White British students are lagging behind their counterparts by the time they sit their GCSE’s

According to a report released this week by the CentreForum think tank, white British students are lagging behind their counterparts by the time they sit their GCSE’s.


stock-footage-a-teenage-boy-struggling-with-his-homeworkThis is in stark contrast to the Early Years. White British children in Early Years education are ‘among the highest achievers’. But at some point between beginning school and the end of Secondary Education, a dramatic drop occurs to the point where these same children so promising in their youth are now ‘just below average’, having been overtaken by the children of ten other ethnic groups including Indian, Chinese and other Asian pupils.

Pupils for whom English is an ‘additional language’, i.e. not a first language but an alternative to it, make ‘significant strides’ between beginning and ending education. During Early Years only 59% of EAL (English as an Additional Language) students achieve a ‘good level’ of development on CentreForum’s scale as opposed to 68.9% of their non-EAL peers; but by the end of Key Stage 4 the position is reversed.

Chinese children are perhaps the starkest contrast to their white British peers. On average they achieve an entire two GCSE grades more than their white British counterparts, and are overall twice as likely to achieve a score of 50 or more in their Attainment 8 grades (a benchmark set by CentreForum which includes the key GCSE subjects such as English and maths).

These shocking results are published on the coattails of the announcement made in the recent Budget that all English schools are to be made into academies and taken out of local government control. The Prime Minister’s ‘vision’ is to place the education system in the care of teachers, head-teachers and other relevant professionals rather than the ‘bureaucrats’ of local government.

What this report means for these reforms remains to be seen.

Slow progress or regression?

It must be noted that this does not necessarily mean that pupil attainment for white British children is falling: according to the same study ‘average performance at the end of secondary school has improved by just over half a GCSE grade’ since 2005. In 2015 38% of

pupils attained 50 points or higher in their Attainment 8 results compares to 37.7% the year prior. Similar progress is reported throughout all the years of education.

Concerns have been expressed that these results are ’caused largely by grade inflation’ rather than pupil attainment. The report states explicitly that its purpose is to ‘draw comparisons’ between regions and between pupils rather than measure general attainment over time; besides, this is the first report of its kind released by CentreForum.

Nonetheless while the headline-grabbing report is correct in that white British children have fallen down the rankings, this is because the upward progress of their grades is slower than that of other ethnicities. This is worrying all the same, but indicates that the reality of the report is some way away from how the headlines will be interpreted by the public.

A racial divide?

Newspapers throughout the country have understandably emphasised the issue of race. A click-bait racial scandal will sell newspapers.

To focus simply on the racial aspect of this report is to overlook the less fashionable drivers of this change, which the report itself is actually quick to point out. One of these drivers is the North-South divide. The majority of positive progress at GCSE level has been made in London; nineteen of the twenty highest performing local authorities are found in London, and the majority of the twenty lowest performing authorities are from the Midlands and the North. Similar stories are told in the Early Years and each Key Stage 1 through 4. CentreForum rightly state that London ‘is leading the way on both attainment and progress measures’, something which cannot be overlooked in the hyperbolic media coverage which seems intent on pushing some cause or other in relation to ethnicity.

The report also heavily emphasises the ‘disadvantage gap’. Outcomes for disadvantaged pupils- defined by CentreForum as students eligible for free school meals in at least one of the last six years- continue to lag far behind their more privileged counterparts. This gap has narrowed by 1.2 months since 2007 for Early Years, and 3.2 months for Key Stage 2 since 2006. Despite these results being a step in the right direction, there is a long way to go until the divide is bridged: pupils at the end of Key Stage 4 are still a shocking 19 months behind their peers.

There has also been a 0.2 month regression for secondary school students in just the year before the study. Only 20% of disadvantaged students meet CentreForum’s benchmark in secondary education. This regression is in addition to the fact that disadvantaged students gradually and insidiously ‘continue to fall further behind’ their privileged peers over their educational career. The deficit begins early and only widens as the pupil ages, indicating a cumulative effect.

A real issue

Here then are the true issues behind this report. There is no need to latch onto the story of ethnicity so fondly bought and sold these days: there is a genuine problem here in need of an urgent solution.

To excerpt the majority of the findings of this study is to do a disservice to the disaffected pupils in question, not only poor white British children, but disadvantaged children of every ethnicity. It is all-important that we address the root causes of the regression as outlined in the report itself: the very-much-alive spectres of class division and poverty. In Britain we like to think of our society as having risen above the problems of the class divides seen from the Victorian factory to the miners’ strikes of the 1980’s; this report proves that there is still a long way to go, and that the problem could in fact be becoming even worse.



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