Skip to main content

Education and Attainment of White Working-Class Boys

Volume 671: debated on Wednesday 12 February 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered education and attainment for white working-class boys.

It is of course an honour, Sir George, to serve under your chairmanship today.

I am pleased to have secured this debate today on an important issue, although I am frustrated that we cannot have more time to discuss it. I will run through it very quickly this morning; I hope that we can consider it in more detail very soon.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to levelling up across our country and investing in the communities that need it the most. I do not think that it is controversial to argue that education is one of those issues that we really need to focus on in communities with large areas of deprivation, such as my own in Mansfield, and if we are genuinely to give everyone the opportunity to make the most of their talents, then everybody needs to have access to a good education.

We know that on average boys consistently underperform against girls, and white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds underperform against boys of all other races and ethnicities. I will reel off some statistics: by age five, white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds are already 13% behind disadvantaged black boys and 23% behind disadvantaged Asian girls in their phonics, for example; only around a third of white working-class boys pass their maths and English GCSEs; disadvantaged white working-class boys are 40% less likely to go into higher education than disadvantaged black boys; and in fact, according to UCAS, only 9% of these boys will go to university, compared with around half of the general population. I could go on forever if I had more time, but as it stands these white working-class boys are being let down by an in-built and inherent disadvantage.

I am concerned that this issue has been brushed under the carpet, not necessarily by the Government—I have had conversations about it with Ministers before and also discussed it on a Select Committee, so I know that this issue is recognised—but by modern society, which refuses to see the plight of young white males, even those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I am concerned that in too many places this is a taboo subject, and that we cannot talk about the fact that white boys need more help.

This issue is very relevant in Northern Ireland as well. Recently, the Community Relations Council in Northern Ireland stated:

“While there is under-achievement among working-class pupils generally—and this is worse among boys—working class Protestant boys continue to have lower educational attainment than Catholic boys.”

We have continually heard the same thing in Northern Ireland and continually stated it, but instead of accepting this as a baseline fact we need to change the foundation across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with investment in the education of these boys and training in their skills, thereby addressing the imbalance that exists.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and for pointing out that this is something that is happening across the country—across the whole of the United Kingdom—and that there is a challenge around getting these boys to engage with school, around parental engagement and around that drive to attain, which I will cover in the rest of my speech. However, he is absolutely right that this issue is not limited to my community, or to the north of England, or to anything like that; it is an issue across the whole of the United Kingdom. For example, when we see schools turning down funding that is offered in support of disadvantaged white boys, despite the obvious problems that they experience, then we have a real issue.

The former head of UCAS, Mary Curnock Cook, said that this underperformance is a scandal, but it remains unfashionable to talk about it; in fact, it has become normal. She said that the discussion about white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds has been marginalised, which is why I called for this debate. That situation is not right at a time when boys are falling further behind, indeed when they are already way behind before they even reach primary school, and when they are far more likely to be expelled from school and increasingly less likely to get to university, but twice as likely to commit suicide if they do get there. I recognise fully that we need to support disadvantaged children of all genders and all ethnicities, but I raise this issue in these terms today to make sure that these boys in my community get a fair hearing.

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case and we are listening with great interest. Does he agree that if this issue is not successfully addressed, we will have disaffected youth, there will be consequences for local communities and a loss of real potential—of real talent—in our workforce?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and I totally agree. The Prime Minister was clear when he said that opportunity is not spread evenly around the country but talent is, and this issue is about how we engage these boys with our education system, to make sure that they see its relevance and to ensure that they see the opportunities they have and can take them.

There is an awful lot to do, and we are already in a position where we have lots of young men in my community who have finished school but will have to go back and receive intervention and support as adults, because they did not receive that throughout their education. We have to understand the lives of many of these boys, in former coalfield communities such as Mansfield.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and also for raising this issue today. In my constituency, which is a very mixed one, I am aware of the disparities and the inequalities in all communities, which is why it has been very important for us locally to look at disadvantage wherever it occurs.

May I just make the point that the issue extends across the country and that we have to look at different communities? Last year, I hosted in Parliament the event “H Is For Harry”, about a young boy who has problems with literacy that are actually intergenerational. That event was very important in saying that wherever inequality, disadvantage or difficulties with education might occur, we need to address that situation and have a public policy response.

