The UK Parliament Education committee has produced a report on left-behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds entitled:
The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it
(This provides the page from which you can download the report).
It’s about time, you may say, that as everyone parades their genetics as a reason for special favours, poor whites should get their belated moment of attention. The Parliamentarians also state that “white privilege” rings hollow when the whites in question have applied for free school meals, and suggest the phrase should be dropped altogether. All good stuff, but I would like to concentrate on a simpler matter: is it true that poor white children are being left behind?
A good start is to look at the actual data on scholastic achievement, drawn from the latest government figures for the exam results for 16-year-olds (GCSE) obtained in 2020, and ranking them by pass rates for each genetic group. There is a problem here, which is that because of Covid restrictions the results are based on teacher assessments, not actual exams, so they will be a general indication only, and subject to an error term. Here are the full results.
White British are outshone by many groups, so at first glance they might have grounds for grievance, though of course groups may differ for entirely benign reasons, such as one group being more studious than another.
In order to show more clearly the main results on which the “left behind” argument is based, I have removed the “other” categories, and the non-specific “mixed” categories, because they are hard to interpret.
Once again, White British are middle of the pecking order. Every country has an immigration history, sometimes attracting elites, sometimes unskilled labour, depending on market and political circumstances. The UK average is 50.2 points, whites at 49.7, Chinese at 67.6 and Black Caribbean at 44.8 points. Black Africans are ahead of Black Caribbeans, very probably because the recently arrived former group are largely drawn from professional classes. Indians also lean towards professionally qualified people.
Even without any further interpretation regarding parental educational levels, life chances for Chinese pupils will be miles better than for Black Caribbean pupils, and Gypsy/Roma will have even more restricted life opportunities. However, despite these findings showing massive differences between racial groups, the Parliamentarians say:
There are many reasons for this gap and there will be no simple fix. We are certain that it is not due to any ethnic trait: a person’s ethnicity bears no relation to their natural ability or potential.
Why are the Parliamentarians so certain? Possibly because they are politicians. Interestingly, there are 7 Conservative and 4 Labour Members of Parliament on the committee, so the committee leans right, but on this matter they are unanimous: race and intelligence are not connected.
So far, we have discussed “school-near” measures, in that scholastic attainments will include the effects (if any) of different teaching and school quality, and how well the schools deal with the requirements of the national curriculum on which students will be examined. Incidentally, the 7% in private schooling are not included in these results, which will cause some distortions, particularly if they are mostly White British professional classes, as seems very likely.
But, to the point, what do the results look like on “school far” tests, which avoid any specific knowledge which might be gained through particularly good teaching, but stick to fundamental tasks which would be part of all school teaching, and would be common knowledge in society, and also tasks which have never been specifically taught at all? Consider these to be the Essential Basic tasks, not the scholastic Luxury ones. Cognitive assessment test scores are shown below. If you want problems with an inherent logic to them, the Quantitative Reasoning scores should be looked at. If you want to be as culturally sensitive as possible, then the Non-Verbal reasoning scores will be of major interest to you. The pattern is broadly the same.
On the non-verbal items, which probably the least likely to be accused of cultural bias, the Chinese students at 112.1 are 17.5 points higher than the Black Caribbean students at 94.6. White British are at 101.3 on this measure, Black Africans 94.1. There is plenty to debate here, even though these data are not the same year as the scholastic data, but it is hard to understand why the Parliamentarians reject the hypothesis that cognitive differences between genetic groups have a genetic component. They say:
We heard many factors that may combine to put White working-class pupils at a disadvantage, including these key areas:
1. Persistent and multigenerational disadvantage
2. Place-based factors, including regional economics and underinvestment
3. Family experience of education
4. A lack of social capital
5. Disengagement from the curriculum
6. A failure to address their low participation in higher education
We do not deny that children from other ethnic groups experience these challenges. We believe, however, that disadvantaged White children may be vulnerable to a greater cumulation of them, particularly with regard to living in deprived areas with a lack of social capital and historically low outcomes. Much of the evidence we heard, including the importance of high-quality early years support and teaching, careers guidance and mental health support, could apply to all low-income groups. It follows that some of our recommendations will benefit all disadvantaged children.
This is a bit confused. They consider white kids to be more vulnerable to these factors than non-white kids, for unknown reasons, yet accept the factors affect all children, hence it is unlikely to be the cause of specific white under-performance.
