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The decline of white working class boys in higher education is not surprising, however this particular trend of a lack of white working class boys in education is nothing new. In 2008 only 15% of the white working class boys who took GCSE’s managed to attain five good passes including English and maths which is a standard requirement for attaining a college place. While pass rates have gone up marginally this year 25% of white working class boys got five good GCSE grades, they are still the second worst performing group in the secondary education system. Indeed the problems of white working class boys being so under-represented at university has led David Willets to make various pronouncements such as “There is no reason why they cannot be targeted in the same way for other disadvantaged groups by the office of fair access”.
The problems facing this group are not only down to the tuition fee rise which many lament, indeed the rhetoric about the tuition fees has been far more damaging than the initial policy with a drop of 22,000 applications from boys has shown that this policy and in my view mainly the talk about it has led many down the path of refusing higher education. After all how many times have we heard the line “I can’t afford to pay £27,000 for my education” this type of misunderstanding is extremely damaging to people who can scarcely imagine that kind of money. Student unions and the Labour party have been extremely irresponsible in the way they have campaigned on the tuition fees and now an effect is being seen.
In an article for the telegraph Ed West believed that it was people’s lifestyles which had something to do with the gross underperformance. “The poorest fifth in Britain have noticeably different lifestyles to the rest, whether it’s their propensity to live in two-parent families, reading levels or even things like regular bedtimes. Trying to narrow the gap in some of these lifestyle differences would probably make far more difference to educational outcomes, but politically it would be disastrous, and in practise how much can the government do, apart from employing people to go around reading stories to children? (Maybe I shouldn’t even suggest that.)” Indeed I believe Mr West has a point especially as most of the problems are within the secondary school area attainment. However for the government to try and change people’s lifestyles in this manner it would have to change its slash and burn policy on benefits which many working class families rely on. Cutting away housing benefit which Ian Duncan Smith was gleeful to do, add the benefit rise cap at below inflation and refusing to enshrine a living wage and you have a toxic mix making working class families far poorer and harder up to support their children. While Willets talks a good talk he must acknowledge that the government he is in is making it harder for working class families to live and thus white working class boys to go forward in education.
Dr Piatt director of the Russell group universities doesn’t believe the answers lie with the universities but with schools and college advisors, she stated in a recent article “The root causes of the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are under-achievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree course.” I myself didn’t receive any advice for my A level subjects, after school it was a simple pat on the back well done and off you go, no wonder kids are struggling especially with the difference in standard between GCSE and A level work more support needs to be put in place. Along with these problems the cut in EMA has been another body blow to working class students which will harm their chances of going to college instead of finding quick employment for some easy money.
While we can search around for answers all we know is that we have to change the status quo, the current divide between rich and poor is growing and our social mobility is only ahead of Americas in the western world. The solution is most likely a combination of reinstating EMA, further investment in poorer areas, implementing a living wage and giving kids more stimulating lessons with better advice or just some advice of what to do at college. Without drastic changes the lack of white working class boys in higher education will continue and even escalate which is something we cannot afford to allow to happen.