What's happening to blue-collar boys?
New data undermines some very misleading narratives
Somebody once said it is easier to raise strong children than fix broken men. I think about that a lot when, like this week, I download the latest statistics on what is really happening in Britain’s education system.
Britain, so the story goes, is an institutionally racist society in which sinister ‘power structures’ are holding back minorities while the white majority pushes ahead. But the latest statistics fly in the face of this narrative. They also point to how something is going terribly wrong among white working-class boys.
According to statistics from the Department for Education, for the first time in British history a lower proportion of white pupils are going to the most highly selective universities than any other ethnic group in the country.
The figures are striking.
Among British Chinese families almost 41% of their youngsters are now progressing into ‘high-tariff’ or highly selective, typically elite universities, such as Oxbridge and the Russell Group. The figure for young British Asians is 16%. For Black British it is 10.7%. For white British … it is just 10.5%.
Seen from one perspective, this is a remarkable success story and one we should sing from the rooftops. Contrary to the Doomers and Declinists, who would have you believe that everybody who is not white in Britain is falling behind, many children from minority ethnic backgrounds are now thriving in the education system.
In fact, they are not only more likely than their white peers to make it into one of the most highly selective elite universities but are more likely to make it into university at all. Fully 81% of Chinese children, almost 66% of Asian children and 48% of mixed-race children now go to university —compared to just 40% of white children.
Crucially, though we never seem to hear about it, Black British kids have made the most striking progress. Over the last decade, between 2009/10 and 2020/21, their rate of progress into the higher education system by the age of 19 has surged by nearly twenty percentage points, rocketing from 44% to 62%. Increasingly, they are pulling away from children who are white or from mixed backgrounds.
So too has the rate at which they are progressing into the most elite institutions. A decade ago, Black British kids were at the bottom of the pile. Not even one in twenty went to a highly selective university. Today? More than one in ten do and they are now routinely pushing ahead of their white counterparts.
This is why, this year, record numbers of Black and Asian students were accepted into Britain’s top universities, with the number accepted surging by an impressive 19%. At Cambridge and Oxford, nearly 30% and 24% of undergraduates who were admitted in the latest rounds came from black, Asian or minority backgrounds —both records.
As Tomiwa Owolade pointed out in The Times this week, much of this undermines the fashionable narrative about Britain that is now rife on the progressive left —that our schools are destroying the potential of black children. The reality is very different.
What is happening, when you drill into the data, is that black African kids are now routinely outperforming their black Caribbean counterparts by some margin —though, even still, black Caribbean girls on free school meals are still more than twice as likely as white girls on free school meals to make it into university while both black Caribbean boys on free school meals and black Caribbeans who are not dependent on free school meals are now also outperforming their white peers.
“This shows”, writes Owolade, “that viewing education in Britain primarily through the lens of racism is extremely limiting. If racism explained everything, why would schools exclude white British pupils at a higher rate than black African pupils? Why would educational institutions discriminate against black Caribbean children in favour of black Africans?”
Nor can these sharp differences simply be reduced to class, as many think. If you look at how all children on free school meals are progressing then you will find that black African kids on free school meals -at 61%- are almost twice as likely as black Caribbean kids -at 36%- to progress into uni by the time they turn 19. Bangladeshi kids on free school meals -at 62%- are nearly twenty points more likely than Pakistani kids on free school meals -at 49%- to follow them into university.
What this points to, in my eyes at least, is the critical importance of other factors that are routinely written out of the debate —such as the very different rates of family breakdown across different ethnic groups, the extent to which, if at all, those families are transmitting cultural values to their children which stress the importance of education, hard work, and aspiration, and the strength of their local communities.
Either way, if you look objectively at the data, then you will simply not find much evidence to support some of the lazy narratives about systemic discrimination or institutional racism. If anything, minority ethnic kids are powering ahead and this is something we should celebrate.
As I have argued before, in many areas of our national life we are slowly but steadily moving into a new, post-racial era in which people from minority ethnic backgrounds enjoy unprecedented social mobility and progress. Clearly, we must always remain on guard against racism and discrimination —other studies, for example, find that minorities still face barriers in rental and employment markets. But there are also lots of good things hidden away in the data that we should talk more often about.
But, at the same time, this is most definitely not the case for one group of children who are routinely ignored in the debate about how Britain is changing —kids from the white working-class and, especially, white working-class boys.
