Northamptonshire County Council’s race to the top agenda was recently brought to our attention and we were delighted to see that Education was a top priority of this consultation. It was admitted that the performance of schools in Northamptonshire was neither consistent nor rapid enough to secure the best for children and young people living in the county. As a result, the County Council’s 2020 vision is to be above the highest performing local authority measured by the relevant performance indicator for achievement. In order to achieve this the County Council will focus on the delivery of excellent outcomes for children and young people whether they attend Academies, Free Schools, UTCs or Trusts. The Council aims to work with outstanding educational leaders and businesses to develop the Northamptonshire model of educational excellence, which is built on good citizenship and respect for all, setting of uncompromising targets for all, and outstanding teaching. The consultation also highlights the Council’s desire to ‘close the gap’ between white working-class boys and the general school population; this part of the consultation we find disturbing because of the emphasis on whiteness.
This ideology propagates racism, a problem which is deeply rooted in our education system. The notion itself is not novel as in 1996, the then Chief Inspector of schools for England, Chris Woodhead stated that the failure of boys, and in particular white working-class boys, was one of the most disturbing problems we face within the whole education system (Woodhead 1996: 18). The danger with this ideology is two-fold. Firstly, it misrepresents the true nature of race equality. This is because students from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds continue to experience significant and consistent inequalities of opportunity. Secondly, it threatens to reinforce or re-conceptualise class bias as race bias. It is no surprise that social deprivation affects a child’s concentration and overall success at school however this is not a race issue. According to Professor Cassen (Cassen, McNally & Vignoles 2015: 108) disadvantaged children are already at an educational disadvantage before they enter school and therefore need more preschool help. He therefore proposes that improvements could be made to identify and support children who are late in learning to read and write at primary school and to address the issues before they become entrenched.
In 2011 the Prime Minister, David Cameron stressed the importance of education stating that:
“Education doesn’t just give people the tools to make a good living, it gives them the character to live a good life, to become good citizens. So, for the future of our economy and for the future of our society, we need a first-class education for every child. ” (Cameron, 2011)
Focusing on white working class pupils alone is not providing a first class education for every child, rather it is giving more resources to those within a disadvantaged socio-economic group who, because of their race, are otherwise disproportionately advantaged by the educational system. We have watched the recent transformation of the school system in England and Wales evident in the emergence of Academies, Free Schools and faith schools and it is clear that this variety compounds the problems experienced by pupils from BME backgrounds, particularly because it aggravates existing racial inequalities. BME groups make up 2 per cent of the general population of England and Wales and 17 per cent of children between the ages of 0 -15 are from BME groups. This means that BME children constitute 28 per cent of state funded primary schools and 23 per cent of state funded secondary schools (Office for National Statistics, 2011). However, there is an under-representation of BME personnel working in the educational sector. During the last Labour government funds were set aside to support BME pupils and the improvement in GCSE attainment is proof of the effectiveness of that project, however since the election of the coalition government the funding is no longer ring-fenced and therefore, although some schools still receive this funding, they are free to use it for whatever purpose they deem fit. Further, all the programmes which had been set up to recruit and retain BME teachers have also been cancelled (Gilborn, 2014). If our education system is to be a reflection of the diverse nature of modern Britain this move is counter-productive.
Current statistical data from the Department of Education (DfE 2015) suggests that in relation to educational attainment by gender, social class and ethnic origin, students from BME backgrounds are doing better than in previous years. Looking at the DfE data, although white students are not the highest performers, they certainly aren’t doing badly. This is because the structure of the education system favours them. Regardless of this, the government insists on sticking to the rhetoric that white working class boys underperform. On a closer look at the basis for this rhetoric, propagated by the County Council, we have found that there was a selective use of educational achievement statistics, as politicians and the media ignore the achievements of a majority of school pupils. In fact, most of the attention has been focused on pupils who receive free school meals (FSM). It is important to note that pupils on FSMs constitute about 14 per cent of the entire student population and essentially come from economically disadvantaged families, which means that they are already at an educational disadvantage. Therefore, considering their educational achievement’s in isolation would definitely yield disturbing results. Our bone of contention with the government and the County Council is therefore that the facts should be stated as they are. Modern Britain is diverse and the way that our education system operates should be a reflection of that diversity. No child living in Britain should have to struggle to get a good education and prioritizing one racial group over another is demonising the diversity that politicians are so quick to praise when it suits.
The purpose of this blog is not to demonise the efforts of the County Council but rather to stress the importance of giving equal opportunities to every child. Conflating class bias with race bias is a very dangerous move which does more harm than good. We should not play politics with the lives of our country’s future.