Equality and white privilege

The article in the Times (15.10.20) by Iain Martin, makes a brave statement: that ‘white working class males in Britain have traded places with ethnic minorities and are now the group most likely to fail educationally and to struggle in life’. Why is this? Is social class therefore as big an issue now – as that of race? Has what Martin refers to as ‘white privilege’ always been an issue: albeit one that has been pushed further under the carpet, so as not to appear to be ignoring the racist challenge? Apparently, only 13% of male, white, British pupils, go on to higher education. This is deplorable.

Has nothing changed since I was at school over sixty years ago? It seems not in spite of countless efforts over the years to address issues of social class by attempting to bridge the gap. Who remembers the Tripartite system: one that sought to separate children from the age of eleven, according to the ‘pass or fail’ outcome of one exam? I was lucky (and presumably intelligent) enough to attend Grammar school, having passed the test. My peers who ‘failed’ it attended either Technical school or Secondary Modern.

Throughout my teenage years at Grammar, I admit to feeling different from many of my peers who were in a class (more white than blue collar) above me (my own perception). This was evident in the way my class mates spoke and acted, especially out of school. Though I could hold my own in class because I had to, in order to prove myself worthy of being at Grammar school in the first place – I often found parties and other social gatherings out of school, difficult. Was it me or them? Was the Tripartite system divisive or opportunistic? It was surely both, depending on your perspective (having passed or failed). For me it was opportunistic.

Schools in Britain became officially ‘Comprehensive’ from 1965, introduced by a Labour government (politically relevant?) and many teachers at the time suddenly found themselves having to adapt their teaching to suit many different levels of ability, and from the mid 1970’s, more children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Teacher of ex-grammars often struggled to adapt to their new intake.

From this point it was assumed that all children were being given the chance to progress according to their potential. But education is not that simple, is it? Offering children of different needs and backgrounds the same education did not mean that they were all able to achieve the same outcomes. If the starting blocks (from intelligence and social class) are markedly different – those at the back of the race to achieve in schools, have much further to run than those with a head start.

So has society really saddled the white working class with guilt and shame, for their lack of achievement as Martin suggests is the case? No, I don’t think so. It is surely impossible for all children to achieve the same outcomes. With regard to the ‘nature or nurture’ dilemma, variations in innate intelligence combined with variations in aspiration and upbringing are complex.

So, what works best? I agree with Martin that focusing on society’s divisions does little to enhance equality of opportunity for all. Governments and schools should be focusing on enabling each and every child, regardless of race, colour, class, or innate cognitive ability, to achieve their very best from the educational system.

How? Firstly, offering each child exactly the same does not necessarily lead to equality. This is where the difference between equity and equality (reference to my blog of 4.10.20) comes into focus. Equity essentially means providing disadvantaged pupils with the extra support they need to benefit from the same educational chances as their more advantaged peers. Equity often takes many forms: from additional support from a Teaching Assistant to extra differentiation in the classroom: but rarely does it extend beyond school – to include parents, and they are the missing educational link.

Back to the issue of white boys, some allegedly now further behind in the educational race than pupils in minority ethnic groups: Martin’s article further suggests that British race relations are a story of improvement, and that the level of perceived ‘social distance’ is less than it was thirty or forty years ago – that white working class boys now need attention. A thorny issue. There can never be a magical, new society. Therefore let’s at least do the best with what we have. Further, there have always been divisions based on social class and these divisions will never entirely go away. Having said that, there must always be opportunities for individuals to aspire in whatever class they perceive themselves to be in. Mine was working class – but I achieved. I like to think I would still have achieved in a comprehensive.

But here’s the crucial thing – my parents (when I left school in 1961) had no upward-moving aspirations on my behalf. I never recall any conversation with them about university, perhaps because no member of my (very working class) family had ever been there. Sixty years on, thankfully, every young person in our country (whatever race or class) has the opportunity to thrive and excel, given the right educational and social conditions. So, putting it simply, as a society let’s not be divisive. We need to see beyond both skin and class. Achievement is about vision.

So what is needed? In a nutshell – parents. Schools cannot continue to deal with the job of learning entirely alone. Unequal results (portrayed as left behind white boys?) have shown it. Yet, at the same time, many parents need support to play a more involved role in their child’s education. They have neither the knowledge nor the confidence to be involved. So inviting and helping all parents to play a greater role in school learning makes good sense.

Parents may need to be more assertive. Need confidence and inspiration? Start by finding out WHAT your child learns and HOW. My books will help – Support Your Child with SEND (Book 1) and at successive Key Stages (From EYFS to Key Stage 3), by Sylvia Edwards, are available from Lulu in ebook and printed form, and from Amazon. Visit my website: www.sylviaedwardsauthor.co.uk

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