Discord not development: Robert Halfon’s recipe for the ‘left behind’

If further proof was needed that this administration is more concerned to play politics than to govern the country well, the recent report of the Education Select Committee provides it. The committee chose to tackle an important and urgent issue – the failure of our education system adequately to prepare large numbers of young people for adult life. Yet, rather than reach a consensus on how to address a complex issue, the Conservative majority focused on divisive and damaging headlines.

The blunt fact is that poor children do not do well in our school system. It is also true that most poor children in our schools are white.  The report highlights these facts in its title, seeking to imply that the problems faced by poor white children are caused at least as much by their colour as their poverty. It is deeply dishonest and profoundly cynical.

Sowing discord

The title “The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it” with the word “White” oddly capitalised as if for emphasis, is clearly designed to capture headlines in the Sun. It follows a now familiar pattern of sowing division and stoking grievances rather than tackling deep seated problems.  It also reflects the ‘war on woke’ – a determined attempt to deny the multi-ethnic character of modern Britain.

A focus on colour rather than cash is, of course, convenient. If the needs of poor children have been forgotten it is successive Tory governments that have forgotten them.  They have, after all, been in power for over a decade.   In that time however the government has not so much forgotten poor children as actively made them poorer. 

Reforms exacerbated poverty

The ‘reforms’ introduced by George Osborne cut an average of £1,000 per year from the poorest families in the name of austerity.  Plans to end the temporary uplift in universal credit in September 2021 will again take £20 per week from the pockets of the disadvantaged.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) warned in 2017 that “government plans for future cuts would significantly reduce the incomes of low-income working-age households, particularly those with children” but the same conservative MPs now posing as champions of the poor happily voted for them.

The report has come in for sustained criticism from expert commentators across the political divide.  Sam Freedman, former adviser to Michael Gove and one of the founders of Teach First is as well placed as anyone to refute the argument that the needs of poor children have been ignored by the education establishment.  In a series of tweets and interviews he points to interventions like the Pupil Premium which directs extra resources towards disadvantaged pupils and the London Challenge which focused, with considerable success, on improving the worst performing schools in the capital.

The need to improve provision for poorer pupils has in fact been the subject of numerous interventions over the past decade.  As far back as 2014 the Social Mobility Commission  published ‘Cracking the Code – how schools can improve social mobility” Justine Greening, former education Secretary introduced Opportunity Areas and is still campaigning for their extension.  Indeed Michael Gove, when Education Secretary maintained “A relentless focus on closing the gap between the poorest students and their peers has been at the heart of everything we’ve done in government.”   We are far from having solved the problem but to argue that poor pupils have been forgotten by educationalists is ludicrous.

The consequences of poverty cannot be tackled by education alone

The truth is that there are deep seated and complex reasons why it has not proved possible to remove unacceptable disparities in educational outcomes.  The most important factor is that the consequences of poverty cannot be tackled by the education system alone.  The performance of poor children is affected by the availability of youth clubs and libraries that give access to resources that the better off take for granted. Britain has closed over 800 libraries and 940 youth centres since 2010.  

The performance of children at school is affected by whether they are adequately fed.  Tory MPs voted against the extension of free school meals to cover school holidays during a pandemic.  The performance of poor children is affected by the quality of housing brought into sharp focus by unequal access to suitable spaces in which to study by the pandemic.  Conservative policy led deliberately to the collapse of the social housing sector.

Different backgrounds

The report is correct to point to differences in the achievement rates of children from different backgrounds even when only looking at those receiving free school meals (a crude measure of low income and by no means the same thing as working class).  It is wrong to state however that the white children in this group have the worst results – Roma and Irish Traveller groups fare worst on the figures selected by the committee.  The scores of Black Caribbean groups are worse if one selects a different set of statistics.  There are important differences within groups and over time.  Bangladeshi pupils for example were once among the worst performing yet now seem to be doing well, a fact explained perhaps by the difference between first- and second-generation immigrants.

There are many reasons why different ethnic groups may perform more or less well than others in education.  Some may have come from English speaking communities overseas seeking a better life whereas others may have fled persecution and arrived not speaking our language. Especially relevant for the assertions in this report perhaps is where specific communities live.   It seems to be the case that educational outcomes are particularly low among poor white pupils in those areas now characterised as ‘left behind’. These tend to be smaller urban centres outside the main conurbations where the major industries have closed or substantially declined.

A crude political stunt

There are undoubtedly problems in these communities, and they need to be addressed.  They are undoubtedly communities that are predominantly populated by white people simply because they lack the dynamic economy that draws in migrants.  The solution to their problems, however, lies in more investment in social and economic regeneration as well as better education.  To imply that the answer is to place less emphasis on tackling the persistent problems of racism and prejudice that affect other groups in our society is a cruel and offensive deceit.

Select committee chair Robert Halfon ought to be ashamed of himself for having allowed a serious investigation to be hijacked for a crude political stunt.