What place for white children in talk of diversity, identity, and educational underachievement?

Reading the Runnymede Trust (2020) report by Remi Joseph-Salisbury, reminded me of another area dear to my heart; that of the white working class underachievement. Professionally my interest dates around 2001. This was when I made a submission to the Birmingham Stephen Lawrence Commission, where I had said that we should not neglect the poor whites. Later, when I joined  the Birmingham Advisory and Support Service as an Equality Adviser. The service already had two Achievement Groups in place: African Caribbean and Asian. A couple of years after arriving there, I instigated the White Achievement Group (launched 26 January 2004).

Soon after, 20 May, I was at the ‘Raising Achievement – towards a whole school agenda’ seminar. There were another 34 delegates, from across the country. They had titles such as: Raising Achievement Coordinator, Head of Service, Ethnic Minority Achievement, Race Equality Education Coordinator.  

After the Chair’s opening comments, an officer from the Aiming High Project at DfES, began proceedings. Her session was entitled:  Raising achievement – the national context. She put up a slide with bar charts: Deprivation, ethnicity & achievement. The data provided the details of the 2003 GCSE Cohort: proportion achieving 5+ A*-C GCSE/GNVQs for pupils with PLASC record. The shortest bar was for White British free school meals (20.4%) and the longest bar was Chinese non-FSM (75.7).

The second session ‘Deconstructing underachievement’ by a university professor and other sessions on making sense of monitoring, effective parental engagement, the critical role of Afro-Caribbean teachers and towards a whole school agenda; none of the speakers nor the delegates made any reference whatsoever to the white underachievement. My own role at the time was ‘Lead Adviser Equalities’, with a focus on ethnic minority underachievement.

‘Championing’ the white working class

Upon return to my office, I investigated the published data and concluded that both nationally and locally poor white boys and girls, i.e. those on free school meals, were the lowest achieving group. I instigated the practice of focussing on numbers of children rather than percentages. I was of the view that this was a better way of drawing attention to the fact that these children were all individuals, who had been entrusted to the school system by their parents and which, in turn, had let them down.

The report I produced showed the very large numbers of white children (the largest group locally and nationally) leaving school without the benchmark qualifications i.e. 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C. Worse than this my report showed that nationally 25,000 white children left school with ‘no passes’ whatsoever (with 1194 Black and 601 Pakistani), meanwhile in Birmingham 486 white children left with ‘no passes’ (with 89 Pakistani and 56 Black).

I also showed that there was a correlation between white underachievement and support for extremist political parties (British National Party and the National Front). The most recent data had shown that 1815 people had voted for these two parties in the Sheldon Ward and 1633 in Kingstanding; both these areas had high levels of white underachievement. Several other wards also had significant extremist support and underachievement: Oscott (1515), Hodge Hill (1420), Stechford (1339).    

The report stated: “A number of teachers described how their schools had implemented policies that directly targeted white working-class students.” It goes onto recommend that “Policies that focus specifically on the attainment of white working-class students should not come at the expense of BME students.” I agree. The focus should be determined by the data on who is underachieving, who needs what help and who needs more resources than other children (yes positive discrimination if you wish to label it).   In my view best people to lead on this work are those who are racially literate especially those who engage with concepts such as whiteness and diversity.

Following the report, I made a several presentations and wrote numerous articles. This included: White Plight (BVSC Update July/August 2008); White Working Class- a Case for Positive Action (BVSC Update March 2011) and White Working-Class discrimination (Equal Opportunities Review February 2011).

In 2008, the then Head of Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, came to Birmingham to make a speech at the site of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by Enoch Powell, 40 years before. I made a comment from the floor, about my work. The newspaper reported my comment and referred to me as the champion of the white working class.

I quoted from my report that “there is hardly a single voice being raised about this tragic state of affairs (meaning white underachievement) from anywhere, locally or nationally, sometime with the sad exception of the extreme right who purport to represent this constituency”. Coincidentally, a few days later Mr Phillips wrote an article on the subject.

