The phrase 'left-behind white working class' is now a regular staple in government rhetoric around equality. But how accurate is the concept? Runnymede's Research Analyst, Nick Treloar, dissects the use of the term, and argues that it is weaponised by the Conservative government.
Conversations about the 'left-behind white working class' have made a return to the political scene in recent weeks. Runnymede's recent work in this area shows that pitting 'race' and class against one another serves nobody well. Yet, following recent statements by certain academics, politicians and commissions, this ugly narrative appears to have again reared its head.
Children who are ‘left behind’ all share something in common: they are left behind. What is often ignored within this debate is that only people of colour are being left behind because of their skin colour.
Free school meals have become the proxy within which this government and other commentators talk about ‘left behind white working class boys’. Indeed, within this particular context, white boys are indeed some of the lowest attainers and live in some of the poorest conditions. It is also within this context that the outcomes of these white working class boys have been pitted against the outcomes of working class children from BME and migrant groups.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that a government that claims to care so much about the failure of these white working class boys could in the same week vote against feeding them out of term time. We should care about the attainment of all working class children, regardless of skin colour. But if this government is going to pit different groups against each other, it should at least recognise that, in a democracy, the very least society can provide is a full stomach for the poorest and most vulnerable children regardless of race.
It is worth noting that this issue is not a ‘race row’, as some headlines would have you believe. Pitting children from different ethnic backgrounds against each other is highly damaging with regards to social cohesion. It also handily ignores the large achievement gap among white British children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, instead preferring to pretend as if black children are the ones removing opportunities for ‘left-behind’ white pupils.
When observing the statistics for students who do not fall into the ‘free school meals’ bracket, it is black Caribbean students who fare worst. Indeed, 47% of Black Children, 54% of Pakistani children and 60% of Bangladeshi children live below the poverty line in this country, compared to 23% of white children. Furthermore, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and black Caribbean students of all genders, and black African boys, are less likely to achieve success through the traditional government ‘gold-standard’ benchmark of 5+ GCSEs A*-C (including English and Maths), than their white British peers. It therefore remains perplexing that the government chooses to single out white working class boys, when students from a number of ethnic backgrounds need and deserve support.
The current conception of the working class in the public debate is often based on a mixture of misinformation and mythology, and it fails to recognise working-class voices and agency. It also increases division across racial lines, and is divorced from the lived realities of those experiencing race and class injustice. There are working class people from every ethnic background. British-born and migrants, people of all genders, and people living in every part of the country. We can, and should, build solidarity across such differences.
Indeed, shared identity can emerge from shared conditions, but also from shared values, shared history of past struggles, a willingness to support each other, and a sense of pride in and belonging to local neighbourhoods. With this in mind, we need a conception of the working class that doesn’t play working-class people off against each other along the lines of deserving v undeserving, white v BME, British v migrants. Such divides have justified policies that make all ‘left behind’ groups worse off.
Runnymede’s research on race and class prejudice, alongside our work on educational outcomes for BME students, has found that positioning white working class disadvantage as an ethnic disadvantage rather than as class disadvantage places this group in direct competition with minority ethnic groups, and does very little to address the real and legitimate grievances of poor white people in Britain. The plight of these white children is a class issue rather than a race issue – and this is an important distinction. Their discrimination takes place because of their class, not because of their whiteness.
All children who face class disadvantage deserve the attention and support to improve their educational attainment. Isolating white children as the ones who are ‘left behind’ – when evidence shows that children from other backgrounds are also ‘left behind’ – is damaging to all left-behind children.
Particularly within the context of Covid-19, it is more urgent than ever that we move away from pitting vulnerable communities against each other. Instead, we need policies that help all 'left-behind' pupils. Investment in cities and towns has proven to drive outcomes. This means that without transformation and investment, we will not see a positive impact on the lives of all those who are ‘left-behind’. Specifically in the North, this means actually powering the Northern economies, investing in schools and infrastructure, and not letting the poorest areas fall further behind.
Header image by Policy Exchange