As the latest statistics underline, consistently, they are not only the worst performers at GCSE-level and A-level but their rate of progression into university and into one the most selective universities now lags well behind every other ethnic group.
Often, only children from Traveller, Roma, and Gypsy families do worse.
In fact, in some years, kids from the white working-class have fallen behind those who are ‘looked after’ in council care and who speak English as a second language.
If you compare them to children from other groups who rely on free school meals then the picture is striking —65% of Chinese boys, 53% of Bangladeshi and Black African boys, 41% of Pakistani boys, and 25% of Black Caribbean boys are now progressing into university. White working-class boys? Just 14% do.
They are also among the least likely to progress into prestigious universities, which only 2% of them do, compared to 11% of Indian boys and 22% of Chinese boys on free school meals. And, as each year replaces the last, they are increasingly struggling to keep up with white working-class girls who, over the last ten years, have seen their progression rate increase about twice as fast as the rate for boys.
As Professor Peter Edwards of Oxford University said this week:
“White working-class young males are now the truly disadvantaged group in Britain. In this age of levelling up, how can this be allowed to happen? What we are seeing is a terrible waste of talent on an enormous scale. This appalling situation also sows the seeds of social unrest.”
Why is this happening? When I worked with the Education Committee to explore this question, our report pointed to a myriad of factors —persistent deprivation that has cascaded over multiple generations, a historic failure of governments on both the left and right to invest seriously in levelling-up communities, a tendency among white working-class parents to not see education as a pressing priority for their children, a lack of social capital or strong social networks in their declining towns, and a failure by politicians to seriously address these disproportionately low rates of participation.
But, to be frank, I would point just as much at the universities themselves. Rather than build a genuine meritocracy in which the best and the brightest flourish, whatever their race may be, some universities today simply appear more interested in promoting a kind of performative and tokenistic brand of identity politics in which, if we are being honest, kids from the white working-class rarely feature.
Researchers at the think-tank NEON have shown that while universities have invested considerable effort in trying to increase their intake of other students —while falling over themselves to remove statues, ‘decolonise’ reading lists, and undermine free speech— they simultaneously failed to invest the same energy and resources into developing targets and initiatives for kids from the white working-class.
Not everybody should go to university, clearly. But there is clearly an imbalance in how we are treating these children. One symbol of this arrived in 2018 when the rapper Stormzy impressively provided scholarships for black students to study at Cambridge. But the next year, when philanthropist Sir Bryan Thwaites offered scholarships to help left behind white kids into private schools he was turned down due to fears it might be seen as racial discrimination.
And even those who have drawn attention to this issue, such as black education consultant Tony Sewell, recently found his offer of an honorary doctorate at the University of Nottingham withdrawn due to the ‘controversy’ that surrounded his report which had also challenged the claim that Britain is institutionally racist. Interestingly, Nottingham, with campuses in China and Malaysia, had no problem awarding honorary degrees to Chinese communists and politicians convicted of fraud.
There are wider trends at work here, too, which should give us pause for thought. Women are now participating in Britain’s higher education system to a much greater extent than men —in the latest data, released this week, 51% of girls progress into university by the age of 19 compared to only 38% of boys. And this gap has been widening over time, from 8 points a decade ago to 12 points today. So too is the rate at which women are accepted into the most highly selective universities.
Over time, given that university graduates are more likely to marry other university graduates, it is not hard to see how blue-collar boys may find themselves falling even further behind, lacking the ‘right’ educational qualifications to not just appear successful but attractive in what some academics call our ‘schooled societies’.
We also know that passing through university actively encourages students to adopt more socially liberal values and drift leftwards in politics. It is not hard to see, therefore, how in the years and decades ahead having a large and growing number of left behind, non-graduate, conservative, if not populist, working-class men who feel they have been cut adrift by everybody else could raise some big and important questions for democracy —not least as those same men are asked to reflect on their ‘white privilege’, their ‘white guilt’, their ‘unconscious bias’, and their alleged role in perpetuating ‘systemic racism’ within British society.
It seems to me, then, that somehow we need to get to a place where we can both speak freely and loudly about the success stories that are unfolding in Britain while also ensuring that our politicians, governments, universities, and national debate do not lose sight of the kids who are consistently falling behind and who —if we are being honest without ourselves— are simply not fashionable enough for a hashtag.
Thanks to those who sent in comments and e-mails in response to the latest posts on the Great Awokening of British media and the rise of Liz Truss. Since the latter, we have had another poll which suggests …
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