Curiously, they do not consider the plausible hypothesis that some white children feel that being white is no longer cool. Other races have special status in law, and they don’t. Advertisers, fashion magazines and government pamphlets ensure that black faces are well represented (Indian/Pakistani not so much) and mixed marriages are shown as being very frequent. TV shows are criticized if they do not include sufficient minority actors. Universities are criticized if they do not admit sufficient black candidates. Black Lives Matter is a popular theme, with the England national football team this week “taking the knee” in support of that race-based assertion. Perhaps white kids have become disengaged not just from the curriculum, but from the wish to improve their prospects through education, and their sense of being valued. More broadly, they may feel demoralized, and no longer sure of their futures. I should make it clear I do not know if this is the case, but some interviews and even some surveys might have provided worthwhile data as to whether this was a factor.
The committee has ignored the cognitive assessment data, and is proposing the usual sociological explanations for scholastic differences, without specifying why these supposed factors affect whites more than non-whites.
Now to the main points of their argument. They are using eligibility for free school meals as an indicator of poverty. Then they look at how well the free-school-meals-eligible students do in each racial cohort. Here are the ways in which students can get their meals paid for:
Your child may be able to get free school meals if you get any of the following:
• Income Support
• income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
• income-related Employment and Support Allowance
• support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
• the guaranteed element of Pension Credit
• Child Tax Credit (provided you’re not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
• Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
• Universal Credit – if you apply on or after 1 April 2018 your household income must be less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits you get)
This is a very broad range, with many entry points. Part VI Immigration and Asylum Act gives payments while asylum applications are being processed, which can be a long affair, and will particularly apply to recent immigrants.
14.5% of the white population of children receive free school meals.
Here is what the committee say about free school meal eligibility data by race:
Children from ethnic minorities are more likely to experience poverty—for students receiving GCSE results in 2020 there were 55,375 FSM-eligible White British pupils, from a total of 383,021 White British pupils (14.5%). For comparison, there were 8,265 FSM-eligible Black pupils from a total of 32,935 Black pupils (25.1%), and 10.443 FSM-eligible Asian pupils from a total of 61,023 Asian pupils (17.1%). While White British pupils are less likely to be FSM-eligible than pupils from ethnic minorities, FSM-eligible White British pupils as a whole are the largest disadvantaged ethnic group. Yet despite being more likely to be FSM-eligible, pupils from ethnic minorities frequently out-perform their White peers in education.
Why might this be the case?
If, for a moment, we follow the Parliamentary assumption that “a person’s ethnicity bears no relation to their natural ability or potential” then we can use the white population as a template for understanding the implications of applying Free Schools Meals cutoff points.
If you select the bottom 14.5% of white schoolchildren, that implies that you are using IQ 84 as a cutoff point. The average IQ of that group of white children will be IQ 76.
If you select the bottom 17.1% of white schoolchildren (as done for Asian students) the implied cutoff point is IQ 86, and the average IQ of those children will be IQ 80.
If you select the bottom 25.2% of white schoolchildren (as done for Black students), the implied cutoff point is IQ 90, and the average IQ of those children will be IQ 81.
This implies a 5 point difference in ability between the lower (white) and higher (black) percentages of eligible children. This difference may or may not be big enough to have an effect, but the more children you classify as being poor, the higher the average of the group in question. If all races are the same intelligence, then the free meals criterion ensures that the white group probably has a bigger proportion of low achievers.
To summarise this matter, if you are not selecting the lowest ability students, but are more generous with the free school meal provision for perceived minorities, that benefit may be being given to high achieving students whose educated parents are temporarily on low incomes until they can settle into employment. The eligibility criteria may be being applied in different ways, as well as with different frequency in different groups. We can only really be sure that there is a specific white under-achievement if we know the cognitive levels of the groups being compared. That would be very interesting data.
Now to the larger issue. It is emotional, and highly misleading, to describe the normal range of human ability as meaning that some children have been “left behind”. This phrase is intended to tug at the heartstrings and obscure intelligence differences which are judged inconvenient because they go against a very hard-line sociological interpretation of individual differences (no differences in people apart from those caused by someone else’s unfairness).
The Committee have been unwise to accept it, because by doing so they compound a misunderstanding, and have carved an elaborately engraved a cross for teachers to carry. There will always be a bell curve, and there will always be 14.5% of students who do not do as well as the brighter 85.5%. A moment’s thought will show that the same will happen if you put the cutoff point such that 17.1% or 25.2% are deemed to be poor and “left behind”.
The perpetually championed but forlorn hope is that spending even more money on slower learners will make them quicker learners. Devoutly to be wished, but never achieved.
The better approach would be to look carefully at teaching methods to ensure that the best ones are used on all students, lifting the general level as high as possible, while acknowledging that some will learn faster and achieve more than others. Once this is understood, this Committee will achieve the perspicacity of primary school children, who by being set the same tasks at the same age in the same classes quickly learn that some children are brainier than others.