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‘Forgotten’ White working-class pupils let down by decades of neglect, MPs say

22 June 2021

The Education Committee’s report The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, highlights how White British pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) persistently underperform compared with peers in other ethnic groups, from early years through to higher education.

White working-class pupils have been badly let down by decades of neglect and muddled policy thinking and only a proper targeted approach will reverse the educational underachievement of this long forgotten disadvantaged group, MPs say today.

The report notes the Department for Education’s failure to acknowledge the importance of investigating the reasons for the disparities, instead relying on muddled thinking and an insistence that pursuing the same policies will somehow provide a solution.

In contrast, the Committee highlights the reasons behind the disparities and identifies five key solutions.

Statistics on underperformance (page 18)

  • Early years: In 2018/19, just 53% of FSM-eligible White British pupils met the expected standard of development at the end of the early years foundation stage, one of the lowest percentages for any disadvantaged ethnic group.
  • GCSE performance: In 2019 just 17.7% of FSM-eligible White British pupils achieved grade 5 or above in English and maths, compared with 22.5% of all FSM-eligible pupils. This means that around 39,000 children in the group did not achieve two strong passes.
  • Access to higher education: The proportion of White British pupils who were FSM-eligible starting higher education by the age of 19 in 2018/19 was 16%, the lowest of any ethnic group other than traveller of Irish heritage and Gypsy/Roma.

The Committee found these disparities particularly striking because White people are the ethnic majority in the country and, while White British pupils are less likely to be disadvantaged, FSM-eligible White British pupils are the largest disadvantaged group.


During its inquiry, the Committee heard of many factors that may combine to put White working class pupils at a disadvantage. It was not convinced by the DfE’s claim that the gap can be attributed to poverty alone, with pupils from most ethnic minority backgrounds more likely to experience poverty, yet consistently out-performing their White British peers.

Among the many factors that may combine to put White working-class pupils at a disadvantage are:

1. Persistent and multigenerational disadvantage

2. Placed-based factors, including regional economics and underinvestment

3. Family experience of education

4. A lack of social capital (for example the absence of community organisations and youth groups)

5. Disengagement from the curriculum

6. A failure to address low participation in higher education


1. Funding needs to be tailor-made at a local level to level up educational opportunity. (page 45) A better understanding of disadvantage and better tools to tackle it is needed – starting with reforming the Pupil Premium.

2. Support parental engagement & tackle multi-generational disadvantage. (page 33) To boost parental engagement and mitigate the effects of multi-generational disadvantage, a strong network of Family Hubs for all families is needed. These should offer integrated services and build trusting relationships with families and work closely with schools to provide support throughout a child’s educational journey.

3. Ensure the value of vocational training and apprenticeship options while boosting access to higher education. (page 49) Reform the Ebacc to include a greater variety of subjects, including Design & Technology. Ofsted must be stronger in enforcing schools’ compliance with the Baker Clause, to ensure they allow vocational training and apprenticeship providers to advertise their courses to pupils. Where there is non-compliance, schools should be limited to a ‘Requires Improvement’ rating.

4. Attract good teachers to challenging areas. (page 43) Good teaching is one of the most powerful levers for improving outcomes. Introducing teaching degree apprenticeships and investing in local teacher training centres may support getting good teachers to the pupils who need them most.

5. Find a better way to talk about racial disparities. (page 14) The Committee agreed with the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that discourse around the term ‘White Privilege’ can be divisive, and that disadvantage should be discussed without pitting different groups against each other. Schools should consider whether the promotion of politically controversial terminology, including White Privilege, is consistent with their duties under the Equality Act 2010. The Department should issue clear guidance for schools and other Department-affiliated organisations receiving grants from the Department on how to deliver teaching on these complex issues in a balanced, impartial and age-appropriate way.

Chair's comments

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, said: “For decades now White working-class pupils have been let down and neglected by an education system that condemns them to falling behind their peers every step of the way. White working-class pupils underperform significantly compared to other ethnic groups, but there has been muddled thinking from all governments and a lack of attention and care to help these disadvantaged White pupils in towns across our country.

If the Government is serious about closing the overall attainment gap, then the problems faced by the biggest group of disadvantaged pupils can no longer be swept under the carpet. Never again should we lazily put the gap down to poverty alone, given that we know free school meal eligible pupils from other ethnic groups consistently out perform their White British peers. In 2019, less than 18% of free school meal eligible White British pupils achieved a strong pass in English and Maths GCSEs, compared with 22.5% of all similarly disadvantaged pupils. This equates to nearly 39,000 White working-class children missing out.

So far, the Department for Education has been reluctant to recognise the specific challenges faced by the White working class, let alone do anything to tackle this chronic social injustice. This must stop now.

Economic and cultural factors are having a stifling effect on the life chances of many White disadvantaged pupils with low educational outcomes persisting from one generation to the next. The Government needs to tackle intergenerational disadvantage, inbuilt disadvantages based on where people live and disengagement from the curriculum.

What is needed is a tailor-made approach to local funding and investment in early years and family hubs. This should be alongside more vocational opportunities, a skills-based curriculum and a commitment to addressing low participation in higher education.

We also desperately need to move away from dealing with racial disparity by using divisive concepts like White Privilege that pits one group against another. Disadvantaged White children feel anything but privileged when it comes to education.

Privilege is the very opposite to what disadvantaged white children enjoy or benefit from in an education system which is now leaving far too many behind.”

Further information

Image: PA