Why having a school system that is less racist than the employment environment results in white free school meals pupils doing worse at school than other FSM children
Discussions about the ‘white working class’ come and go, and being part of (or, at least from) that demographic I take an interest especially when they becomes culturalist and start to blame people for their own misfortune/failure. The debate about schooling, seemingly about whether ‘white working class boys’ (me again) are at the bottom of the pile, is ripe for some rethinking that takes in process and a critical realist take on causation. Counterintuitive it may at first appear, but it is to be expected that if:
I recently had the pleasure of hearing David Gillborn speak, and was reminded once again of the slippage in a lot of talk of the white working class and academic underachievement. Two parts are important here. First, we should note how some of this debate posits ‘white working class’ as an ethnicity, which could usefully be compared to all black Britons, as opposed to ‘black working class’. Regardless of how we want to think the status of ethnicity and culture – and I find these concepts problematic for such work because of their fuzziness and their not being a straightforward causal independent variable – this approach doesn’t help us untangle the various constituent parts. Second, we should also note that FSM status is not the same as ‘working class’, but is an administrative status with specific causes.
This, however, made me think about the problems of comparing even the free school meal cohorts that are noted as, on the one hand ‘white’, and on the other ‘BME’ or any subgroups. After all, for any robust comparison we should be looking at samples that differ only according by white v BME, or only FSM v non-FSM, and that’s something we can’t be sure of. Indeed, there are good reasons for believing that they are not. In this particular case, it only takes a racist employment environment to make these FSM groups not properly comparable. There are complications we could add to this – thinking about who migrates, for instance – but these are unnecessary. What we are studying, in these comparisons, is groups of pupils that are sorted by a prior process, that is the way that some pupils get FSM and some do not.
To get free school meals, a family has to have a low income. Indeed, under the Universal Credit system it will be less than £7400 per year after tax, before benefits. In essence, you can get FSM if income is so low that the state is making a benefit payment due to having a lower income than it believes people can live on. Now remember that unemployment rates are higher for BME people, even if they are graduates. Sadly, this data lumps all BME people together, while in reality there are differences across the groups, but this is enough for this argument.
This racism in the employment system means (all other things being equal) that the parental background of BME free school meals will be skewed towards a slightly better educated cohort. A higher proportion of those in a ‘BME unemployed’ group will be graduates than is the case in the white unemployed group. Therefore, if the education of parents has any influence (through whatever mechanism) on how well kids do at school, then the overrepresentation of graduates in the unemployed BME parents means that it is to be expected that their cohort of kids will have better results than that of the unemployed white parents. Indeed, given that one named route to FSM is that of asylum seeker benefits (support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999) and many seeking asylum are highly educated but not allowed to work, then this relationship will be even stronger.
Of course, what this approach also suggests is more thinking not only about the process of who is in the free school meals cohort, but also what might cause them to do worse at school, and so what can be done about it. This can go hand-in-hand with thinking about why other groups do worse at school too: it’s pointed out in the official statistics that ‘the Gypsy/Roma ethnic group had the lowest percentage of pupils achieving A* to C in English and Maths GCSE (10% did so)’ but looking at the tables you find that FSM/non-FSM makes little difference here. Apart from in that case, FSM seems to always make a big difference in a negative direction, and makes most difference for White Irish pupils. Apart from Irish travellers/Roma/Gypsy, it’s the Black Caribbean cohort that has the lowest percentage.
What I find most disheartening about the public debate on this is that these ‘social facts’ are then taken as read, with the combination of ethnic identity, alongside FSM or class, given a more or less causal status that can be responded to as is. As in much work on extremism, the area I normally work on, this approach sometimes end up saying it’s about ‘their’ culture. Most obviously, if it is just about culture then why do many pupils still succeed despite being members of these cohorts. Those gaps described above are cohort figures, not individuals. As Becky Allen writes about the Pupil Premium – the extra per-pupil funding schools get alongside the free school meals – the targeting is crude because it uses the demographic indicators as opposed to checking who has more barriers to education and what they are. There is plenty of research on this, and a long list of factors including: parents that are not engaged with education because of their own experience; drugs and alcohol issues; a lack of settling because of school moves; poverty that makes getting to school with the right kit harder; teachers with low expectations of particular pupils; other priorities; assumptions that education isn’t needed for the expected job; and so on and so on. Perhaps it is time to reread Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour.
None of these factors are about ‘whiteness’, ‘working classness’, ‘blackness’ per se. A large part of the real story is that the pupils whose parents (for whatever reason) don’t invest as much in education tend to do less well. This is something we can address by identifying this, and working on it… Becky Allen’s approach is even more specific:
‘Categorising students as a means of allocating resources in schools is very sensible, if done along educationally meaningful lines (e.g. the group who do not read at home with their parents; the group who cannot write fluently; the group who are frequently late to school)’