“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:
1 Low 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.
2 Marginalisation 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.
3 The impact of poverty. This caused a feeling of hopelessness. Insufficient housing meant children were often living in temporary, cramped conditions under threat of eviction.
4 Low literacy and language development. White working class children tended to enter school with poor vocabulary.
5 Curriculum 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.
6 Lack 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:
1 Strong 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.
2 Using 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**.
3 A 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.
4 Using learning mentors from the local community and employing Family Liaison workers.
5 Engaging 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”.
6 Easing 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.