Select Committee statement
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
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We begin with a Select Committee statement. Robert Halfon will speak on the publication of the first report of Session 2021-22 from the Education Committee, “The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it”, HC 85, for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members as they appear on the call list to ask questions on the subject of the statement, and call Robert Halfon to respond to those in turn. Questions should be brief. I call the Chair of the Education Committee, Robert Halfon.
It is an honour to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees. May I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for providing me with this opportunity? I express special thanks to the Committee Officers for all their hard work on the report, and thank in particular my parliamentary colleagues on the Committee for all their amendments, which have strengthened the report.
Our Committee is dedicated to championing left-behind groups. We have looked at exclusions and children with special educational needs, and are currently undertaking two inquiries, on prison education and children in care. This is why we decided to examine the decades-long neglect of disadvantaged white pupils: the large number of disadvantaged white pupils who underachieve in education remains a significant obstacle to closing the overall attainment gap.
Our Committee is fully aware that other groups experience disadvantage and discrimination in education and deserve support. We understand the justified anger that people feel about racism, prejudice and discrimination. Of course it is vital that we work together as a country to address those issues. All disadvantaged groups struggle, but the picture for white British children eligible for free school meals is particularly bleak.
In 2019, just 53% of FSM-eligible white British children met the expected standard of development in early years. In the same year, just 17.7% of FSM-eligible white British pupils achieved a strong pass in English and maths at GCSE level. FSM-eligible white British pupils have one of the lowest rates of participation in higher education, with just 16% of that group going to university by the age of 19 in 2019. At every stage in the education system, disadvantaged white pupils on free school meals underperformed compared with most other ethnic groups.
There are many reasons for that gap existing and there will be no simple fix. Its existence is not due to any ethnic trait—a person’s ethnicity bears no relation to their natural ability or potential—nor is this solely an issue of poverty, as so many seem quick to assert. Children from ethnic minorities are more likely to experience poverty, yet many of them consistently outperform their similarly disadvantaged white British peers.
During our inquiry, we heard about many factors that may combine to put disadvantaged white pupils at a particular disadvantage. Those include these key areas: persistent and multi-generational disadvantage; place-based factors, including regional economics and under-investment; family experience of education; a lack of social capital; disengagement from the curriculum; and a failure to address their low participation in higher education. No one could deny that children from other ethnic backgrounds experience those challenges, which are often compounded by racism. However, we believe that white working-class families may be afflicted by a greater accumulation of those problems, which puts these children at a grave disadvantage when it comes to learning. Many of the solutions to the issues that we heard about—for example, the importance of high-quality early years support and ensuring that all pupils have excellent teachers—are likely to benefit all children from low-income families.
However, the evidence that our inquiry received also pointed to two key areas that we think are central to understanding the relative underperformance of disadvantaged white pupils: place-based disparity and cultural factors. To tackle them, the Department for Education must acknowledge the extent of the problem and recognise that its approach is not working. What is needed now is a tailored approach with targeted actions.
First, funding and support must be tailor-made at local level to level up educational opportunity. To do that, we need a better understanding of disadvantage and better tools to tackle it. We need data that pinpoints barriers and areas that need more support, so that we can always get extra help to the pupils, schools and neighbourhoods that need it most. The Department must also consider reforming funding mechanisms such as the pupil premium with weighting for long-term disadvantage and better accountability measures to ensure that funding is always spent on the most disadvantaged.
Secondly, disadvantaged white families must have access to strong early years support and family hubs to support parental engagement and tackle multi-generational disadvantage. The Department should set out a bold vision for every town to have a family hub, using existing community assets where appropriate. Those should offer integrated services, build trusted relationships with families, and work closely with schools to provide support for a child’s educational journey.
We also heard that disadvantaged white families may struggle with low levels of adult education, which makes it more challenging for those parents to help their children in school. To support disadvantaged white parents who want to improve their own level of education in order to help their children, the report calls for a community learning centre in every town and for a skills tax credit to incentivise employers to train their staff.
