“Poor white pupils put off school by multicultural timetable” says DT. Is this claim correct?

Janet Downs's picture
“A study finds that working-class white children are being turned off school because lessons are too focused on celebrating other cultures while shunning British traditions.”

Daily Telegraph 27 June 2014

The Mail went further:

“White working-class pupils fall behind 'because they're turned off by lessons on other cultures': Researchers warn multicultural curriculum risks marginalisation”

But these headlines picked on one small part of research done in Lambeth in 2010 which looked at ways of raising the achievement of working class children.

Teachers had recognised that white working class children, now a minority in the borough, could feel marginalised if schools concentrated on celebrating diverse cultures. They were already looking at ways in which the needs of white working class children could be met by rethinking the curriculum to meet the needs of all children.

But that wasn’t the only reason for the underachievement of white working class Lambeth children. There were others:

1Low parental expectations. Researchers found other ethnic groups placed a higher value on education. Lack of aspiration combined with narrow horizons inhibited learning. Many working class children had not ventured further than their own areas despite living in one of the most culturally-rich cities on the planet.

2Marginalisation which can’t be blamed on Black History Month and Portuguese Days. Working class parents did not use community facilities to the same extent as middle class parents and often felt alienated from the latter*. The bonds that exist in, say, the Caribbean community with its church and music, weren’t there for poor white children.

3The impact of poverty. This caused a feeling of hopelessness. Insufficient housing meant children were often living in temporary, cramped conditions under threat of eviction.

4Low literacy and language development. White working class children tended to enter school with poor vocabulary.

5Curriculum barriers. Some teachers were concerned about an emphasis on other cultures – this was an issue they had begun to tackle. But others thought an academic curriculum didn’t meet the needs of secondary age white working class children.

6Lack of targeted support. White working class children did not receive the same targeted support that was given to other groups.

The report identified features found in schools which had successfully raised achievement for all children:

1Strong and visionary leadership which did not see diversity as a barrier. Many were from working-class backgrounds or employed staff who understood the needs of working class children.

2Using data to track pupils’ performance, monitor different strategies, identify under-performing groups, evaluate initiatives, identify areas which needed developing and informing discussions with parents, inspectors and the local authority**.

3A relevant and inclusive curriculum which widens horizons, raises aspirations and gives access to post-school opportunities. Ironically, the suggestion by the Telegraph and Mail to avoid lessons about other cultures would not widen horizons.

4Using learning mentors from the local community and employing Family Liaison workers.

5Engaging parents and breaking down barriers. This included simple measures such as greeting parents in the playground to more organised initiatives such as a Family Reading Project and “bring your Dad to nursery day”.

6Easing the transition from primary to secondary school with initiatives such as Induction Days, Summer School and evenings for parents to, say, meet their child’s form tutor.

Much of the report’s analysis was missing from the coverage in the Mail and Telegraph. Both papers focussed on one aspect, a “multicultural curriculum”, which was presented as if it were the most important finding. It wasn’t. It was one concern among many and it was already being addressed in 2010 when the report was written.

UPDATE 30 June 2014 The Times carried the story on page 2 on Satuday 28 June (behind paywall). It gave the findings less prominence but still took the line that marginalisation caused by schools' attempts to celebrate other cultures which meant, as the headline made clear,"British culture forced out of schools". The author mentioned no other reasons discovered by the research (at least the Telegraph and the Mail mentioned low parental aspirations and poor literacy).

The Independent also covered the Lambeth research - it focussed on the need for targeted help for white pupils with language difficulties. The Mail, in a separate, more measured article, also covered this.

NOTE: My heading above, "Marginalisation which can’t be blamed on Black History Month and Portuguese Days" doesn't imply I think white pupils are held back solely because of these two initiatives. The headline was rather tongue-in-cheek - the papers were being simplistic and misleading to blame these initiatives and others like them for the weak performance of poor white children when there were many other reasons.

*One example of misunderstanding between working class parents and middle class ones was an incident at a school raffle where a working class parent, having bought over 20 tickets, won two prizes. The middle-class organiser suggested the parent give one of the prizes back. Mayhem broke out. Someone had to explain to the middle-class organiser why the parent might have wanted to keep both prizes.

**As the report was written in 2010, there were very few academies and even fewer academy chains. That’s why the report didn’t mention them. The full report is here and the Executive Summary is here.
Share on Twitter


rogertitcombe's picture
Sat, 28/06/2014 - 15:03

All pupils of all ethnicities on average perform according to their CATs scores.

