Online comment editor Eirwen Abberley discusses whether the term ‘white privilege’ should still be used in schools following a recent report on the underperformance of white students.
A recent report by the Education Select Committee highlights concerns about the underperformance of working-class white pupils. The report, which is concerned with how underprivileged white pupils are being neglected by the education system, has warned against using the term ‘white privilege’ in schools. It reasons that focusing on racial inequality creates disharmony between pupils from different ethnic groups.
This report, released in June 2021, accuses the government of a lack of support for disadvantaged white pupils. In 2019, 18 per cent of white British pupils on free meals achieved a grade 5 in English and maths GCSE, compared to the average figure of 23 per cent for pupils on free meals. As a result of this ethnic disparity, committee chairman Robert Halfon stated that it is “muddled thinking” to attribute white pupils’ poor performance to poverty. By deflecting the problem onto supposed racial “disharmony” (Halfon’s buzzword), it seems that the writers of the report see education as a shining opportunity that can be seized by non-white pupils to the detriment of working-class white pupils.
It is not unthinkable to compare this kind of logic to men who, having heard someone mention the 97 per cent of women in the UK who have experienced sexual harassment or worse, refute with “but men get abused too”. The underperformance of white working-class pupils is a serious issue that needs to be addressed (beginning at the root of economic inequality and generational exclusion from education) but it is an issue that does not eclipse the effect of racial inequality of non-white pupils. It is not as simple as a weighing scale, wherein lowering one side can justify the elevation of the other.
It is no secret that working-class pupils are less likely to achieve the highest grades due to lack of economic and cultural resources, as well as fewer opportunities.
Moreover, there are decades of research on the major role that class plays in educational performance. It is no secret that working-class pupils are less likely to achieve the highest grades due to lack of economic and cultural resources, as well as fewer opportunities. Even at university level, students from lower-income backgrounds face prejudice related to their family situation (for example Sophie Pender, the founder of the 93% Club, who experienced elitism and prejudice at university because she grew up on a council estate). Dismissing the intricate and manifold ways in which someone’s economic background influences their educational journey, in favour of belittling movements to empower those affected by racial inequality, is a step in the wrong direction.
And it hasn’t come out of nowhere. This report follows several worrying decisions made by the government, including the refusal to make BAME history a mandatory part of the curriculum. The thinly veiled racism behind this report is still very much alive and kicking, showing that the need for conversations about ‘white privilege’ and Britain’s colonial past is as great as ever.