Set targets for white working-class access, MPs tell regulator

Education Committee says Office for Students must take tougher action on dearth of disadvantaged white pupils entering higher education

June 22, 2021
Archery target
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England’s sector regulator should set specific targets to improve the entry rate of white working-class students to higher education, MPs say.

The House of Commons Education Committee says in a report that white working-class students have been let down by “decades of neglect” and that the large number of disadvantaged white British pupils who underachieve in education “remains a significant obstacle to closing the overall attainment gap”.

In the report, the committee notes that the proportion of white British pupils who were eligible for free school meals who had entered higher education by the age of 19 in 2018-19 was 16 per cent, the lowest of any ethnic group other than Travellers of Irish heritage and Gypsy/Roma.

The committee says the Office for Students must implement a target for “inclusion of pupils from disadvantaged white backgrounds, to ensure that white working-class students’ participation in HE is a key priority for all universities”.

The committee says it is “concerned to hear that higher education providers are failing to tackle this problem proactively” through their access and participation plans. The OfS should therefore review how providers are held to account on supporting all disadvantaged groups in higher education, ensuring that white students complete their courses successfully and continue on to good careers, the report says.

The OfS should report to Parliament in a year’s time on its progress towards the targets and measures, it adds.

The report does acknowledge that while relatively high numbers of students from ethnic minority backgrounds do go to university, they are more likely to drop out. The committee advocates focusing widening participation efforts on geographic-based measures, “which will be more effective at targeting the barriers faced by working-class communities, including majority white communities, in left-behind areas”.

Recent analysis from the OfS showed that white disadvantaged students from former industrial towns and cities across the north and the Midlands, or coastal towns, had the lowest rates of participation in higher education, while the entry rate for poor white students in London was nearly 8 percentage points higher than any other region.

Although the report acknowledges that the participation rate for disadvantaged white pupils “is a clear indictment of the failures and attainment gaps that accumulate throughout primary and secondary education”, it also calls on higher education providers to do more to improve access from this group.

Money spent by institutions on access should be sent “upstream” to better inform pupils about the benefits of higher education or to encourage more students to consider degree apprenticeships, the report says.

The report adds that MPs believe that the term “white privilege” is unhelpful when it comes to addressing the attainment gap because it fails to recognise the disadvantage many poorer pupils face. However, minutes from the committee’s discussions of the report show that members were divided on the extent of this.

Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Committee, said that for decades white working-class pupils “have been let down and neglected by an education system that condemns them to falling behind their peers every step of the way”.

“If the government is serious about closing the overall attainment gap, then the problems faced by the biggest group of disadvantaged pupils can no longer be swept under the carpet. Never again should we lazily put the gap down to poverty alone, given that we know free school meal eligible pupils from other ethnic groups consistently outperform their white British peers,” Mr Halfon said.

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