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention and I totally agree. As I say, I fully recognise that the challenges I am highlighting in this speech affect many communities and many children from disadvantaged backgrounds, regardless of race or gender. I have said why I am highlighting it in these particular terms today, but she is absolutely right that there is a broader issue that we need to focus on. She also mentioned that kind of parental drive and engagement with schools, which I will come on to.

As I was saying, we need to understand the communities that these boys grow up in. In former coalfield areas such as Mansfield, not so long ago boys generally left school before they were 16, and they went to work down the pit or in a factory. There was a simplistic kind of certainty to that, in that regardless of what happened at school, they would have a job and a career. If someone was lucky, they might get to take the 11-plus and go off to grammar school to do something different. A few children benefited from that route, but then that was taken away as well.

That certainty of career does not exist any more in these communities, but in many cases they have not moved on. Many parents in the poorest communities do not have qualifications and therefore are not able to extol the virtues of school—indeed, they do not necessarily see the point of that education—and they cannot help their children to study because they do not have that level of attainment themselves.

I have schools in my area where 70% of the children are involved with social services, such is the chaotic backdrop to their lives, so school is very far from the top of the agenda for those children. Boys are far more likely to say that school is a waste of time, so we have to engage them in a different way and help them to see the value of school.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and for the case that he has made; I agree with every word he has said. Does he, like me, see the real sadness that generations—multiple generation—of boys from Nottingham and from Nottinghamshire, which we both represent, have had that perception that school does not matter, and as a result there is wasted talent, instead of all the good things that they could be doing in our community if they had had a better education and we had not failed them?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I agree. I meet a number of young men who are bright, sharp and intelligent, but they do not have many qualifications and are struggling to find work, struggling to make a positive impact and struggling to see where their lives are going. We certainly need to do more to change that situation in the future and, as I have said, to go back to those guys who have finished school already and support them.

We need to prepare children for the 21st century and update our curriculum so that it is fit for the future. Repetitive tasks and memory tests are no longer relevant for study and even top private schools in America have shown that kids simply do not remember such stuff when they come back from school holidays.

The OECD’s programme of international student assessment rankings show that memorisation remains the dominant learning strategy in British classrooms. I could go off on a massive tangent at this point, and if I did I am sure that I would have a huge debate with the Minister for School Standards on this particular issue. However, I only have 10 minutes to cover things today, so I will try to focus on the headline issue, although there is a broader problem.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He has highlighted a very important point about working-class communities and white working-class boys. I have noticed in my constituency that those boys fall behind, especially after the school holidays, and we also know that a lot of funding that went into school holiday programmes has been cut, so I am starting a campaign to try to bring back more of that activity.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to think about a cross-departmental policy response to this issue, through housing, education and wider afield, so that we make sure that we can reach into and deal with those families that are most at risk, and so that these young boys have the best chance of success?

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention and I agree. There is certainly a disparity that is entrenched when those boys go home over the summer to a household that is not necessarily pushing them to continue to learn and engage, compared with parents who are perhaps better-off and who drive that engagement. We must bridge that gap and I will come on to some of the potential solutions. The point I am trying to make is that we need to create incentives for these boys to learn and to make space in the curriculum, if needed, for something more relevant to them. It would be wrong if we assumed that everyone’s aspiration was to study to degree level. We would do far better to accept that where these boys are getting nothing currently, giving them something of interest and value would be a step forward.

Whether it meets our middle-class aspiration or not is kind of irrelevant; I am talking about choice and variety. Whether we do that through alternative provision or by giving all schools more freedom by offering more vocational and technical education, we have to do something more to show the career value of what they are learning, perhaps by doing it thematically, rather than in subject silos that do not connect with the real world. Everyone needs a certain core knowledge, but outside of that there are lots of different options.

I am sorry to come back again, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a real importance for us in this place to start talking about vocational and technical education with the same emphasis as higher education? That would set the tone that, actually, we think all those paths are just as legitimate and can lead to full and happy lives.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. As I have said, less than 9% of boys from tough backgrounds go to university, yet those technical routes are still often viewed as a last resort, despite providing the opportunity to learn valuable skills that lead to job opportunities. In Switzerland, for example, 70% of children undertake apprenticeships, because they are well respected. We talk in the UK about holding such qualifications in equal regard with academic ones, but we do not make them available to all children. When I suggest that we should make them available to all children, I get lots of academics telling me that I am writing off these kids, which does not sound a great deal like equal regard to me.