Thirdly, we must ensure the value of vocational training and apprenticeship options, while boosting access to higher education. That does not mean introducing a two-tier system, with practical subjects a second-rate alternative for children perceived to be less able. The Department must reform accountability measures by reforming the EBacc, with a curriculum that includes academic subjects and at least one technical, creative or vocational course in key stage 4.
We need a better approach to widening participation in higher education for disadvantaged white pupils. They deserve to know about all their options on leaving school, including higher education. The Office for Students found in 2019 that around £800 million is spent by universities on improving access and outreach. That money should be sent upstream in pupils’ educational journeys, teaching them about the opportunities of higher education, and spent on encouraging and supporting degree apprenticeships. We call on the Office for Students to do more to encourage providers to treat disadvantaged white pupils as a priority, given that they have such low rates of participation in higher education.
Fourthly, all students must have access to the very best teachers, as good teaching is one of the most powerful levers in achieving improved outcomes. We should have teaching degree apprenticeships, just as we have nursing degree apprenticeships and policing degree apprenticeships, and more investment in local teacher training centres to help to get good teachers to the pupils who need them most.
Fifthly, we have to learn to stop pitting one group against another, and find a better, less divisive way to talk about racial disparities in this country. The notion of white privilege can be hugely damaging in creating the perception that the disadvantaged do not need support. However, it has, worryingly, gained credence and exposure in recent months, although it remains a meaningless concept to the young boy or girl growing up in an area without opportunities from one generation to the next. They feel anything but privileged.
It is time to end the neglect and muddled thinking that have characterised the past few decades when it comes to helping and supporting the white working class. The disadvantaged in this country face an unacceptable attainment gap, which the covid-19 pandemic will only have worsened. By finally facing up to the problems faced by such a large group in society and doing something about it, the Government can really bring about a step change in efforts to close the chasm and ensure that everyone, whatever their background, has the chance to climb the education ladder of opportunity.
Thank you, Ms Rees. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing the statement on behalf of the Committee, of which I am a proud member. Although many people would like to focus on the areas of division in discussions about white privilege, will my right hon. Friend highlight some of the positive recommendations on vocational education and apprenticeships for deprived areas, such as Radcliffe in my constituency, with particular focus on issues such as compliance with the Baker clause in relation to inspections?
I thank my hon. Friend for all his hard work on the report. I am proud to have him as a colleague on the Committee. He is absolutely right to point to the work that we have done on the report in supporting more degree apprenticeships; ensuring that universities encourage degree apprenticeships; asking for a teaching degree apprenticeship so we get more teachers, particularly in disadvantaged areas; looking at the curriculum; and introducing design and technology as part of the English Baccalaureate.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Baker clause. It is vital that schools enforce the Baker clause and ensure that children are taught about apprenticeships and skills as proper career options. We say in the report that if that is not done properly, schools should get an unsatisfactory rating from Ofsted. That has to be done. In the House of Lords, Lord Baker himself is introducing to the Government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill an amendment proposing that there should be a statutory element to enforcing the clause. I hope that some of our recommendations will be taken up by the Government.
We know that ethnicity, gender, class and economic opportunity all play a part in pupil attainment—to varying degrees in different schools and in different parts of the country—but may I put it to the Chair of the Select Committee that we know what works in tackling inequality? As a former schools Minister with responsibility for the London Challenge, I know that the performance of children in London schools, including the poorest pupils and those on free school meals, improved dramatically under the scheme. Of course, it was scrapped by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in 2011. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that it would be better for him to focus on policies like that, rather than making simplistic and divisive comments in his report.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. If she reads through the report, she will see that we discuss concepts such as the London Challenge. The London Challenge was very successful, and I am glad that London schools are now some of the best in the country. The problem is that investment has been thrown at the cities and policy reform developed for them, but often the towns have been left behind. We have a significant section in the report, which I mentioned in my opening remarks: funding should be tailor-made. We need to reform the pupil premium and ensure that the funding goes to the neighbourhoods and areas that need it most, particularly in towns where disadvantaged white communities may live.
It is a pleasure to have played a part in this report and I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee on putting it together in the way that he has.
I have been slightly surprised to see comments made by certain Opposition colleagues that this is all to do with austerity and that it is all to do with poverty in a general sense. If that were the case, surely all disadvantaged groups would be impacted in exactly the same way. A key issue here is the disparity when it comes to a certain disadvantaged group of pupils performing a lot less well than other groups.
