North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Culture war over ‘white privilege’ mars MPs’ report on levelling up education attainment

The political row over the House of Commons Education Committee’s report on the schooling of white working class children, with its focus on issues around ‘white privilege’, has had the unfortunate effect of distracting attention from some valuable lessons that could help bring much-needed levelling up to pupils in the North East, whatever their ethnicity.

The committee divided along political lines over its report The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, and The Guardian reported that one Labour MP produced her own alternative report.

According to the committee: ‘While it is important to understand and address underachievement for all pupils, educational attainment is lower for disadvantaged pupils in the White group than for disadvantaged pupils in other main ethnic groups.’ The committee specifically criticises the use of the term ‘White Privilege’ in schools.

Leaving aside these politically charged issues, it is necessary to note that the North East has the highest proportion of White British people in England and Wales (93.6% according to the 2011 census) as well as the highest proportion of secondary school pupils in England eligible for free school meals in 2019/20 (21.2%) and the second lowest average Attainment 8 score in England, with 48.4 in 2019/20, marginally ahead of Yorkshire and the Humber, with 48.3.

(Attainment 8, broadly speaking, measures the achievement of a pupil across eight subjects including maths and English, at GCSE level or equivalent).

Many North East children are clearly being left behind in their education, and it is the committee’s recommendations for dealing with this that are most relevant in the region. It wants to see support for (white) working class children and families ‘from cradle to career’, with the spread of Family Hubs like that already existing in Stockton. Of Family Hubs, the committee says:

‘Family Hubs are “local support centres where families with children and young people aged 0–19 can access a broad and integrated range of early help to overcome difficulties and build stronger relationships”. Family Hubs are a “central access point” for all families that works with other services to signpost support. Family Hubs can also have an important role specifically in educating and supporting parents through initiatives such as parenting classes.

‘The Family Hubs network highlights Family Hubs in Stockton-on-Tees that offer “parentcraft sessions” and virtual parenting courses during lockdown, which particularly helped the centre reach fathers. We have heard about the potential of this model to support disadvantaged White families throughout their child’s time in education’.

As I found in my thesis on devolution, the performance of North East schools is more or less up to average, but pupil attainment is not. The committee is right that what children need is support for learning in the family and the community. But why on earth it felt it necessary, or even a good idea, to mar this very promising proposal by specifying that it has potential to support disadvantaged White families is unclear, unless it be ‘all about culture wars’ as the Labour MP for Gateshead, Ian Mearns, a member of the committee, told The Journal.

The government should ignore the ‘white privilege’ aspects of the report and turn its attention to Family Hubs and other recommendations that can raise the attainment levels of disadvantaged pupils of all ethnicities. The North East certainly needs levelling up of this sort, and without being dragged into a culture war. But one cannot be optimistic that it will get it.