We need to go in and support apprenticeship routes, which means reforming the levy and supporting traineeships, as well as thinking hard about how we seem to be making even the technical qualifications more traditionally academic now through T-levels and about the other options for those who want genuine vocational or technical education. We need to invest in adult learning and retraining for those we have missed in the system.

We should do more to show these boys the career options out there by offering more meaningful work experience and by giving better careers or skills advice, particularly from professionals who have not taken traditional educational paths to succeed in their career. They need role models who they can look up to, and they need to be aware of all options for their future study. Many do not have those role models at home who they can turn to on education. That leads me on to the next bit of my speech, because it is not solely schools’ responsibility; the issues stem more often than not from home. We are fighting a losing battle if we are forcing boys to be interested in getting GCSEs when their parents think they are a waste of time.

I have to plough on, or I will run out of time. The challenge, as I have said, entrenches disadvantage, with better-off parents more able to push their children to attain, to do homework and to work hard at school, while those who have the least education themselves or who have chaotic lives struggle to do so.

Early interventions can help. We can refocus where we put our money in early years provision on the most disadvantaged, bearing in mind that currently, a couple earning £200,000 between them can access 30 hours’ free childcare, but a single mum on the living wage working 15 hours a week can only get 15 hours of free childcare. We can encourage nurture provision in a primary setting to ensure children are engaging with school early on and can settle into primary school. That saves all sorts of issues later and draws parents into that school setting early on. We need proper youth work and more trained youth workers to support children and offer direction. Great youth workers are hugely important, and we have the opportunity through the youth investment fund to train thousands more.

When I visit schools in Mansfield, parental engagement is often raised with me as being among the biggest challenges. How do we draw them into the educational environment to support their children at school? The Social Market Foundation, for example, suggests that after-school family literacy classes in primary school would encourage parents to take a more active role in a child’s education. I know some schools do that. My kids go in early for phonics with mum on a Tuesday morning, and I like the sound of that, and I like the sound of using the school setting as more of a community hub to be able to offer other services that push those hard-to-reach parents to come into the school to engage with teachers.

The Department for Education has found that higher rates of exclusions are seen in areas of deprivation. Pupils known to be eligible for and claiming free school meals account for 40% of all permanent exclusions. Again, that is boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is a reason why boys more than girls can be disruptive or badly behaved in a classroom setting. Simply using detention or exclusion rarely helps. According to the OECD, boys respond more to a school’s environment than girls. When they are in disruptive, chaotic, disorganised settings, their capacity for self-regulation suffers. When they are labelled as the bad kid, they become the bad kid. Often these kids do not have male role models at home. They are confused about masculinity and what it means and their role in society. We need to support them through that, not punish them.

We need to take bold steps fundamentally to change failing schools, which can exacerbate problems, rather than help. A few weeks ago an article in The Sun highlighted so-called dumping grounds, where schools have struggled consistently for a long time even to get out of special measures. We need almost a “Supernanny”-style leadership team capable of taking on these challenges and intervening fundamentally in these schools. We need more incentives for the best teachers to work in such schools, which often exist in the same disadvantaged communities and so cannot attract experienced teachers. It is becoming commonplace for children to have lessons taught by somebody who is not qualified in the subject. Great leaders and great teachers can transform failing schools, and we need to equip them with the resource, the flexibility and the curriculum to deliver real and genuine change.

I wonder whether there is a way to build on interventions such as the London Challenge and offer that kind of resource and impact to the most challenging schools and areas outside London, too. I know that the Government have started on some of those kinds of interventions, and I would be interested to hear more about that from the Minister.

To conclude, I hope we would all agree that we are missing a trick if we are not focusing on ensuring that all children of all ethnicities and backgrounds get access to a good education and to life’s opportunities. That means we cannot continue not to talk about the plight of disadvantaged white boys who are consistently at the bottom of the pile.

We hear a lot in the media and in this place about white male privilege—it seems to overtake discussion a lot—and I challenge those people to come to my community, where men spent their whole lives digging coal underground to keep the lights on, and who are now dying early of lung disease as a result, and talk to them about their privilege. It is their children and grandchildren I am talking about today. They need help, and our communities need help. I hope that this Government’s mission to level up the towns and regions in the UK that have the least includes education as a key priority. I am sure that it does. Unless we grapple with the burning injustice that faces white working-class boys in communities such as mine in Mansfield, we will not be delivering the change that is needed.

