Occasionally, I see articles written by, or interviews with, Labour shadow ministers which make me die a little bit in side, and no more so than Shadow Education Secretary Tristam Hunt’s idea that the educational underachievement of white British boys is linked to uncontrolled, mass immigration from Eastern Europe. With the immigration debate firmly under the limelight in the run-up to the European elections in May, rather than challenge the idea that immigrants are to blame for just about everything, it looks as though Hunt is instead pandering to UKIP and the right-wing press, who will no doubt be licking their lips at a headline like this.
Hunt appears to be taking two separate issues – the gender gap in educational attainment and immigration – and mixing them together. Hunt did get one thing right, that “what we can do in the education sphere is to [show] that there is a growing issue of white British boys not getting the education they want” – although using immigrants as a scapegoat as to why girls are outperforming boys in our schools does little for that. It is fact that white, working class boys do worst at school. It is reported that last year, “just one in four white British boys on free school meals gained five A* to C GCSE grades, compared with 40% of similarly deprived black boys”. The picture was reportedly similar in 2008, where a government-backed study found that “white working-class teenagers perform worse than their black and Asian classmates in GCSEs”.
There have been many suggestions as to why boys do worse than girls at school. Boys do worse because of stereotypes, which dictate that boys are not as intelligent as girls; boys do worse because girls are said to have a “keener interest in study and an all-round better attitude to education”; boys do worse because they are “less willing to take risks”; boys do worse because their achievement levels are intrinsically linked to their social circumstances; boys do worse because girls are “better behaved and more organised“. Its been suggested here that girls attitudes to learning hasn’t suddenly become more engaging and boys less so, just that women’s participation had previously been so discouraged. Never have I seen an article supporting the idea that boys do worse because of immigration. And I’d expect suggestions like that to be peddled from right-wing parties, not Labour’s own ministers.
Lori Day recommends several breaks and more time for physical education throughout the day, as well as including more hands-on activities, which could “go a long way towards alleviating some of the natural restlessness of boys and harnessing male energy in positive ways.” Suggestions for improving the education of boys range from encouraging more men into primary schools to provide positive role models to starting boys at school a year later than girls, thus preventing them from being left behind due to their late development of language skills. Not once have I seen anyone suggest that immigration is stunting British boys educational development…until now, that is. And strangely enough, a Google search to try and read about education and immigration didn’t really give me much to go on.
Achievement is linked to all sorts of factors, not just gender, but also ethnicity and class. Working class children are less likely to achieve higher grades for a multitude of reasons – material deprivation, being more likely to have parents working longer shifts (often for less money) resulting in less “one on one” time for homework than their middle class counterparts, limited vocabulary, being more likely to be living in poor conditions resulting in increased illness and more missed school days, being more likely to live in cramped conditions meaning a quiet space to study is often impossible. None of these problems are the result of immigration.
Jim Rose, Ofsted’s Director of Inspections in 1999 suggested that some schools are “institutionally racist” – black Caribbean pupils are much more likely to be excluded from school than white pupils, and in 2012, Nick Clegg supported the idea of “blind marking” children’s work after “children with African or Asian-sounding names were likely to be given lower marks of up to 12%”. Children from ethnic minorities, particularly Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black children – are more likely to be raised in low income families, adding economic difficulties to education issues, along with restricted vocabulary often to leading to a breakdown of communication with teachers. Many of the education barriers attributed to working class children ring very true for pupils from ethnic minorities – none of which are the result of immigration and, often, are issues faced by immigrant children. Underachievement is the fault of social inequality; it lies in the vast differences which exist between children of different classes, different genders and different cultures.
There is a very real, serious discussion which needs to be had about exactly why schools appear to be failing boys, about tackling the real issues which exist in the education system for our children – scapegoating immigrants for that cause is dangerous. We should be looking at our schools and asking ourselves why boys (and girls, in fact) are often leaving school under equipped when it comes to finding a job. Discussions surrounding immigration are serious conversations which need to be had, and we should not be allowing UKIP to set the agenda. Immigration is not something to be afraid of, it certainly isn’t something to be ashamed of, and it certainly isn’t the root of educational underachievement amongst our boys.