The Report on achievement by white working class boys published today by the Education Select Committee makes clear what educationalists have known for some time: this group underperform in school compared with almost all other groups except perhaps traveller children, and have been falling behind as other groups have improved at a faster rate. Why this is, and the solutions proposed by the Committee, reveals the complexity of the problem.
No doubt the one solution highlighted by many commentators will be the lengthening of the school day to provide both wraparound care and somewhere for older pupils to do their homework and participate in after-school activities. The homework facility is a good idea where pupils lack space and facilities at home. But, it will only work if pupils are motivated to learn, and there is a risk that this is too often not the case.
Absence rates for schools serving white working class communities are often above the national average, and it is well known that pupils falling behind early on in their education struggle to catch up. As a result, it might be worth exploring how we ensure the best quality teachers are working in the early years of schools serving these communities, and also how we create learning opportunities that cope with a less than perfect attendance pattern. This would be the opposite of the big stick, fine for non-attendance route that anyway doesn’t take into account the ability of a family to pay any fine.
With a looming teacher shortage in some parts of the country, addressing the problem of who teaches where is vital if the gap between white working class pupils and the rest of society isn’t to widen still further. Such school cannot be allowed to struggle to find teachers.
However, there is much to be done to motivate the parents, many of whom underachieved at school, and don’t see the reason for forcing a regular pattern of attendance on their offspring. But, society must engage with them, and offer help so their children can benefit from our future economic success as a nation.
With the structural changes to the labour market that have taken place over the past few decades many of the jobs that didn’t need much education have disappeared, and those that remain are often not well paid. Some years ago I noted an educationalist that had said that ‘the porter of yesterday had become the fork lift truck driver of today and the operator of a computer managed warehouse of tomorrow’. Well tomorrow has arrived. White working class boys with no qualifications sometimes have a choice between perhaps either window cleaning or driving white vans; and even window cleaning is becoming more skilled, and there are no jobs for van boys any longer.
Whatever society does to attack this problem of underachievement is likely to cost money, and reassessing how schools are funded, especially those offering the early years of schooling, remains an important consideration.
Now that schools are no longer the total responsibility of local authorities, the government must come forward with a programme to help address the underachievement: keeping schools open longer is only a small part of the solution; fining parents is no real solution, but ensuring the right teachers work in the schools where they will make the most difference is something worth trying. Achieving it will either cost money or mean a total rethink of how teachers are employed, and a challenge to school autonomy.