Before I call Karl MᶜCartney, who I understand has the agreement of both the Minister and the mover of the motion to speak, I ask him to bear in mind that he needs to leave adequate time for the Minister to respond.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I rise to make a brief speech to welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) in securing this debate. I agree with every word he said. Three years ago, we had a similar debate in this Chamber on this subject, which I had the privilege to lead.

Secondary school league table data just published by the BBC on 6 February confirms that England’s schoolboys have had worse exam results than girls for 30 years. Another notable fact, reported by Ally Fogg on the website, is that among every ethnic group, boys perform markedly worse than girls. Among the most deprived children, that effect is greatest. Across the board, a girl from a free school meals background is now 52% more likely to go to university than her male equivalent. Most worrying of all is that while there has been a welcome narrowing of the equity gap in ethnicity over the past two decades, and even the FSM gap has shrunk slightly, the gender gap has been going the other way. The difference in attainment for girls and boys is now markedly greater than that between white and black, Asian and minority ethnic students. The trend is best illustrated by the Higher Education Policy Institute in 2016, which calculated that if current trends continue, a boy born that year would be 75% less likely to attend university than a girl by the time he is 18.

The Men & Boys Coalition has done some sterling examination of this area of education and has unearthed some more stark effects for our colleagues in the Government, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Minister here today to digest. In 2019, 62.9% of males received grade 1 to 4, A* to C, GCSE grades, while 71.7% of females received the same results. Only 54.2% of 16-year-old boys achieved a grade C/4 English language GCSE, compared with 70.5% of girls. Some 59.9% of boys achieved grade C/4 in maths, as did 59.2% of girls. In the 2018 cycle, 196,105 men or boys domiciled in the UK accepted places at university, compared with 263,180 women or girls, a gap of 67,075 or 35%. The figure in 2008 was 177,780 and 226,075 respectively, a gap of 48,295 or 27%. Those figures are from UCAS.

However, I will end on a positive note. Recently, the head of three Muslim schools that came top in England for progress has vowed to help white working-class children, as analysis shows a widening gap between coastal and city schools. Government tables published recently reveal that the best three schools for progress were part of Star Academies. Although all its schools are in deprived inner cities with higher numbers of ethnic minorities, it is now focusing on deprived coastal areas with mainly white populations. It has taken on schools in Blackburn and Morecambe on the Lancashire coast.

I promoted a career academy in my first term as a Member of Parliament, in partnership with Steve Penney, then deputy head at the City School on Skellingthorpe Road in Lincoln, to assist pupils. I urge anyone with an interest to seek out the rebranded Career Ready charity, which seeks to raise the career aspirations of all pupils of whatever background in our schools, using business mentors and those who wish to offer a hand up the ladder of aspiration. Some universities have tailored approaches to widening participation for different under-represented groups. The national collaborative outreach programme is a national initiative focused on extending higher education opportunities to specifically disadvantaged wards across the country. The programme operates in Lincoln through LiNCHigher, which involves Bishop Grosseteste University and the University of Lincoln, and I encourage anyone and everyone to view their various outreach programmes.

Universities UK is also currently conducting a major review into admissions to look at how to make the application process fairer for all students. It tells me the review will be published in the spring, and I hope it will include the views that many hon. Members have expressed today and in recent debates on the subject. I thank hon. Members for their forbearance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) for their passionate commitment to wanting to improve the education and life chances of the most disadvantaged pupils in general and, in this particular debate, white disadvantaged boys. The statistics cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield at the start of his speech have driven the Government’s education policies since 2010. Closing the attainment gap between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers has driven our obsession with ensuring that children are taught to read effectively at the age of four or five, and that every six-year-old can decode words using phonics. It has driven our desire for children to develop a love of reading and our desire to help them develop a wider vocabulary. It has driven our determination to adopt the practice of the best performing countries in the world in the teaching of mathematics in primary schools, and to improve the cultural literacy of all children, regardless of their background or gender, ensuring they have the vocabulary that will not only help their reading, but will mean they have the knowledge required for academic progress.

As Harold Stevenson and James Stigler wrote in their book “The Learning Gap”, the error is,

“the assumption that it is the diversity in children’s social and cultural background that poses the greatest problem for teaching.”

