Britain: White students in urban schools and the myth of multiculturalism
In a season similar to this 30 years ago, British educationalists were preoccupied with something referred to as "the great schools debate", in which the urban comprehensive was placed under scrutiny. When the media got wind of this, one particular television crew was dispatched to the school I attended in south east London, having decided it was the epitome of an underachieving, inherently multi-racial school within a poor and neglected postcode. The documentary that emerged - Our School and Hard Times - revealed the literacy of teenage pupils was dramatically below par, truancy was high, and hope was at an all time low.
The sixties outakes on the teaching staff were steeped in theories of social engineering and hinted to the camera that surroundings and social class rather than the pupils themselves, or teaching methods, were responsible. It was an argument that appears to have been around since Aristotle was a lad, and served its purpose until the issue of academic underachievement shifted from social class to race. This occurred when it emerged that the poor performance of black pupils - notably boys - was disproportionate to the size of this particular minority.
Thirty years on, and with the new century in its infancy, the poor academic achievement of white pupils in urban schools is becoming an issue. And even additives and E-numbers can't take the flak for this one. More significantly, it's the ethnicity of this group rather than - solely - social class that is relative.
Today, London's Business and Design Centre plays host to a conference devoted to tackling the issue of white underachievement. It brings together figures said to be experts in this field, and is organized by Cambridge Education Associates. In Islington, the CEA has had some success in addressing the poor academic levels of black pupils. By shifting the focus to this trend among white pupils, and largely in urban schools in which these are the minority, the organisers are showing a nerve that is absent elsewhere.
This issue of "white underachievement" has risen to the fore sporadically over the last couple of years, but with little response or action taken. The TES previously released a report on the issue ("white working class pupils have less mobility and employment
opportunities than the children of immigrants who moved to the UK in the 1960s"); the Social Policy Group, the think tank established by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, published its own research last year. The latter revealed that for the first time white working class boys were falling behind their black and Asian contemporaries.
Bad parenting was flagged up as the key culprit, with the high level of success of pupils from more family-based, insular, Chinese and Asian communities cited as the standard of attainment to aim for. If the response of those present at this day-long conference mimics that of the teaching staff at my own secondary school back in the punk spring of 1977, you can bet that the short-sightedness and fear around modern racial etiquette is responsible. With poor performance of black pupils the burden of blame is apportioned to those post-Macpherson fallbacks institutional racism or "unwitting prejudice". In the case of white pupils, racism can't by cited as a reason or excuse any more than the industrial revolution or the age of the child chimney sweep. However, were this any other ethnic group, cultural alienation, lack of high-profile role models and its derogatory portrayal within the media would be brought into the proceedings.
Therefore there might be an argument to suggest the fact that urban white working class communities have endured more change, dislocation and upheaval than any other over the last 40 years, added to the racial and classcist slurs targeted regularly at this group by the press, might have some small part to play. But the greater responsibility for what is very much a 21st century trend might rest with the cult of multiculturalism.
This is alluded to within the research to be revealed at Monday's conference and where the notion of nerve comes in: "in dialogues about diversity, white ethnicity and social class is often rendered invisible and as such is not included in studies of the diverse landscape of British culture". In short, the communities that have been most altered in order to create a multi-racial society and accommodate multiculturalism have been airbrushed from any discussion or literature on the subject.
By recognising this the CEA might not have the answers on why young white urbanites are getting bad exam results, but it does highlight the fault-lines in a modern "inclusive" culture that exiles them. This in itself says more about the myth of multiculturalism than secondary education: it's one thing to build a vision on a myth, it's another to build it on a lie.
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