“White working class”: What happened to the ‘forgotten about group’?
Over half of the people who identify as white in the UK consider themselves to be working class - even Posh Spice recently suggested she was working class.
It has been over two years since ‘The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it,' was a report published by the House of Commons Education Committee, yet that particular group has rarely been spoken about since. But why? Was the article a political ploy to appeal to voters, given that a significant part of the UK population identifies as working class?
There were some striking statistics presented, such as 18% of white British pupils on free school meals (FSM) achieving grade 5 in English and Maths, compared with 23% for the average for pupils on FSM. We investigate the validity of the report, the measures used within and whether the findings were flawed.
The House of Commons Education Committee's 2021 report ignited a crucial conversation about widespread educational inequality in the UK. The analysis, authored by a committee of 7 Conservative and 4 Labour MPs, places a spotlight on the attainment gap between Free School Meal eligible white British students and their non-FSM eligible peers. However, it is essential to critically examine the assumptions underpinning the report, particularly the conflation of socio-economic status with FSM eligibility.
Does FSM indicate disadvantage?
The report's use of FSM eligibility as a proxy for working-class status is problematic and may not accurately capture the full spectrum of disadvantage in the UK. It is a fundamental error to assume that all working-class children are FSM-eligible, as almost half of children living in "relative poverty" in the UK do not meet this criterion. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an estimated 4.3 million children in the UK live in "relative poverty," whilst only 2.3 million children currently receive free school meals. Relative poverty, calculated on median income across the UK and the number of children in households earning less than 60% of this income, offers a more nuanced perspective on disadvantage.
Strikingly, the report itself acknowledges the limitations of using FSM eligibility as a measure of disadvantage. This critique, coming from the very committee that produced the report, raises serious questions about the foundation of the entire study. Using FSM eligibility as a one-size-fits-all measure of disadvantage oversimplifies the multifaceted nature of socio-economic disparities in the UK. This simplistic approach risks obscuring the more complex and pervasive factors that contribute to educational inequality.
Unfair comparisons of different ethnic groups
Another issue is the report's emphasis on FSM-eligible white British pupils as the largest disadvantaged ethnic group. While this may be factually accurate, it presents a misleading comparison. The report points out that though this subset may be the highest figure, proportionally only 14% of white British pupils are FSM-eligible, in stark contrast to 28% of black Caribbean, 26% of Bangladeshi, and 37% of Gypsy/Roma pupils. This raises concerns about the report's methodology and the fairness of comparing the least advantaged 14% of white British students with a significantly larger portion of students from other ethnic backgrounds.
Class has been forgotten, not ethnicity
Furthermore, the report's focus on the attainment gap between white British pupils and their counterparts from ethnic minorities needs to be contextualised within the broader socio-economic and cultural landscape. Recognising the unique challenges faced by different ethnic groups and avoiding making sweeping generalisations based solely on FSM eligibility is vital. The Education Committee's report has drawn attention to an important issue, but it falls short in its methodology. The equating of socio-economic status to FSM eligibility and the misleading comparison of ethnic groups has led to a flawed analysis of educational inequality in the UK, ignoring the underlying issue of class. A more nuanced and inclusive examination is required to address the complex issues faced by disadvantaged students of all backgrounds.
The brittle foundation of the report suggests that it could have been published to support conclusions that promote a political voting agenda for the identifying white working class. The issue of responsibly using statistics in landmark reports has arisen once more.
Dandi’s social mobility assessment
What is clear, is that the issue is much more likely to be about providing opportunity to people from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds in general, rather than a specific ethnic group within it, and that’s where law firms should be focussing their recruitment strategies.
Dandi’s innovative contextual recruitment system can play a critical role in contextually assessing a candidate’s socio-economic background well beyond FSM status. Our socio-economic data continues to influence crucial recruitment decisions to help law firms accurately identify and attract the best and most diverse talent in the country.