Differences between ethic groups/relative poverty do not affect the strength of this relationship. That means that the differences quoted are also in fact differences in mean CATs scores. CATs measure general intelligence. My Cumbria headship school serving a very poor white working class catchment had a mean intake CATs score of 85. That is one whole SD below the mean and at the 16th percentile.

Everywhere that CATs tests are taken these ethic/relative poverty relationships have been known about for decades, but have been forbidden topics for discussion.

As readers of my posts will know I believe in plastic general intelligence. My hypothesis is that high stakes testing, especially at KS2 has tended to result in the abandonment of cognitively developmental teaching methods as advocated by (for example) Shayer and Adey, in favour of the behaviourist cramming needed to maximise SATs profiles for primary schools and later C grade GCSE profiles for secondaries.

This means that the very pupils (with low CATs scores) that are in most need of high quality developmental teaching to raise cognitive ability, are the very pupils that don't get it because the 'school improvement' strategies that are proven to work in lifting the schools they attend through KS2 and KS4 floor targets require non-developmental teaching methods to avoid floor target failure and Ofsted condemnation based on flawed statistics.

This is the educationally disastrous perverse outcome of marketisation that is denying low CATs score children the sort of education they need and it is all done under a cover of completely spurious school improvement driven by the C grade league table performance measures needed to drive marketisation at the secondary level.

This is a major theme of my book. I can't prove this hypothesis but the evidence is such that it deserves serious attention, and more such evidence is emerging all the time.

Ben Taylor's picture
Sun, 29/06/2014 - 22:30

The country is Balkanising in the major urban areas. I think we will be in serious conflict in my lifetime.

Interesting post Roger. Some grounds for optimism. A good hypothesis but I think there is more to this than the school environment and it is not the fault all the time of teachers. The best thing you wrote to make me think though.

rogertitcombe's picture
Mon, 30/06/2014 - 06:42

Its not the fault of teachers at all. They have no choice but to go along with the system they are part of. Many will be subject to PRP driven by their need to teach badly. Thousands of teachers know this and some have posted to that effect on this site, albeit anonymously. Ofsted seems unable to distinguish between the two types of teaching and seems to support the (bad) sort that produces the results that drive the system.

" Roger – many thanks for your post – it contains so much of importance. I completely agree with you about the false concept of ‘school improvement’. I can give an example from my own experience. To get the % of maths C+’s up the school employed a range of strategies including the following: pupils began studying the GCSE curriculum in Y7 and as soon as they were able to get a C they sat the exam (many of them in Y8). There were many, many resits until the magic C was achieved. From Y9 the C/D borderline pupils were taught in small groups with multiple teachers – all other groups were larger with just one teacher (and the groups got bigger through the year after each round of exams). Maths was given more time on the timetable at the expense of everything else. Maths teachers were ‘encouraged’ to provide daily ‘maths intervention’ classes in the morning before school and at the end of the day. Pupils were rewarded for attendance with free take-away food. C/D borderline pupils were ‘paid’ with shopping centre vouchers if they got their C in Y10 instead of Y11. Pupils were withdrawn from other lessons to do extra maths in the fortnight leading up to the exam. Pupils were entered for multiple exam boards. Pupils were entered for multiple routes (linear and modular) at the same time. Private tutors were bought in by the school to work one-to-one with individual C/D borderline pupils. The overall effect is to increase the % getting C in maths but at the expense of higher and lower achievers in maths. It also impacts on the results in all other subjects because of loss of timetable allocation and withdrawal of students from classes on an ad hoc basis. The pressure on pupils to achieve the pass was immense and destructive and led to lower levels of commitment and motivation in other subjects. Regarding the relationship between use of equivalents and lower attainment in GCSE’s – your point about less skilled teaching staff being employed is correct, but a more important point is that once pupils get used to a much lower level of demand in the ‘equivalents’ lessons they often find it very difficult to raise their game to the level needed to perform in a more demanding subject. ‘Cut and paste’ assignments and poorly structured, low-level brush-stroke analysis is often sufficient in BTECs but is no good in academic subjects like history, English literature or physics."

rogertitcombe's picture
Mon, 30/06/2014 - 10:28

There is new comment this morning following the publication of a report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.


The gist is that:

"Disadvantaged children who start out as high-attainers are overtaken by their better-off peers who were initially average-attainers.

The research found that nearly 2,200 fewer poor children are attending elite universities than would be expected if they followed the same educational trajectory throughout secondary school as their better-off peers with similar levels of attainment at age 11. The research looks at the educational trajectories of low, average and high attaining children from disadvantaged background and compares them to their more advantaged peers. Overall the report finds that poor children are far less likely to become “high achievers” at any stage."

