We need to talk about the educational attainment gap




The rise in female and BAME educational success is great, but we can't forget white working class boys



Meet Jack.


He’s a white teenager who lives in Burnley, has three younger siblings, lives in a single parent household and is eligible for free school meals.


Ok, so Jack isn’t real. Maybe there is someone in Burnley who matches that description, but in this case Jack is just an example of a single demographic - a white working class male living in one of the most deprived towns in the country. This demographic has one of the worse records when it comes to education, to the point where the gender gap is changing in the other direction- girls are much more likely to attend university.


Just look at the stats - girls on free school meals are 52% more likely to attend university than their male counterparts. One study showed that any boy born in 2016 (the year of the research) is 75% less likely to attend university by a girl born in the same year. Those are stats that aren’t great- for years we have pushed for women to attend university, considering how they were locked out of higher education for centuries. This has unfortunately gone too well, to the point where they are much more likely to see themselves at university. 40% of young people go onto university, but only 10% of white working class males reach higher education.

If it has not been made clear already, boys like Jack are at a major disadvantage in our education system.


Yes, university is not the be all and end all, but it still carries somewhat of a financial and career advantage in some respects. It is not an issue if your WWM (working class white male) goes onto an apprenticeship, for he will not go onto a mountain of debt and insecurity in the job market. Yet, we still need to look at why the WWM is less likely to hold a degree at a graduation ceremony. If their female, wealthy and ethnic neighbours have a good chance, then we at least owe it to them to understand why this is occurring. Not every degree is worth it, but going into something like medicine or economics could provide wonderful prospects that one would not have otherwise.



The root of it contains several factors. In terms of academic achievement, there is a clear discrepancy between genders and ethnicities. When we look at GCSEs, only 24% of white working class boys achieve 5 good GCSES (A*-C), the lowest of any major demographic in the UK. Several minorities, such as Bangladeshis and Chinese, have improved their results, but that is not so for WWM. That single statistic proves the first and initial barrier to university, as this gets them less likely to go onto further education- generally BTEC and A Levels. In an era of educational inequality, it’s no surprise that boys at schools in deprived areas do not have the push or the ambition to get the required results. If the school is in a poorer area, the focus will not be on university, but entering the labour market as soon as possible in order to make money. This may lead to jobs that aren’t as well paid, secured or sustainable.


There are also informal opportunities. In today’s world, a CV is helped by internships and work experience. Whilst those with more money, connections and wealthier surroundings, there are many more opportunities to boost their CV. Many internships are extremely helpful, but many are also unpaid and in expensive cities, giving those with less funds less of an opportunity to access these. WWM are also less likely to have mentors who have gone to university and those who have had positive experiences. Due to the less than positive view of universities (expensive, unnecessary and not likely to get you a job), those who want to attend may be put off. In her study of WWM in academia, Mary-Claire Travers of UCL said the following:



‘In the Travers study (2016), participants repeatedly stated that they thought that many white working-class young males were negatively impacted if they were in the lower ability groups at school. They did not have any expectation of experiencing academic success and, from what the participants said, the teachers had little expectation that those children in the lower set would experience academic success. Thus, it could be argued that the ‘habitus’ of the school positions white working-class males as ‘deficit’ and as ‘not academic’, and this view underpins everything that takes place. The young men interviewed recognised what went on in schools and how this appeared to cement most white working-class boys into a subordinate position.’


If the WWM is consistently seen as underperforming, unworthy of effort and not academic, that is how he will see himself. Contrast this with middle class parents and ethnic families who constantly strive for their children’s academic success, or private/grammar schools which push for high exam results. If these schools, teachers and societies drag the WWM down instead of encouraging him, then that mindset is going to stick.


Is the white and male part of the equation why so many people ignore this issue? There will be the ‘egalitarian’ reading this who will screech about how white men are so privileged, but that is certainly not the case. Not every white male is the rugby player business student at a Russell Group university, someone who comes from a nice house in Surrey. These white working class males have low expectations placed upon them at birth, with no money, prospects and opportunities. Even Angela Rayner picked up on the issue, though not in the best manner.


Talking about grammar schools is important because they’re a great factor of social mobility. We also need to talk about the Jacks of the world, because they’re important to. If we forget about them, we forget about everyone.

It doesn’t matter if they live in a council house and are on free school meals, they’re still not to be forgotten.



by Sarah Stook

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