Underachievement of white disadvantaged pupils


I have secured a debate for later today in the House of Commons to highlight the issue of underachievement of white disadvantaged pupils.

White pupils are the largest underachieving group in Birmingham and across the UK. Whilst almost half of White British pupils not on free school meals (FSM) achieved at least 5 A* – C grades at GCSE in 2007 – the same as the national average for all pupils – only 17% of White British pupils on FSM reached this level.

Put another way, in 2007, 83% of White British pupils on FSM did not achieve 5 A* – C. That is a horrifying statistic – one that is all too often masked when figures for White British pupils are presented as a whole and therefore averaged out.

When we look at real numbers the picture is even more disturbing. Why? Because, put quite simply, there are a lot of white pupils. According to Karamat Iqbal, the author of a report published at the end of last year on the underachievement of white disadvantaged pupils in Birmingham, almost 2,500 white pupils in Birmingham alone did not achieve the equivalent of 5 A* – C at GCSE in 2007.

There is a real need to do far more to address the huge impact of poverty, disadvantage and inequality within white communities. Part of that impact is obviously material. Poor housing, low income and family worklessness are bound to affect the practical ability of pupils to take advantage of educational opportunities to build their own futures. But it is about more than that. Disadvantage also undermines the resilience of communities and depresses aspiration in a destructive cycle.

What, then, can be done?

First, the problem must be properly acknowledged. The white ethnic category should be subdivided according to eligibility for FSM in order to highlight the problem and avoid the averaging of statistics. A national and a local debate on the issue should be instigated.

Karamat Iqbal’s report makes several recommendations and I would encourage the government, as well as colleagues both in and out of the House of Commons, to take these forward. In particular, a national strategy should be developed by the government and supplemented by coherent action by local authorities with the involvement of parents and the wider community and collaboration within and between schools.

Finally, we must tackle the wider issue of outer city deprivation and the resentment it can cause. Resentment which is exploited by groups like the BNP who prey on the real problems people face at this time of recession. And in this week, of all weeks, we should remember they also prey on people’s real alienation from the political process.

The truth is that the simplistic solutions laced with hate which the BNP peddle are blind alleys which offer nothing to our communities. It is up to us to show in practice that there is a different way. And doing far more to respond to the educational underachievement amongst disadvantaged white pupils is an essential part of that.

UPDATE – Debate now available to read online here.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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