This has prompted the usual responses. For example Alan Millburn, who chairs the Commission states, "Each year 2000 of the brightest, poorest children who have done well at primary school seem to lose direction in a secondary school maze and so miss out on a top university place.

This suggests that poverty is holding these children back.

My explanation is different. Poor children generally attend primary schools that struggle to meet floor targets. Such schools must prioritise KS2 results over deep learning. Such children, able and less able alike, therefore get less of the developmental teaching they need to build the sophisticated concepts needed to make academic progress later. Put simply, their cognitive ability has not been adequately developed because of the high stakes need for their school to 'improve', resulting in a programming of fast cramming rather than slow developmental learning.

On the other hand more affluent children are more likely to attend primary schools that are not threatened by floor targets. They therefore need and get less cramming and more high quality developmental 'slow learning'. This builds personal concepts of the greater sophistication needed for accessing genuine academic cognitive development.

Put simply, children are better prepared for academic study if they do not attend an improving school.

Poor children are much more likely to be condemned to the shallow behaviourist teaching methods that characterise high rates of school improvement.

What applies in primary schools is repeated in secondaries, where teachers soon cotton on to the fact that the SATs results of a high proportion of their poor pupil have not resulted in the cognitive development necessary for academic study. Poor children are then much more likely to find themselves in the 'C grade target' groups for GCSE courses that now start a further regime of cramming in Y8/9 of our most most improved and Ofsted celebrated, frequently 'outstanding' secondary schools.

My hypothesis therefore provides the explanation.

High rates of school improvement are very bad for the pupils of poor parents - counter intuitive, but it fits the evidence that defies the usual contrary explanations.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 30/06/2014 - 11:50

The Education Select Committee confirmed that poor white children underperform. The chairman said:

"They do less homework and are more likely to miss school than other groups. We don’t know how much of the under performance is due to poor attitudes to school, a lack of work ethic or weak parenting. What is certain is that great schools make a significant difference in turning poor children’s education around."

The Committee's full report said Professor Gilborn, Insitute of Education, "cautioned against inferring that white children had somehow lost out as a result of previous attention to other ethnic groups."

This caution has, of course, been totally ignored by some sections of the media.

rogertitcombe's picture
Mon, 30/06/2014 - 12:05

The Select Committee could be wrong. The example of Mossbourne Academy is important and significant. This school has an especially poor socio-economic profile but no evidence of any of the associated negative effects claimed by the Select committee, referred to in the thread or claimed by Alan Milburn

This is because Mossbourne also has the CATs profile of a rural country town with a mean intake score of 100 and fully representative numbers in all of the four bands.

It's cognitive ability that counts. The CATs profile means that Mossbourne has never risked floor target failure and therefore has never needed to significantly degrade its curriculum (vocationalisation) or resort to poor quality cramming based teaching.

The result is a superb record of progression to top universities by children from poor families. Some of them must be white working class.

Also, like Eton College, it has never achieved spectacular school improvement.

This is further evidence for my hypothesis.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 30/06/2014 - 12:06

Despite all the misrepresentation about how poor white children in Lambeth are held back mainly because of a "multicultural" curriculum, the Education Select Commitee found poor white children in Lambeth do much better than in other areas. In Peterborough, for example, "the proportion of white FSM pupils reaching the key stage 4 benchmark was less than 13% in 2012." In Lambeth, it was 50%.

So, Lambeth's strategies of providing a curriculum that meets the needs of ALL children appears to be working. Or could it be that Peterborough's poor results are because "white FSM pupils" in the city comprise a large number of white Eastern Europeans? (Answer: I don't know).

Other areas where disadvantaged white children did poorly include coastal areas (eg Isle of Wight) and rural areas (eg Herefordshire).

The Select Committee said more research should take place to find out why poor white children underperform. But this investigation would be hampered if much of the media have made up their mind that the cause is "multiculturalism".

rogertitcombe's picture
Mon, 30/06/2014 - 18:41

They don't underperform on the basis of their CATs scores. The point is that such children could have gained higher CATs scores at 11 and performed accordingly at a higher level if they had benefited from a developmental education instead of being crammed for SATs and C grade GCSEs.

Shayer and Adey claim that their CASE type developmental teaching and learning programmes raise general intelligence and therefore performance in all subjects. They claim to have mountains of data to support this assertion.

I accept that my claim is controversial but I am providing a coherent rationale for why it might be right. If it is right then it is very important indeed because 'improved' schools are inhibiting the development of general intelligence which is the base driver of academic performance. The whole of all recent government's obsession with school 'improvement' may actually have been inhibiting the development of cognitive ability and driving standards down. Bog standard 'coasting' schools may be best.