In fact, a far greater problem is variability in children’s educational background and thus in their levels of preparation for learning the academic curriculum.

I am sorry; I will not give way because of the time.

There is a philosophy behind the Government’s drive to close the word gap and the attainment gap, and to level up opportunity, ensuring every child, regardless of background or gender, can fulfil their potential. The philosophy lies behind successful multi-academy trusts, such as the Star multi-academy trust cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln. It has driven our curriculum reforms, our GCSE reforms, and our determination to move this country’s education system away from a so-called competence-based curriculum to a knowledge-rich curriculum.

E. D. Hirsch, the great American educationist, wrote about the example of France in his most recent book, “Why Knowledge Matters”. He looked at the history of France’s curriculum reforms and the effect of the move away from a knowledge-based curriculum towards a competence or skills-based curriculum in the late 1980s. Comparing standards in 1987 and 2007, all socioeconomic groups saw a decline in standards, with a decline of a third of a standard deviation on average. Strikingly, children from disadvantaged backgrounds saw the greatest fall in standards, with a decline of two thirds of a standard deviation. That is one piece of evidence, but it is part of a pattern of international evidence that competence-based curricula are most disadvantageous to the pupils we are most keen to help.

After 10 years in office, the Government’s education reforms are beginning to show results. Standards are rising and the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils is beginning to close: by 13% in primary and 9% in secondary since 2011. Thanks to our reforms, more pupils are taking core academic GCSEs, more children are reading fluently, and more are attending good and outstanding schools, but, as my hon. Friend so clearly set out, too many pupils still leave school without the qualifications that they need.

We know that synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching reading to all children, so we have embedded it in the key stage one curriculum. Following a greater focus on reading in the primary curriculum, England achieved its highest ever score in the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. The result was largely attributable to increases in the average performance of boys and lower performing pupils. As Her Majesty’s chief inspector said recently,

“In the schools that teach reading really well, really systematically using phonics, the gap narrows or is even eliminated.”

That is the essence of ensuring that our schools adopt teaching methods and curricula that the evidence suggests narrow or eliminate the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils and between girls and boys.

All children, particularly pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, including white working-class boys, need a knowledge-rich curriculum that introduces all pupils to the powerful knowledge that best prepares pupils for their futures. We see it in schools such as Michaela Community School in Wembley, where the school regards knowledge about the world as essential. Its academically rigorous curriculum has enabled pupils to achieve exceptionally well. In 2019, Michaela’s results ranked among the best in the country, with all pupils, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, making well above average progress. Some 41% of pupils at that school were eligible for free school meals at some point in the past six years, but its progress 8 score of 1.53 is one of the highest in the country, and its EBacc entry was 84%.

It is a similar story at Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford with its unrelenting focus on improving the life chances of its pupils. The academy offers a rigorous knowledge-rich and evidence-based curriculum, which has seen it right at the top of the league tables over the past few years. Similarly, we can look at the work of leading multi-academy trusts such as Outwood Grange Academies Trust, which time after time radically improves schools that have had a long history of entrenched failure. That MAT provides long neglected communities in this country with the transformational education that they need.

My hon. Friend noted in his speech that the standard of education suffers when schools lose their grip on behaviour. I absolutely agree, which is why we have bolstered the powers of teachers and headteachers to deal with unruly pupils. I also agree with my hon. Friend that it is vital that this country has a world-class technical route for pupils to pursue technical and vocational training. Our reform of apprenticeships puts technical and vocational education on a par with academic study for the first time, in tandem with T-levels.

Apprenticeships ensure that people can gain the training and qualifications that they need to enter the job market and ensure that employers can access the skills that they need to make the country globally competitive. T-levels are at the centre of our plans for world-class technical education, preparing students for entry into skilled employment or higher levels of technical education in areas such as engineering, manufacturing, health, science, construction, and digital. They will ensure that all post-16 students can make an informed choice between high-quality options that support progression, whatever their attainment or aspirations. We have made real progress since 2011, particularly in improving the education of disadvantaged children and those of lower attaining pupils as well.

In conclusion, I share my hon. Friend’s deeply held belief in the power of education to transform the life chances of pupils, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Although I know there is more to do, the Government’s school reforms and plans to improve technical education through T-levels and the proposed £3 billion national skills fund are the right ones for every pupil and student in our education system, including the most disadvantaged pupils.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.