Policymakers’ concern about white working-class boys’ chances of entering higher education in England is based on “manipulation and selective use” of data on students’ backgrounds and academic achievements, an academic says.
Claire Crawford, Bridge research fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Research in Race and Education, claims that mainly white politicians were making “an empathetic commitment to the white working class” – potentially at the expense of students from ethnic minorities.
The prospects of white males from disadvantaged backgrounds has become a priority for politicians, who have warned that white working-class males are less likely to enter university than any other group of school-leavers, and English universities have been required to take action on the issue since 2016.
Dr Crawford says that this concern has been accompanied by a string of national newspaper stories that “repeatedly proclaim that White Britain is under attack [and] under siege by minority ethnic groups whose presence is said to cause specific damage to the white-British working class”.
However, writing in the Journal of Education Policy, Dr Crawford questions whether this focus is backed up by the evidence. “Working-class” children are typically equated with school pupils who are eligible for free school meals, she says, and white males were indeed less likely than any other major ethnic group to achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C.
However, Dr Crawford highlights that, while 60 per cent of British adults consider themselves to be working class, only about one in 10 white children in the UK claims free school meals during their final year of compulsory education.
Black Caribbean children are more than twice as likely to claim free school meals, black African and Pakistani students are about three times as likely, and Bangladeshi students were almost four times as likely.
Dr Crawford says that when all students are considered – not just those eligible for free school meals – white males perform better than their black Caribbean peers. And when examining which students met the government’s “gold standard” of achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and mathematics, white males who are not eligible for free school meals are in fact the third highest-performing ethnic group.
Headlines about the “betrayal” of the white working class, therefore, “dramatically misrepresent the scale of the issue”, Dr Crawford concludes.
“The manipulation and selective use of achievement data…helps to generate and sustain a toxic political climate in which the white working class – or to be precise those 60 per cent who believe themselves to be working class – come to wrongly understand their children as race victims in the nation’s schools,” she writes.
Dr Crawford adds: “[This] analysis…could be interpreted as evidence that the disproportionately white privately or selectively educated government, with the support of the equally white-British media, can be seen making an empathetic commitment to the white working class and their children as a racialised group.”