It reminds me of the Lysenko affair in the Soviet Union, when Stalin suppressed agricultural research because it did not fit his ideology, leading to completely unnecessary crop failures and mass starvation.

I suspect that this current period of what I call ‘Educational Lysenkoism’ will eventually be consigned to history as an essential lesson in how not to run a national education system.

rogertitcombe's picture
Tue, 01/07/2014 - 10:01

If you feel uncomfortable talking about the terms 'intelligence' and cognitive ability, then take a look at the work of Guy Claxton.


Claxton too rejects 'fixed intelligence' and believes that particular pedagogic approaches can promote what he calls 'capacity for learning'. I would argue that 'capacity for learning' is closely related to what Shayer and Adey call 'plastic intelligence'. The approaches advocated by Claxton, Shayer and Adey are entirely contrary to those of the resurgent behaviourism that are becoming increasingly dominant in our schools as a result of the perverse incentives generated by marketisation. Claxton uses a different language to that of Shayer and Adey but the links to their 'Cognitive Acceleration' work are strong. Claxton is making a major contribution to combating 'bad education' in our schools and I cannot possibly do him justice in this short post. However I will make a start by setting out what I see to be the main principles needed for his 'Developing Learning Capacity'. Much of the following is from his 2006 keynote opening address to the British Educational Research (BERA) conference at the University of Warwick. This is freely downloadable from the above link. In this various researchers are reported as commenting as follows.

"traditional mathematics teaching, effective at getting those vital Cs at GCSE, leave in student's minds no discernable residue of real world utility"

"it is academically successful girls that are most likely to go to pieces when confronted by something they do not know how to do. They will get good school results but, at the same time, their learning resilience can be wafer thin."

"You can get good results in the arcane world of educational standards and still lack resilience, resourcefulness, and the ability to organise and evaluate your own learning"

And this is just about 'bright' children that are successful in the current system. What about the 'poor white' pupils that are the subject of this thread? What about those rejected by the 'C grade driven', OfSTED-fearing culture of our schools? Many teachers will recognise the pupil whose morale and sense of worth is repeatedly frustrated by perceived failure to 'get things right' and whose response is to give up, screw their work into a ball and angrily toss it aside before once again starting from the beginning.

Claxton is right about the importance of 'Learning Capacity' and 'Learning Resilience'. He addresses it through the resurrection of the concept of 'Metagnition', one of the fundamental planks of Shayer and Adey's Cognitive Acceleration.

"I think we must reclaim the language of 'character' [from its Victorian public school connotations that influenced the grammar schools], and not be afraid of the value judgements that go along with it."

"I can offer you two brand new phrases that say the same thing. They are 'epistemic mentality' and 'epistemic identity'. By 'epistemic' I mean to do with 'thinking', knowing' and 'learning'.

The important point being made here is that the culture of classrooms and quality of relationships affects the 'disposition' of learners and is just as important as the knowledge delivery skills of the teacher. In fact, for the promotion of 'learning capacity', it is more important. Here again the current trend in our schools, including Ofsted endorsed 'outstanding schools' appears to be in the wrong direction. For example, the development of metacognition in pupils, meaning to be aware of one's own thinking, knowing and learning, would not appear to be readily promoted by a culture of 'zero tolerance' discipline.

Metacognition, which Claxton refers to as epistemic mentality is the prerequisite for sharing ones personal schemas and constructs with those of the teacher and just as importantly, with other pupils (Shayer and Adey). Now we are in the territory of Mortimer and Scott that emphasises the importance of 'pupil talk', starting with to oneself and then with others in sharing, testing and developing personal constructs.

Mortimer E & Scott P (2003), Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms, Open University Press

Once again a culture of 'zero tolerance' punishment tariff driven discipline is unlikely to be fertile soil for this approach to learning.

Claxton acknowledges Shayer and Adey.

"The Cognitive Acceleration (CA) in science and maths programmes devised by Philip Adey and Michael Shayer have consistently produced evidence of spontaneous transfer to other subjects, but again, only after the kind of extended interventions that might be expected to develop dispositions as well as skills".

Quite so. CA is all about developing positive learning 'dispositions' and hence Claxton's 'capacity for learning'.

I often get the feeling that I am some sort of lone voice, educational eccentric, but I am not. What I argue is actually in the mainstream of modern educational thinking as exemplified, for example, by Guy Claxton. If I have got him wrong in any way in this post then I hope he will read it and post a correction.

There are many, many other academics and educational researchers that share the same 'school' of thinking. We may be dismissed as 'The Blob' by Gove but I would like to see a lot more deep consideration of education policy issues by Ed Milliband's team. Focus group 'nuggets' are indeed not enough.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.