White Working Class Boys

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.

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6 thoughts on “White Working Class Boys

  1. The noise yesterday wasn’t just about white working class boys (although the comment in the Guardian’s sidebar suggested this). An annual report on education in England by CentreForum, the think tank with ex-schools minister David Laws as its ‘executive chairman’, claimed all white British children didn’t do as well as Chinese, Indian, Asian (other), Mixed (White & Asian) and other minority groups at GCSE. Or at least that’s how the paper’s interpreted it. The Mail went as far as to claim that White British pupils were being let down by the education system and their parents.

    But the data wasn’t from GCSE 2015 results – it was a proposed ‘world class’ standard (a goal for 2030) devised by CentreForum and applied retrospectively to 2015 results. This made it appear White British pupils had ‘very bad performance’ at GCSE (that’s what Laws told the Telegraph). The DfE jumped on the bandwagon and ‘welcomed’ the report saying it showed the ‘stark choice’ education in England faced (no doubt this will be dredged up every time anyone objects to wholesale academization).

    That’s not to say White working class boys don’t do badly in school and, as you say, the reasons are complex. But the type of crystal ball gazing applied retrospectively to make claims about poor performance of all White British pupils is misleading.

  2. Thanks Janet – I’ll enjoy reading that. And yes, I think that’s kind of why I described it as noise rather than news – there were a lot of flaws in the report and in the reporting of the report. They did refer to current data or so they said, but so much was conjecture and condemnation. There are many, many middle class families up and down the country who don’t eat together as a family or restrict bed times and screen time for example. Sigh.

    1. My understanding initially was that the data used by CentreForum to apply their ‘world standard’ retrospectively was performance according to the 2015 GCSE benchmark (ie 5+ A*-C or equivalent including Maths and English).

      I’ve been corresponding with CentreForum about the data and discovered this:

      1 The data used was not the GCSE data as shown in DfE school performance tables but Attainment 8 figures for all schools ‘using the underlying pupil data from the National Pupil Database’.

      2 I pointed out that only 327 schools had opted to take part in Attainment 8 in 2015. CentreForum’s said it was still possible to calculate what pupils from opt-out schools would have achieved ‘as the pupil data allows us to see the qualifications that they were entered for and the outcomes they achieved’.

      The most alarming thing I discovered, however, was in relation to the comparison between results at age 5 and results at age 16. The report and media coverage implied there had been a fall over time between results gained at age 5 and then again at age 16 for White British pupils (and a corresponding rise among other ethnic groups). This assumes there was a base year from which to calculate this movement. I asked CentreForum which base year they used. They said there was no base year. The data for age 5 and age 16 was for the same year: 2015.

      It is inaccurate and misleading to claim a decline in performance using data for different children. I asked CentreForum late yesterday how they make claims about rises or fall in performance over time when they didn’t study the same cohort? I hope to receive a reply today.

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