The most significant of my articles was a two-page spread in the Times Educational Supplement      

My 15 minutes (well a couple of hours) fame

I was of the view that the White Working Class had been abandoned by New Labour. I wanted to change that. With the help of the Headteacher of Colmers School, I arranged to see Richard Burden,  MP for Northfield. I presented my research to him and persuaded him to raise the matter at Parliament. He agreed, by using the Adjournment debate route. Normally it takes a very long-time to be selected for this, but he got lucky. I worked with his office on the speech he would make, on 19 May 2009: White Disadvantaged Pupils (Birmingham).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) responded for the government. She listed several ways in which the government was responding already and promised to do more. On the matter of providing “opportunities for disadvantaged white pupils to celebrate their culture and identity”, she pointed to the Extra Mile initiative as one of the ways disadvantaged pupils, especially white, were being catered for.  Sadly, the government changed the following year otherwise who knows what might have happened because of my report.   Since then my work has shifted focus, namely to my doctoral research related to the education of British Pakistani boys. However, I did make a submission to the House of Commons enquiry published as Underachievement in Education by White Working-Class Children (2015).

Nationally, several other reports have been produced by researchers much more capable than I and with a lot more resources at their disposal. The most longstanding work I know of has been happening at Lambeth Council, under the leadership of Dr Feyisa Demie.

The National College for School Leadership produced several excellent reports on the subject.

The National Union of Teachers published Opening Locked Doors– educational achievement and white working class young people.

Ofsted published ‘White boys from low-income backgrounds: good practice in schools’.

In 2009, the Runnymede Trust asked: Who cares about the White Working Class?

In a Foreword to the report the Vice-Chair Kate Gavron stated:

“The poor white working class share many more problems with the poor from minority ethnic communities than some of them recognize. All the most disadvantaged groups must be helped to improve their joint lot. Competition between them, real or imagined, is just a distraction.”

The absent presence of white in the talk on diversity and identity

In my report I had pointed out the omission of white children and their identity in the talk on multicultural education. I had recommended that “when addressing equality and race equality in particular one must not ignore the needs of the white population, especially those who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods”.  

This view was confirmed by Keith Ajegbo and colleagues in their report of diversity and citizenship.

The following are a few quotes from their report:

All children and young people need to understand their identities and feel a sense of belonging – as important for an indigenous white pupil as a newly arrived immigrant.

But we have emerged in a new world in which there is worse underachievement by white working-class boys

It makes no sense in our report to focus on minority ethnic pupils without trying to address and understand the issues for white pupils. It is these white pupils whose attitudes are overwhelmingly important in creating community cohesion. Nor is there any advantage in creating confidence in minority ethnic pupils if it leaves white pupils feeling disenfranchised and resentful.

Many indigenous white pupils have negative perceptions of their own identity. We spoke to one white British pupil in Year 3, for instance, who, after hearing in a class discussion how the rest of the class came from countries such as the Congo, Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago and Poland, said that she ‘came from nowhere’.

In the case of white working-class boys, their sense of linkage with a tangible history is often as absent as – or even more absent than – for other groups.

White pupils in areas where the ethnic composition of their neighbourhood is very

mixed, or made up predominantly of different ethnic groups, often suffer labelling and discrimination, giving them a different take on how we live together.

They can feel beleaguered and marginalised, finding their own identities under threat as much as minority ethnic children might not have theirs recognised.

If we want community cohesion and for the UK to be at ease with its diversity, as much thought and resource for education for diversity need to be located with the needs of indigenous white pupils as with pupils from minority ethnic groups.

Considerable support is channelled into inner city, multicultural schools, but predominantly white schools need support for education for diversity too.

The diversity of the indigenous white population is also key to the diversity of the UK and should be studied.

Teachers need to be able, in different contexts, to promote the identities and self-worth of indigenous white pupils, white working class pupils, mixed heritage pupils and minority (and sometimes majority) ethnic pupils, and at the same time to be aware of religion and the multiple identities we all live with.

Critical literacy is crucial: if you are white, for example, living in a white area, how do you relate what you see on the television to your idea of being British and the nature of British society?

Schools need additional help and support. To develop schools’ approaches to education for diversity further, and to work with local authorities in predominantly white areas around diversity issues, new approaches need to be developed.

It is also perpetuated by factors such as economic deprivation; feelings of marginalisation within the community exacerbated by housing allocation; a lack of community and school engagement; a perception that their identities are not being affirmed in school; low literacy levels and parental low aspiration of their children’s education.


As I finish this blog, I note that the current government has commissioned another enquiry into education of white working-class children. As has been said in response to their setting up a commission on race inequalities, they would have been better to implement the recommendations of the previous report. It had pointed out that, compared to other ethnic groups, white working-class British children are less resilient in the face of poverty, deprivation, and low socioeconomic status.