Notes on:  Kafui Adjogatse & Esther Miedema (2021): What to do with ‘white working class’ underachievement? Framing ‘white working-class’ underachievement in post-Brexit Referendum England, Whiteness and Education, DOI: 10.1080/23793406.2021.1939119

Dave Harris

There has been lots of media attention on underachievement of this group especially in early post-Brexit England dominated by anti-immigration and nationalist rhetoric. They analyse four policy documents and responses in mainstream newspapers. They decided that the emphasis on redistributive social justice and identity politics confirms interest divergences as in CRT [I thought CRT advocated this] and that the emphasis obscures 'issues common across groups' [fancy, not at all like CRT then!

Theresa May identified white working class underachievement as a major injustice, while others saw it as just the latest moral panic. Leaving the EU could have been seen as a matter of discontent and the growing voice of the white working class of the left behind, although empirical data 'revealed that the vote to leave… was disproportionately delivered by the white middle-class' (2). Nevertheless, the post Brexit vote seems to offer some sort of backdrop to education policy in that racial and ethnic undertones were prominent, especially anti-immigration rhetoric [Islington Remainer myth in my view]

Certainly, 'the construction of a victimised white working class' has appeared in discourse and policy, apparently in order to cater to the left-behind working classes. It's been less prominent since Johnson has been Prime Minister, although some conservatives still maintain it. There is already some scholarship on it including Gillborn. However they are interested in redistributive social justice discourses adopting identity politics and how this can lead to 'interest divergences' by portraying education as a zero-sum game — underachievement of white working-class boys is seen as the fault of initiatives targeting girls and ethnic minorities. However if we take different ideas, like 'Fraser's notion of status subordination' we can target different aspects of underachievement that do not follow this narrative.

They analyse four documents on educational policy — May's first policy consultation about education, two responses to it and a report by the Social Mobility Commission. They look at media comments. They focus on secondary schools in England.They want to bring together social justice theory and critical race theory by looking at redistributive social justice and interest divergence.

White working class is a term with fluid boundaries. Sometimes it means non-elite people, at other times it means some sort of deviant underclass. It has the potential to mobilise support around particular issues especially to apportion blame. It is defined differently with regard to educational achievement. For example looking at GCSE performance, white working-class boys have ranked in the bottom two ethnic groups (excluding travellers) 'each year in the past decade, but Gillborn says that the figures used to define them are inconsistent with other definitions, often using FSM 'which amounts to 15% of all pupils in 2016, while the British Social Attitudes survey of 2016 said that 60% of UK adults self identified as working class. So Gillborn is suggesting that the media and political commentators take the receipt of FSM to define working-class.

There is a gendered aspect of this discussion in that the debate is largely centred on boys, and some explanatory narratives have drawn attention to gender gaps, such as discussions of the '"crisis of masculinity"', resistance to the femine aspects of the school and discipline (3). Policies of blaming underperforming schools have not helped. Young men have been seen to be overlooked, and this storyline has impacted on public imagination and has affected educational discourse and policy.

Victimisation of white people has appeared before [references include Gillborn again] and have been taken up in the media, again mostly focusing on white people with FSM, with minority groups as the winners. However white non-FSM versus white FSM is also a substantial gap, 'more pronounced than into ethnic group or gender gaps' [chart from DFE 2016 shows this page 4]. (4). Ethnicity is often seen as an easy explanation. Discrimination towards white working classes may not be because they are white [same is argued by Sewell with black Caribs of course]

Resource redistribution is the usual solution, and has taken the form of policies such as the Ethnic and Minority Achievement Grant and Aiming High programme, funding disadvantaged groups based on race ethnicity and gender. However, reallocation may do little in tackling structural causes, and it assumes a zero-sum game, and especially perpetuates the view that white working class kids are victims of support provided to other ethnic groups [apparently an article by Keddie 2015 is cited here] (5). Even Angela Rayner seems to have thought this is an unintended consequence. Of course the 'broader privileged status of [non-workingclass] whites' has been ignored. [As always]

We should look at equity instead as 'removing barriers that impede individuals' capacity to participate in the social world on a par with others', according to Fraser, and reject identity politics in favour of status subordination. We can focus on intersectionality seen set of homogenising groups, and recognise 'many commonalities between the white working class and ethnic minority communities'. Centring on these areas of similarity may be better in challenging unjust socio-economic structures, whereas ethnic solidarity may produce people on opposite sides of the political debate [couldn't agree more, but somehow Gillborn 2010b is cited in support of this -- see link]

CRT offers a suitable framework to examine redistributive social justice and education. It began in critical legal studies and puts race at the centre of social inequalities, contending that racism must be seen as 'a "system of advantage" rather than as a matter of individual prejudice', racism as systematic, normalising beliefs policies and practices that advantage whites. It challenges a-historicism and focuses on socio-economic and historical contexts.

