston, J. (2008). Educational aspirations in inner city schools.  Educational Studies, 34, (4), 249-267.

[7] Ofsted (2000). Improving City Schools

[8] DCSF (2009). Deprivation and Education

[9] Maylor U et al (2007). Diversity and Citizenship in the Curriculum: Research Review DFES

[10] Iqbal K (2010). White working class underachievement- a case for Positive Action, Forward Partnership

[11] Desforges  C, Abouchaar A (2003). The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievement and Adjustment: A Literature Review DFES

[12] Iqbal K (2010). White working class needs the minority treatment Times Educational Supplement 5 November   

[13] Iqbal K (2012). Addressing white working class underachievement – its not rocket science Amazon Kindle

[14] Cassen R and Kingdon G (2007). Tackling low educational achievement Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.