Last week, Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, (for whom I have a lot of time and respect, incidentally) gave an interview to the Spectator magazine about the underperformance of white working class boys in education. It was a bit of a dog’s breakfast, to be blunt, for reasons I have spelled out in a piece over on politics.co.uk.
Do please go have a read, but in summary, she got off on the wrong foot by implying the underachievement of boys was a consequence of a focus on girls and ethnic minorities, as if it were a zero sum game, which is a divisive and inaccurate way to think about the issue. It’s also politically clumsy and counter-productive, as it invites a reactionary response from government of purporting to help (white) boys by cutting back on support to girls and BME kids. Marginalised boys and their advocates need all the friends they can get, and it is really not helpful to suggest that providing them with greater support and attention is contrary to the interests of marginalised girls or BME communities. Recognising this is gender-inclusive politics in a nutshell.
That was the section of the interview which captured attention and anger, but my piece focuses on a different problem that I have with what she said or, more pertinently, didn’t say. The solution to white working class boys’ under-performance, she argued, was ‘cultural change’ around values towards education in those communities. This, I reply, is a cop out. When politicians argue for cultural change, what they are saying is that they want things to change, they’re just not going to do anything themselves to bring it about.
Cultural change may indeed be necessary, but it is not within the gift of politicians. Policy change is. In keeping with the Tory government, and all previous governments and education secretaries, Angela Rayner is offering precisely nothing by way of policy to address the problem and that is simply not good enough.
But there was another issue arose this weekend, which I think deserves a bit of attention on its own.
To respond to the debate sparked by Angela Rayner, the Observer commissioned a piece from Kenan Malik (again, someone for whom I have enormous time and respect, incidentally.)
The headline alone is remarkable. I’ve written often about how vulnerable boys and men are marginalised from media and political debate, and how male-specific gender issues are quietly, subtly made invisible, but if Jonathan Swift himself were around to satirise the problem he could not have dreamed up a more perfect illustration. Commenting upon a debate about white working class boys, the Observer’s piece is titled: “In British education, the central issue is class, not ethnicity.”
Of course, headlines often lazily misrepresent the articles they present, but in this case it is a perfectly accurate reflection. These 850 carefully-considered words about the academic attainment of boys wrestles with the question of whether boys are underachieving because they are working class, or whether boys are underachieving because they are white, or perhaps boys are underachieving because they are a combination of white and working class. Within that there is not so much as a single line of acknowledgement that they may be underachieving – even in part – because they are boys.
I raised this politely with Kenan on Twitter and we had a friendly chat which quickly descended into a rather turgid exchange of statistics as we each attempted to demonstrate the relative significance of the different factors. I’ll resist that temptation here, partly because the statistical analysis of this multifactorial issue is immensely complex & the available data is really not up to the task.
The most useful synopsis I have found is this extract from a Department of Education document from 2014, which points out that while the ‘equity gap’ between free school meals [FSM] children and non-FSM children narrowed markedly over the previous decade, and the gap between white and BME children narrowed dramatically over the same period, the gap in performance between girls and boys was surging, and is now much larger than the ethnicity gap. It’s unfortunate (and telling) that the DoE appear not to have repeated that analysis in the years since, but all the evidence I have seen is that all those trends have been continuing uninterrupted.
But the other reason I’m not really interested in trading stats is because it is not the point. If we are talking about the situation of white working class boys there are three factors at play, all of which interact and intersect with each other: ethnicity, class and gender. Asking which is more important is like asking whether the flour, eggs or sugar are more important in a sponge cake.
Even if, like Kenan Malik, your principle concern is with the underperformance of the most economically deprived children, surely one of the most shocking and important details is that the achievement of boys compared to girls worsens dramatically among FSM children. You cannot understand or analyse that fact without understanding and analysing the role of gender.
In one sense this is not Kenan’s fault. He tells me (truthfully, I am sure) that he was commissioned to write about the issue of ethnicity versus class, not about gender. I would strongly suspect that the commissioning editor behind that decision wasn’t consciously, maliciously intending to exclude gender from the discussion. It was just that boys failing desperately in school isn’t considered newsworthy or of interest.
After all, it’s only boys.