Ladson- Billings and Tate introduced it into education as one of the main means to maintain white privilege and supremacy. Normal studies have tended to neglect historically disenfranchised groups and to de-emphasise the racial nature of inequalities in favour of class or gender. This could be seen as lying behind criticism of the media focus just on white working-class boys — they ignore class gender and race [so does CRT ignore gender]

Interest convergence has become central to CRT, an idea that advancements in racial justice result from a convergence of interest between whites and nonwhites. Interest divergence occur when the racial interests diverged, and this highlights 'the psychological wage that poor whites draw from their sense of racial superiority despite continued economic marginalisation' and provides '"racism's ever shifting yet ever present structure"' (6). Runnymede Trust agreed that the discourse on white working-class underachievement has been constructed by politicians and  other groups and the media to allow elites to leave the hierarchy out of the equation, and permit some idea of redistributive justice as a [compensation] for white working class male interests.

The 'EU referendum campaign was centred on the idea that the education system was being overburdened by immigrants' [really? — They also say that this was 'fairly limited in prominence'] (7) like all the other public services, hence the likelihood to vote leave of those in areas of low economic growth, the left behind. May asserted that this frustration faced by working-class families included a lack of good schools and an inability to buy into school catchment areas. Much of this was based on the FSM measure.

Critical frame analysis can be used to pin down the different representations that actors offer about policy problems and solutions. It proceeds through 'a set of sensitising questions' and offers the idea of a frame as '"an interpretation scheme that structures the meaning of reality"' this helps see how particular meanings of reality are constructed and how they shape certain responses and interventions. They used it to see how policy problems and solutions were framed in relation to education and white working class boys.

There is not much policy to analyse, because they want to focus on May's tenure. So they chose the four mentioned above. One was produced by a particular counsel, Knowsley, a predominantly white working class area but also the worst performing local education area in England, and it was written by a think tank that has been influential on Conservative policy. The social mobility commission is sponsored by the DFE.

Their sensitising questions are split into 'diagnosis, prognosis, voice and intersectionality' and are further broken into: 'what is represented as the problem, who is the problem supposed to affect, who was responsible for the problem' [diagnosis]; 'to which group will solutions be directed to [sic], what do solutions entail, who is responsible for undertaking solutions' [prognosis]; which sociopolitical actors are referenced in the text, what types of sources are cited [voice]; to what extent is the recognition of the interrelation between class, ethnicity, gender and other dimensions considered, whether any particular reference is made to certain genders and ethnicities, what type of representations are made of specific identity groups, to what extent are identity groups homogenised' (8). They also looked at how these policies were framed in the media, press releases and media commentary.

In the first consultation paper, the principal problem was apparently a broad lack of social mobility, blamed on insufficient good school places, so the solution was to open up school places to children regardless of background. Recommendations were not aimed to benefit of any particular group. The obviously segregated structure of the UK education system is not addressed, private provision was particularly recommended. There was not particularly strong emphasis on white working-class boys, although the media read it that way.

The Knowsley report clearly saw the problem as a white working class issue together with deprivation. They saw white working class parents as unlikely to engage in children's attainment and having low expectations compared to other ethnic groups. However this homogenised white working class people as a single group, saw lack of parental engagement is almost exclusively white working class, and failed to consider intersections say with gender. Generally, while the two worst performing LEAs are predominantly white, the 10 worst areas where the percentage of children on FSM is in excess of 20% include only four where 80% of the population is white. So overall, 'there is no overly strong correlation between GCSE performance and percentage of white students, even when areas of high FSM are taken into account' (12)

Unsurprisingly, remedies referred to conservative policies such as introducing new grammar schools to focus on the needs of white working class kids, and this was taken up by the press, especially the Telegraph and the Mail [there's the usual claim that these must've been influential because they were the fourth most and second widely circulated newspapers]

The Sutton Trust released the third document, and intersectionality was much more prominent, insisting that the challenges of other groups especially ethnic minority groups should not be neglected, nor genders, but they still segregated their policy recommendations by ethnicity, and suggested targeted attainment for white British pupils. There is also support for the poor boy's narrative and focus on white working-class boys, 'arguably' (13) encouraging competition between ethnic groups and also between boys and girls.

