The Education Select Committee’s report said: “White working class underachievement in education is real and persistent. White children who are eligible for free school meals are consistently the lowest performing group in the country, and the difference between their educational performance and that of their less–deprived white peers is larger than for any other ethnic group.“
Yes, that’s what the it concluded in 2014 – seven years ago.
Not that the committee – of which Robert Halfon, now its Chair, wasn’t even a member – was first on the scene. For an earlier mention, try 2006, when ConservativeHome carried the news that “a report by Iain Duncan Smith’s Social Justice Policy Group has revealed that white working class boys are performing least well at school”.
And for later comment, have a further look around this site. Here’s that well-known hard right extremist, Nicky Morgan, quoting Alan Milburn, another one, in an article headlined “it’s time to focus on white working-class boys – whose needs are neglected in too many schools”. That’s from 2017.
Doug Stokes went later, in 2020: “white British men? Just 13 per cent [of them progress to higher education], and are the least likely of any group to study at university after those from Traveler backgrounds. And William Wragg, a former primary school teacher, went earlier: “The Prime Minister is right,” he wrote in 2016. “White working class boys are falling behind.”
That was a reference to part of Theresa May’s “burning injustices” speech, made just before she first entered Downing Street as Prime Minister. “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university,” she said, in words crafted by her then co-Chief of Staff and our former columnist, Nick Timothy.
And needless to say, Halfon has probed the subject before, too. “Why are white working class boys underachieving in our schools?” he asked on ConHome in 2018. His answer? “Disadvantaged white communities do not always make the link between educational success and getting a good job.”
We have provided enough evidence to confirm that the Education Select Committee wasn’t saying anything new in declaring today, in a new report, that white pupils have been “let down” for decades by England’s education system. Nor is its chairman a Halfon-come-lately to the issue; let alone some sort of feral racist.
Our columnist is essentially a social justice populist, a bit of a Jeremiah about Tory electoral complacency (which doesn’t look so misjudged after Chesham and Amersham), and a rebel when he feels he has to be. “Who’s up for a Southern Research Group,” he has asked. “There is deprivation and lower educational attainment in the southern new towns, coastal communities, inner cities and rural coldspots.”
Halfon also has an eye for the signs of the times. So he was never likely to miss what’s new since that Centre for Social Justice report of 2006, and even perhaps since Stokes wrote last October: namely, the acceleration of debate about Black Lives Matter, taking a knee, critical race theory – and “white privilege”.
“We recognise the importance of openly discussing and addressing racism in all its forms,” the committee concluded. “Like the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, however, we are concerned that the phrase may be alienating to disadvantaged white communities, and it may have contributed towards a systemic neglect of white people facing hardship who also need specific support.”
However, the Labour minority on the committee is presenting Halfon as an anti-woke warrior. “MPs accused of fuelling ‘culture war’ by criticising terms like white privilege,” the Evening Standard reports today. “Labour MPs on the education select committee have spoken out against the report’s focus on terminology.”
We wouldn’t deny for a moment that Halfon is as canny a publicist as any of his Parliamentary colleagues – more so, in many cases. But the irony in this instance is that he isn’t banging the drum in the papers for a culture war. It’s the Labour MPs on his committee who are doing so themselves.
Read the appendices to the report. The four Labour MPs on the committee could simply have left the draft that was eventually approved alone. And why not? After all, some of their constituents will agree that the concept of white privilege “may be alienating to disadvantaged white communities”.
It is not unreasonable to suppose that those of their constituents who are white are likely to be especially resistant to the claim that they enjoy privilege of any kind. So we note that one of those MPs, Ian Mears, sits for Gateshead, which the last census found to be 94 per cent white. Kim Johnson, sits for Liverpool Riverside, which the last census found to be 80 per cent white.
Putney in London is 75 per cent white: its Labour MP, also a committee member, is Fleur Anderson. Even in multicultural Poplar and Limehouse, represented by another committee member, Labour’s Apsana Begum, whites are the biggest single ethnic group, at 44 per cent.
At any rate, the four Labour MPs on the committee decided to slap down their own amendment, which claimed that “there is a wealth of evidence behind the articulation of White Privilege as a concept” and that the Government is driving “an authoritarian attack on freedom of speech and an insidious attempt to prevent racialised communities from articulating their experiences of racism”.
The amendments were voted down. Others from Conservative MPs on the committee were not. (Interestingly, the Tories divided over an amendment from one of their number, Caroline Johnson, proposing that “taxpayers’ should not be funding schemes that exclude applicants on the basis of their ethnicity or skin colour”.)
There are wider lessons from this tale of committee report draft cut-and-thrust – and from the “white privilege row”. The Sewell Report’s contents will be argued this way and that, but one of them is surely indisputable: that the story of race and opportunity in modern Britain is far more complex than a generation ago.
Ours is no longer a story of well-off whites and worse-off others. As Raghib Ali has written on ConHome, “the primary factor in health and educational inequalities is deprivation, not race…there is now no overall ‘White privilege’ in health or education (and especially not for deprived Whites) – or overall ‘BAME disadvantage’…these categories are now outdated and unhelpful.”
So it is, he reported, that “once deprivation is taken into account – by comparing only those on Free School Meals (FSM) – White and Black Caribbean children have the worst outcomes on almost every measure and especially university entry”. Ali, while acknowledging the existence of racism in Britain today, sees class, not race, as the main driver of disadvantage: ‘systemic classism’, as he puts it.
“White privilege” is a double boomerang for Labour. First, it is at odds with the variety and complexity of what exists around us. And, second, it gets the party further on the wrong side of what was once its electoral base: the white working class. As the Select Committee row shows, the boomerang isn’t being forced into Labour’s hand. It is picking it up and hurling it of its own volition. Willingly.
This morning, Albie Amankona and Sally-Ann Hart suggested on this site, rightly, that ethnic minority voters still have a problem with the Conservatives. Labour is self-creating a mirror image problem with the white majority.