Oxford University have recently announced that they will be running a summer school aimed particularly at white working class boys, who are now the least likely group in Britain to go to university. The scheme is open to Year 12 students at state schools who achieved five A to A* grades at GCSE level and aims to increase the number of working class students Oxford takes on.
The venture is admirable in many ways, not least because it’s an example of a major institution putting time and money into addressing one of society’s biggest problems. White British boys that claim free school meals (the go-to indicator of poverty) are indeed the least likely to do well at school according to most measurements, and so are in need of attention. There are serious dangers and pitfalls, however, in engaging with students on such narrow lines.
Firstly, there is the unnecessary emphasis on the race of these working class students. Working class boys aren’t doing badly because they’re white, but because they’re working class; yet the discussions in the media and in politics focus more on their whiteness than their poverty. Theresa May, for example, stood on the steps of Downing Street the day she became Prime Minister and declaimed: “If you’re a white, working class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.” This rhetoric may chime well with her mission to lend a respectable veneer to the intolerance of immigration, but makes for poor education policy.
She neglected to mention that it’s overwhelmingly being working class that is the disadvantage, rather than being white. In the 2013-14 academic year, 29.2 per cent of boys eligible for free school meals attained five A*-C grades (including English and Maths), compared to 55.4 per cent of more wealthy, non-eligible students. These statistics include boys of all races: richer white students do better, as do richer black and minority ethnic students, while poorer white students do worse, as do their poorer black and minority ethnic peers.
By focusing on race we forget about the huge obstacles that all working class students face in the education system. And it must also be said that by focusing on whiteness, newspapers and politicians conveniently shift the debate away from the problems of black and minority ethnic students, who face huge obstacles on account of their race. Black Caribbean students that aren’t on free school meals, for example, are outperformed by their white counterparts by 17.2 per cent at GCSE level.
For many politicians and newspapers, the claim of focusing on the white and working class is a convenient excuse to merely focus on the white. As much as papers like The Times and Daily Mail decry identity politics, they produce a dangerous identity politics of their own with headlines like ‘School low achievers are white and British’ (The Times) or even ‘White working-class pupils fall behind 'because they're turned off by lessons on other cultures’’ (Daily Mail, of course).
It should not be forgotten that socio-economic background—that is, wealth—is by far the best indicator of educational performance. Well meaning programmes like Oxford University’s summer school should not be too heavily criticised, and are a sign of movement in the right direction. Yet until class is emphasised over race (particularly whiteness), the education system will make very slow progress.