Why people are arguing about white privilege in schools

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·Freelance news writer, Yahoo UK
·6-min read
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Watch: White working class education failure a 'scandal', says MP

Conservative MPs have been accused of stoking a “culture war” after a report said terms like “white privilege” may have contributed to a “systemic neglect” of white working class school pupils.

The Tory-dominated House of Commons education committee said white working class pupils have been “let down” for decades by England’s education system, and that “divisive” language can make the situation worse.

Here is why MPs are arguing about white privilege in schools.

First, what is white privilege?

A simple Cambridge Dictionary definition describes it as: "The fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have."

Here is a more detailed explanation from John Amaechi, a psychologist, best-selling author and former NBA basketball player (please click on the link below if the tweet doesn't automatically load):

Amaechi says that privilege is a hard concept for people to understand, because, for anyone who has it, the immediate association is "unearned riches and tangible benefits".

Instead, Amaechi asks us to think about it this way: "White privilege, and indeed all privilege, is actually more about the absence of inconvenience, the absence of an impediment or challenge. And, as such, when you have it you really don't notice it. But when it's absent, it affects everything you do."

In a "guide for parents" blog post in October last year, the Barnardo’s children's charity said an example of "everyday white privilege" may look like: "Hypothetically, you wake up in the morning, in a house that you are more likely to own, where you’re more likely to have enough space for everyone you live with."

However, a report released by Boris Johnson's Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in March said white privilege is a counter-productive and divisive term that should be rejected.

The commission argued the term reinforces a perception that being an ethnic minority in the UK automatically means being disadvantaged.

What did the committee report say about white privilege?

It said such a term may have contributed to a “systemic neglect” of white working class pupils who need support.

The committee, which is made up of seven Conservative and four Labour MPs, said schools should consider whether the promotion of such “politically controversial” terminology is consistent with their duties under the Equality Act 2010.

It also agreed with the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that discourse around the term can be “divisive”.

Handout screengrab from Parliament TV of the chairs the Education Committee, Conservative Robert Halfon directs a question to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson following his statement in the House of Commons, London, on the state of exams and education.
Education committee chair Robert Halfon (PA)

Tory committee chair Robert Halfon said authorities "desperately need to move away from dealing with racial disparity by using divisive concepts like white privilege that pits one group against another. Disadvantaged white children feel anything but privileged when it comes to education.

“Privilege is the very opposite to what disadvantaged white children enjoy or benefit from in an education system which is now leaving far too many behind.”

What did the report say about white pupils’ performance in schools?

The report said 47% of free school meal-eligible (FSM) white British pupils did not meet the expected standard of development at the end of the early years foundation stage in 2018/19. That's about 28,000 children.

In 2019, 17.7% of FSM-eligible white British pupils achieved at least a strong pass (grade 5 or above) in English and maths at GCSE, compared with 22.5% of all FSM-eligible pupils. This equates to nearly 39,000 pupils.

Disadvantaged white pupils have been badly let down by “muddled” policy thinking and the Department for Education has failed to acknowledge the extent of the problem, the report added.

MPs on the committee made a series of recommendations to improve white working class pupils’ outcomes, including finding “a better way to talk about racial disparities” to avoid pitting different groups against each other, as well as introducing initiatives to boost parental engagement and attract good teachers to disadvantaged areas.

How has the report, and its white privilege claims, been received?

Labour MP Diane Abbott, the former shadow home secretary, attacked the report in a series of Twitter posts on Tuesday morning.

She accused the committee of stoking a "culture war on education". Abbott said the Conservative Party has "shown they have no interest in levelling up educational outcomes in poorer areas".

"The truth is that this government fails pupils across the board," she said in another post. "They also have no significant proposals to fundamentally alter that. Instead their attack on the term white privilege is designed to cause division. This is the politics of divide and rule applied to education."

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott arrives for a Labour clause V meeting on the manifesto at Savoy Place in London. (Photo by Dominc Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)
Diane Abbott said: 'This is the politics of divide and rule applied to education.' (PA Images via Getty Images)

Labour MP Kim Johnson, who sits on the committee, accused the government of "diverting attention" from education cuts "onto a fake culture war". The committee's report was independent of the government.

Fleur Anderson, another Labour member of the committee, said: “I’m concerned this report will be used to fight a divisive culture war instead of address chronic underfunding of early years, family hubs, careers advice and mentoring, and youth services.”

Meanwhile, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We’re not quite sure why the committee has chosen to enter the debate about the widely discredited report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, and the term ‘white privilege’.

“This does not seem helpful and is likely to divert attention from the rest of the report."

Halfon has denied accusations he was trying to engage in culture wars. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “One of the reasons we found that white working class boys and girls are struggling in education is because the families have disengaged from the education system and we believe this concept of white privilege perpetuates that idea.”

What has the government said about white privilege in the past?

In January, Tory MP James Sunderland asked women and equalities minister Liz Truss for reassurance “that we will never bow to those who suggest that white people should feel guilty for being white or those who peddle the notion of white privilege”.

Truss said in response: "Britain is one of the best places in the world to live, no matter your skin colour, sexuality, religion or anything else and we need to be positively empowering people in Britain to succeed, so everyone has access to opportunity, not using positive discrimination, and that is the approach we are taking right across the government.”

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Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, also told MPs in October last year: “We do not want to see teachers teaching their pupils about white privilege and their inherited racial guilt."

Downing Street, meanwhile, said of the committee's overall report: "This government is focused on levelling up opportunity so that no young person is left behind.

“That’s why we are providing the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade – £14bn over three years – investing in early years education and targeting our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3bn to date, to support disadvantaged pupils aged two to 19 with their attainment.”

Watch: Tuesday's daily politics briefing

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