Earlier this week, the watchdog for fair access warned that white working-class teenagers were being left behind -missing out on rising access to universities and the wider expansion of educational opportunities.
There is no doubt that universities should be encouraged to make their community engagement activities more inclusive. But what irks me is how family breakdown and disintegration of community are forgotten when it comes to discussing the underwhelming educational outcomes for white working-class children.
Historically, one of the main reasons why migrants from poorer Commonwealth countries resettled in the UK was to provide their children with greater educational opportunities. This was a crucial factor in my parents’ decision to relocate from Bangladesh and start a new life in England. It is no surprise that parents with this migratory background take a keen interest in the academic performance of their children.
We should not ignore the wider social and cultural dynamics at play. Many of Britain’s South Asian and Black African communities – irrespective of socio-economic status – are deeply family-oriented. Civic associations within such communities continue to flourish, with places of worship providing a spiritually-uplifting sense of belonging. This helps to provide younger people with a sense of rootedness, essential to personal development.
The unfortunate reality is that a number of predominantly-white, former industrial and coastal areas – battered by the winds of globalisation and abandoned by the political classes – have seen the collapse of the family unit and the atomisation of local communities. Against a backdrop of substance misuse and alcohol dependency, responsible and inspiring adult role models are a relatively scarce resource. It is safe to say that ‘white privilege’ is in short supply in Blackpool, Lancashire, Norfolk – nor the deprived parts of Nottingham, Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent, and Kingston upon Hull.
It may be unfashionable to mention it in ‘progressive’ quarters, but family structure matters – especially when it comes to school attainment, cognitive development, and mental well-being. Attentive parents, instilling a strong sense of aspiration and self-discipline in the household, are integral to youth development. And being part of a supportive local community, which takes an interest in the progress of their young people, is very important indeed.
Berating universities is all very well, but if we are to do right by white working class kids, we must find a way to address the elephant in the room: family breakdown and disintegration of the community in white, working class areas.