Divisive rhetoric: the new report on white working-class pupils


The new report from the Education Committee claims that “[d]isadvantaged White pupils fall behind their peers at every stage of education”, which is true… apart from that it is not. In this post I break down how the report manipulates the way it presents data to tell its own narrative; how it uses a divisive rhetoric to try to blame pupils of colour for the underachievement of White pupils; and how its recommendations are actually harmful. 


Manipulating data presentation

The report is based on the intersectionality of ethnicity and socio-economic status, in which ethnicity is portrayed as the disadvantaging factor. This is despite the fact that ALL ethnic groups from economically disadvantaged backgrounds do worse than their non-disadvantaged counterparts. It also glosses over the fact that most ethnic groups have higher rates of disadvantage than White British pupils, because to acknowledge the reasons for such rates would be to acknowledge systemic racism, which the report is the antithesis of, with its narrative of “reverse” racism. 

In several places in the report, when referring to disadvantaged White British pupils, it uses the phrase “this is the lowest percentage for all ethnic groups…”, which is followed by “…other than [name of ethnic group]…”. Using this syntax tries to build the narrative of White disadvantage and downplay the fact that in all key metrics used in the report it is the Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller communities that are by far the most disadvantaged. 

Additionally, Black Caribbean pupils are very close to White British pupils in their scores (see graph below). If the authors of the report were truly concerned with underachievement in education, they would have to acknowledge that the disadvantaged Black Caribbean pupils were in the same situation as the disadvantaged White British pupils, and that the Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller communities were the ones who needed the most support. 

Furthermore, there are aspects of education that the report almost completely omitted as they did not serve its narrative. For example, exclusions, with both permanent and temporary rates of exclusions from education are disproportionately higher for Black Caribbean, Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller pupils. Another downplayed aspect was the disparities in higher education degree classifications – which are lower for all non-White ethnic groups


Shifting the blame onto communities of colour

Through a coded language, the report tries to shift the blame from its own failings onto communities of colour.  By mentioning “geography” the report makes a reference to the fact that most minority ethnic pupils are concentrated in London, where educational outcomes are overall higher than in the rest of the country. However, the report fails to recognise that in the last eleven  years, Conservative governments cut funding to education and other services, particularly outside of London. 

The report also talks about an “immigrant paradigm” as the other main reason for the White underachievement. With this narrative, the report aims to blame communities of colour for their resilience in the face of racism and xenophobia (which, ironically, it denies exist), instead of fully examining why the education system and society at large strip White British working-class communities of aspirations. 


Dubious solutions

The authors of the report would like to see £14 million investment in geographic areas which would help only (or predominantly) White families, as well as a reform of the Pupil Premium, so that it can be used only to support White students… so much for the Conservative values of giving autonomy to schools. 

The report claims that improved career advice and guidance would boost access to higher education. While it also points to the “disengagement from the curriculum” as one of the reasons for the underachievement of the disadvantaged White British pupils, it does not offer any recommendations for solving this issue. It seems pointless to be encouraging more advice and guidance on education in the current format, when it is the current format of education (i.e. its curriculum) that is the barrier. Perhaps, the authors of the report are scared to suggest changes to the curriculum, given the current strong interest in decolonisation. “Worse” yet, a curriculum that effectively engages working class students risks waking up class consciousness across racial boundaries… which would be Tories’ biggest nightmare. 

And finally, the report claims that there is an “industry” which encourages other ethnic groups to do better, and that a solution to this would be to not allow teaching on “white privilege”. This is an extremely divisive rhetoric, which is not based 

on facts. The report claims that “In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, terms such as ‘White Privilege’ became increasingly common”… but it fails to account for how one year of BLM discourses can be responsible for decades of “persistent and multigenerational disadvantage” and in particular, how it could do more harm than the eleven years of educational austerity under Conservative rule. 



The report engages in a dangerously divisive rhetoric. In many places it refers to and agrees with the widely criticised Sewell Report which claimed there was no such thing as *systemic* racism in the UK… and yet by talking about a systemic disadvantage of White British students the report’s authors try to argue that there is systemic “reverse” racism. The term “white working class” is not used in any discourse other than education, this is because the government does *not* care about White working-class people, it’s only using them to further antagonise the public against minority ethnic communities (Gillborn, 2008). 


 This post was adapted from the original, which is published here.

Dom Jackson-Cole is an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Learning Adviser/Trainer at SOAS. 

Share this post