Why does the Chair of the Committee, on which I sit, believe it is the case that, even when the facts are there in front of us, some people seem determined to ignore them? Is it wilful ignorance, or is it a sense that they believe that this group is less deserving of attention and support than other disadvantaged groups?
I thank my hon. Friend. He is another active and hard-working member of the Committee, and he did a lot of work on proposing important amendments to our report. He makes a very important point. Sadly, people read what they want to read. The section on white privilege is just a few pages of a report of 90-odd pages.
Lord Blunkett, a respected former Education Secretary and a senior Labour figure, said that our Committee is “entirely right” to highlight the “decades of neglect” of white working-class kids in schools:
“The report is about neglect, it is about aspiration whatever your race and ethnicity and background.”
And this is absolutely relevant to the point made:
“I just think we have got to stop these knee jerk reactions and examine the reality.”
Sadly, there have been a lot of knee-jerk reactions to our report, and people have not read it from cover to cover. I hope the debate on the statement gives people an opportunity to look at the report again.
I welcome the report and congratulate my right hon. Friend and his Committee on investigating the issue of the underachievement of so many white working-class children. Does he agree that it is vital that we encourage and help those pupils; that we need to recruit talented and inspirational teachers; that we must present role models to the children; and that we must get parents and families who have experienced poverty and disadvantage more engaged in their children’s education?
My right hon. Friend has been a champion of white working-class communities since he became a Member of the House of Commons. He is absolutely right. Two core elements of our report are about that issue. We have suggested not only that teachers should be given financial incentives and bursaries to go to disadvantaged areas, but that we should introduce teaching degree apprenticeships. We have nursing and policing degree apprenticeships, and we should encourage more teachers. We have a recruitment issue anyway. We should set up local training providers in areas of disadvantage and encourage teachers to be in those areas.
On parental engagement, the report includes evidence from Reach Academy Feltham, which has an incredible parental engagement programme and which works on parents who have been disengaged from the education system from generation to generation. It has had tremendous success, and we suggest not only that the Government should put family hubs in every town, but that they should work on and develop parental engagement programmes just as Reach Academy Feltham does.
A key finding of the Education Committee is that the use of terms such as “white privilege” might have contributed to the neglect of white working-class pupils. What utter nonsense. White privilege is not about kids from poor white working-class backgrounds not being disadvantaged; it is just that their disadvantage is not based on the colour of their skin. The crux of the issue is that continual cuts and lack of Government funding for the likes of free school meals leave all kids from poor backgrounds perennially pushed out.
I usually have a great deal of respect for the right hon. Gentleman and his Select Committee, but does he feel a sense of shame or guilt for having facilitated such a finding, which itself drew on a much discredited report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities to try to inflame the Tory culture wars, gain newspaper headlines and further stoke divisions and tensions within communities?
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, who is a remarkable MP, but I completely disagree with what he has said. Let me make it clear: the problem is that the use of terminology such as “white privilege”, which keeps spreading, is wrong-headed for three reasons. It implies a collective guilt when individuals should be responsible for acts of racism. It portrays white working-class disadvantaged communities as white privileged. It is factually incorrect, as those from almost every other ethnic group who are on free school meals do much better than their white working-class counterparts who are on free school meals.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the funding issue. I have campaigned for more funding. A previous Committee report asked for a long-term plan and more funding. I had an article in The Sun newspaper two weeks ago calling for more funding from the Chancellor. The crucial point is this: everyone is under the same funding regime, so why is it that almost every other ethnic group under the same funding regime that he talks about performs better than white working-class boys and girls on free school meals?
Again, I quote the former Education Secretary, Lord Blunkett, a man I hugely admire, and a very respected Labour party figure:
“To put it bluntly, the last thing that young people facing disadvantage need to hear is anything about ‘white privilege’. Hope, support, guidance and, above all, adult role models are what all of them need—wherever they are from.”
If the hon. Gentleman does not want to listen to me or look at the report in its entirety, I suggest he listen to what David Blunkett has to say—