White working-class attainment and community resilience
Image taken from original source.
A recent report by the education select committee looked into attainment gaps for white working class pupils.
The report came under immediate criticism for being an attempt to stoke ‘culture war’ debates, thanks to some spurious claims within it (i.e. that terms like ‘white privilege’ are responsible for the “systemic neglect of white people facing hardship who also need specific support.”) However, the issue of white working-class boys falling behind at school is a real problem, as it has been for many years, and it is important that it's addressed. Just 16% of those within this group went to university in 2018-19.
Beyond the headlines, the report also looked at underlying social problems which have forced attainment gaps across the county. These include a lack of opportunity in the areas where pupils are growing up, alongside a dearth of social and civic infrastructure and multi-generational poverty.
A place-based analysis is helpful in understanding gaps in educational attainment, but also how these relate to community resilience. Our own research has consistently found that areas with low levels of ethnic diversity and low educational attainment tend to have greater hostility to immigration and multiculturalism.
The map below shows towns in England and Wales which are in the top quarter for the proportion holding no qualifications, as well as for the size of the white British population. 92 of the 862 towns in England and Wales fulfill both criteria. And our aggregated polling data shows that all 92 of these places score below average for migration liberalism – i.e. are less positive about change and difference than the average town.
This is part of the reason why it’s important to talk about resilience as well as cohesion. After all, the places we’ve listed do not, by definition, have very diverse populations, and integration in the conventional sense (i.e. bringing together new migrant and existing settled groups) is less of an issue. Yet attitudes are nevertheless hostile, and could become much more so in the face of rapid population change or a community flash-point.
The distribution of the 92 places in question is interesting, meanwhile, with a very high concentration in several former industrial heartlands. In particular, as the map shows, a number are situated around Tyne and Wear, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and the Welsh Valleys. Other ex-industrial areas – most notably the North West and the West Midlands – are much less prominent by comparison.
Larger settlements among these low education, predominantly white towns include Aberdare, Hartlepool, Castleford and St Helens. However, one of the most striking elements of the list is that large and medium-sized towns (i.e. those with populations over 30,000) are themselves very rare.
The average 2018 population of the 92 towns we’ve identified was 22,447 – compared to an average of 37,824 for English and Welsh towns as a whole. Many are small settlements on the edge of bigger ones. The list of 92 includes the likes of Mexborough and Goldthorpe, for example, two neighbouring small towns with historic coal-mining industries, halfway between the larger towns of Barnsley and Doncaster.
In terms of solutions to the types of challenge discussed, our Port Talbot local report is interesting. One of the positive examples which it identified was the role of schools as a one-stop-shop for other support services – including adult education and mental health provisions.
Ultimately, these are real issues, which won’t be solved by divisive ‘culture war’ debates but by strengthening the social fabric. Investing in opportunities for these types of areas is essential as part of a more ‘preventative’ approach to cohesion. This will not only help to raise the attainment of white working class boys in schools, but also to create more open, confident and resilient communities where all can thrive.