Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
The educational prospects of white disadvantaged boys make for uncomfortable reading, and the first chapter begins in the early years. Some can barely string a sentence together by the time they start primary school. The proportion of Year 1 pupils meeting the expected standard of phonic decoding is 13 per cent lower than it is for black disadvantaged boys, and 23 per cent lower than it is for Asian disadvantaged girls.
As they continue to stumble through the rest of their education, any outline of promise diminishes further still. At GCSE level, all disadvantaged ethnic groups outperform their disadvantaged white peers. For example, the average Attainment 8 score per pupil is just 29.5 for white boys eligible for free school meals, compared to 40.5 for Asian disadvantaged males.
Life chances become bleaker at the point of higher education. Disadvantaged white pupils are 40 per cent less likely to go to higher education than disadvantaged black peers and disadvantaged Asian students are twice as likely to attend the most selective institutions than disadvantaged white students.
There are many reasons for the underachievement of disadvantaged white boys. Some people like to talk about a lack of aspiration. I disagree. It is not that white disadvantaged boys themselves do not want to succeed. Who doesn’t want to prosper in life? Ask any young man, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ and I am sure that they have an idea, even if they do not have the confidence to voice it aloud. In fact, studies show that aspiration is unfailingly high in all social groups.
So rather than obsess about lack of aspiration, it is the lack of social capital that we should be focusing on. White disadvantaged boys cannot even play the game that is the competitive jobs market, whilst their wealthier peers win every time. They do not have access to the same know-how, extracurricular opportunities and social networks to build soft skills and boost their prospects in the jobs market.
One way to level the playing field is to provide comprehensive careers advice and meaningful work experience. At the moment, we are way off the mark. Around one in five schools do not even meet any of the eight Gatsby benchmarks – international markers of sound careers advice. Careers advice must be transformed into careers and skills advice; a one-stop-shop – a National Skills Service, with a UCAS for Further Education and Apprenticeships.
It is also important to understand what is driving disengagement with education. Disadvantaged white communities do not always make the link between educational success and getting a good job.
Professor Green, an award-winning rapper (and an unlikely reference I’ll admit), explored the lives of six young white men from deprived backgrounds in his documentary, Working Class White Men. Among those interviewed was 18-year-old Lewis Croney. Despite having defied his odds to secure a place to study Maths at Trinity College, Cambridge, Croney explained that he still faced scepticism from home, saying: “I’ve had people asking me why I’m going to Cambridge, why am I putting myself through three years or more of higher education when I could go straight into a job,” said Croney. Once this perception is embedded, it undermines educational performance.
One need only look at London to see how investment in good schooling can be transformative. Previously riddled with underperforming schools, our capital now proudly boasts an education landscape that is turning around many disadvantaged children’s’ lives. White boys in London who are eligible for free school meals perform better than those in other parts of the country.
There are so many things that can be done to stem underperformance for white disadvantaged children. But to do so, we need a proper, focused government strategy and it should start with the early years.
From a very young age, white working-class children have poor educational outcomes. Good quality childcare can help enormously. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. But, many families struggle with the cost of childcare. How can we justify giving major concessions, in the form of 30 hours of free childcare to 3-4-year-olds and tax-free childcare, to couples earning as much as £200,000 a year? We should reduce the current thresholds for 30 hours/tax-free childcare and redirect funding to help disadvantaged parents.
All schools in disadvantaged areas should be good. But good schools need good teachers and schools in many deprived areas struggle to attract good, experienced teachers and leaders, who are so instrumental in driving up quality. Instead, more experienced teachers tend to gravitate towards less disadvantaged schools.
£72 million is spent on opportunity areas, although we don’t really know exactly what impact they are having. How about using this money on things that are proven to improve failing schools, like great teachers and great training?
Finally, it is crucial that all educational routes – not just the traditional academic ones – are top notch. All children, regardless of background, should have access to easily accessible technical routes that will lead to good job opportunities. In other advanced economies, technical routes are a well-respected, well-oiled part of the educational machinery that exists. In Switzerland, for example, around 70 per cent of students undertake apprenticeships.
When done well, apprenticeships change lives – they allow people to grow their skills, increasing employability and earning potential. Degree apprenticeships could be the crown jewel in a revamped technical offering. Students earn as they learn, they do not incur mountains of debt, and they get good quality jobs at the end. I hope that one day, half of all university students are doing them. The Government should incentivise their growth and they could do this by drawing down on the Apprenticeships Levy.
However, this is not just an issue of supply. Few families are aware of degree apprenticeships. Both the existence of apprenticeships and their value should be hard-wired into careers advice.
So a fairer distribution of funding to boost access to quality early years provision; spending money more wisely to bring great quality teaching to all schools; revolutionising careers support and putting rocket boosters on technical learning – these should be the core pillars of government strategy.
The plight of white disadvantaged boys is a stain on all our consciences. People must have a good education to climb the ladder of opportunity, and it is well within our collective ability to make sure this happens.