The Social Mobility Commission adopted an intersectional approach and explored causal factors in and outside schools. It referred to the significant recent attention devoted to white British boys, but insisted that they still face fewer barriers on entry to the labour market and are more socially mobile than female black and Asian Muslim peers. They analysed particular barriers to social mobility at varying stages for different groups and recommended different proposals for different actors, disaggregated according to ethnicity, status and gender. There are also common challenges 'access to high-quality preschools for children with English as a second language and those from low income white British families'. They also thought that the worst performing groups should not lead to too much detraction from other poorly performing groups. They addressed access to schools, tiering and setting practices and teacher assessment. Media coverage was more varied and still tend to focus on poor white British boys, although there was also material on funding cuts, school selection and the need for high quality teachers.

So there were different perspectives. The first three were limited in discussing transformative change, possibly even superficial, but none of them exactly positioned white working-class boys as victims of policies that had favoured other groups. However redistributed measures were proposed without looking at structural inequalities, especially those created by the 'stratified education system' — some groups proposed the creation of new selective schools. Interest divergences might then emerge. The same goes with considering socio-economic inequality compounded by whiteness, lack of parental engagement and lack of ambition, seeing the white working class as an underclass and at the same time as a group that has been left behind, victims. It is difficult to find empirical support of the extent of disadvantage exactly [well, some specious reasoning of the kind above accompanying the commentary on Knowsley certainly confuses the issue]. The press release again exaggerated interest divergences by pursuing the idea that future selective grammar schools should be targeted at white working class children, which again diverts attention away from structural inequalities. There was a suspicious delay of the findings 'in the light of the referendum' [the authors are strange about this suggesting that 'an opportunity was seen to politicise the findings in a way not necessarily consistent with its own recommendations'] (15).

There has long been argument in favour of forming new selective schools. Proponents say that this would allow intelligent children from poorer backgrounds to prosper, but 'much research' suggest that the value added of selective schools is limited and 'better performance can be attributed to the higher aptitude of students who exhibit higher attainment levels at the time of admission', so the idea of grammar schools to improve white working class outcomes is 'debatable'

The Sutton Trust paper is more intersectional but still goes for redistributive recommendations and ethnic segregation. The Social Mobility Commission piece does go beyond redistribution and examines matters such as the underrepresentation of black Caribbean students in higher tiers of tests. All the documents have largely avoided commenting on the angry left behind white working class, although much media interest has tried to address this political dimension and picks out the recommendations in favour of this group. The neglect of gender in some of the reports has also fed media coverage emphasising boys.

There is no intention to understate the real issues facing the white working classes, but to show how debate can obscure the need for transformational societal change 'in favour of pitting the "white working classes, and especially boys, in a zero-sum game against ethnic minorities' (16) and to combat media rhetoric advocating redistributive measures, such as the expansion of selective schooling. These measures will do little to transform the unequal class structures. The status quo of a socially segregated and stratified education system needs to be fundamentally challenged.

The emergence of the discourse about white working-class boys 'is highly significant'. For Gillborn, it is a useful distraction to the scrutiny of neoliberalism after the financial crisis, and worries about the political mobilisation of the left behind and the angry white working class after the Brexit vote. Policymakers are seen to be listening to the discontented voices without doing much to change the education system, and focusing on ethnicity rather than class [ironically enough, as a safe kind of ethnicity].

Since Brexit there's been more policy-making and different education ministers, so we have to be careful in drawing conclusions. But we should continue to trace how the trope of left behind white working-class boys is actually used and how it needs to definite solutions being proposed.

[disappointing on the alternatives to redistribution, especially as it was N Fraser -- common identities would bust CRT?] [I couldn't trace the reference to Fraser made here, but I found another one -- it's good]