There has been noise today about the data that suggests that white children are not doing as well as children from ethnic minorities in school. Of course, the reality of this data is that it is white working class boys who are not doing as well in school. And this has been known for some time. It’s a difficult and complex issue to address, tied into a web of biology, culture, gender representation and educational philosophies, but there are some things we really should know about as teachers and parents that might help move some of these issues forward.
I mentioned in a previous post on poverty the role of hormones on learning – particularly that of cortisol. Cortisol is known as the ‘stress’ hormone for a reason and in short, sharp bursts, it can focus concentration. But over time, children living under constant stress, are significantly impacted. Cortisol affects the immune system, meaning that children living in stressful environments are more likely to suffer illness and miss school. It also affects memory, making learning so much harder. And in boys, who don’t have oxytocin to offset the effects of cortisol on emotions, it makes for less empathy and more social withdrawal. This, in combination with the presence of testosterone makes it more likely that boys under stress will react with aggression and show less empathy towards those they disagree with. A recipe for punishments and exclusions, and indeed, if we look at the figures, boys are far, far more likely than girls to be excluded.
Getting into trouble, being ill and forgetting stuff does not make for effective learning. But surely, one would then say, ALL boys under the stress of poverty would do badly not just the white ones. And when one accounts for class, this is also true. But white boys do worse. So we have to move on to cultural factors too. And this is much trickier without starting to head into the territory of making huge assumptions about different ethnic groups. For example, we might say that women from ethnic communities are more likely to stay at home with their children. But is this true of all ethnic communities? No. And does staying at home make for a better learning environment than high quality EYFS provision? We’d have to surely say “it depends”. We might say that the capacity to speak more than one language strengthens cognitive function and so makes learning easier. But are all children from ethnic backgrounds EAL learners? No. We might say that people who have made the effort to migrate for a better life value education more and are more likely to push their children to make that “better life” a reality. The truth is probably a combination of these and many other factors.
And there is also diet – something we hugely underestimate when it comes to learning. White working class children are more likely to consume a high sugar diet with processed carbohydrates than those eating Mediterranean, Asian or African foods at home. And those foods inhibit concentration considerably when there is no opportunity to burn off the energy they produce. Is it possible that diet might impact? What about access to alcohol? Are white working class boys more likely to drink, smoke, take drugs? Why?
I don’t have answers. I’m asking questions. But the point is that this is a hugely complex issue. None of which will be remotely addressed by switching all schools to academy status, bringing textbooks into the classroom or having zero tolerance discipline policies. All that will do is lead to more exclusions for this most vulnerable of groups.
We must stop using data to feed a failure narrative that focuses on a narrow spectrum of society. Education is a factor not THE factor. An integrated approach to health, wealth, access to cultural and artistic experiences, diet, attitudes and gender representations is required if we’re really going to impact on this group of kids. Anything less is an abdication of responsibility.