White boys and girls from poor or working class families are attaining lower grades in school than are those from immigrant households. Those of Chinese and Indian backgrounds are at the top, followed by Bangladeshi, African, Pakistani and Caribbean pupils. The Education Select Committee, in a report published today, confirms these findings. Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted finds this gap intolerable and indefensible : ‘ [Immigrants] have added value to this country’s performance…where families believe in education, children do well…There is absolutely no excuse for any parent, whatever their ethnicity, for not protecting their children’.
He is right. Why are British kids who most need to break out of the cycle of deprivation still unable to do so, after major government reforms and hopeful initiatives? How can this be acceptable? I am an immigrant whose children have done as well as I wished for them and better. But I am not gloating, not triumphant at all. As someone of the left, I find this research data depressing and troubling . Poverty does make some difference to how a child does- not eating properly, for example, affects concentration. But, as Wilshaw emphasises, non-white families still seem able to get their children to strive and get good results. Some highly successful black and Asian pupils went to large comprehensives and made the best of what was on offer. Aspiration lifted them, made them fly. BBC’s business editor Kamal Ahmed and Steve McQueen the academy winning director of 12 Years a Slave both went to Drayton Manor High school, close to where I live. I know several high achieving Caribbean men and women whose single mums taught them to work hard and be the best. Bangladeshis were near the bottom of the list but ten years ago, and now the children of waiters and those running takeaways are entering Oxbridge and parliament.
Our family was economically insecure, dysfunctional and unhappy. My mother was determined I would have a better, brighter life than she’d had: Education, she used to say, is a passport. You cannot carry your money and things with you if you have to move to another country. But nobody can steal your brain, what you know, your exam results, your certificates. Though she didn’t speak good English, she would turn up every month at my school in Kampala, Uganda, to talk to teachers about how I was doing, my best and worst subjects. I was rubbish at maths and physics so she got me extra lessons and paid for them by sewing shirts and dresses for teachers of those subjects. Of course it was embarrassing, but I know her fervour drove me. About ten years ago, a neighbour, a mother of Pakistani origin begged me to teach her English and her son too in the evenings. In exchange she made me lovely food and even offered to clean my house for me, an offer I declined. She was a fast learner and her son, Akil, is now studying medicine.
We migrants are these days resented by many in this country, but as Wilshaw says, we do have so much to offer this nation. I have mentored white working class children from families where no one had faith in schools. They didn’t see the point. I can’t understand this indifference, this inability understand how learning- not the lottery or lotto- delivers real winnings, the way to a better life.
Teachers, with some superhuman efforts, can manage to get white working class pupils up to speed. We saw the idealism and commitment of such educators in Educating Yorkshire and Educating Essex on Channel4. A number of schools that years ago were written off as ‘sink schools’ have been turned round by heads who saw potential instead of irremediable failure.
What are the underlying causes of this persistent underachievement that seems unresponsive to policies, inspiration and excellent educators? Fatalism about class may be one factor- the embedded notion that no one should get above themselves. Another reason could be suspicion of success. Some working class families fear that their children will be lost to them if they become middle class. I am guessing here and trying hard to empathise. But if I am honest, I can’t understand these anxieties and attitudes, and nor would most of the poor of the world.
The truth is that parents of white children lagging behind need to be more engaged, more proactive, more interested and properly pushy. Wilshaw is suggesting fines for those who don’t read to their kids, don’t ensure homework is done and that attendance is good. I can see why he thinks it’s time to get tough. But punitive measures could backfire. A far better idea would be to educate parents so they are up to the job. After all they are just repeating the patterns of their own upbringing.
About ten years ago, I was invited to talk at some community schools in west London about my career, life story ambitions and all that. Two of them in west London were trying out what they called ‘family learning’. The schools were open in the evening and mums and dads were encouraged to come in to study the same subjects as their kids and to understand the importance of active parenting. Children did their homework in one corner and at times helped parents to solve maths and science problems. Most of the school intake was from a large housing estate, which had severe social problems and ethnic tensions. But in a quiet classroom with dedicated teachers, tensions seemed to subside and all parents, including those who were white and disadvantaged, seemed to develop essential parental skills in the process. Some had brought their infants in buggies. I sang old nursery rhymes to them and some of the mums asked me to write them out because they didn’t know the words. I found that truly sad. I don’t know if family learning still goes on. I hope it does because it was making a huge difference to the community and to the pupils’ results.
How’s this for another idea? As most migrants have the work ethic, ambition and faith in education, we should arrange for white working class children to live with them during holidays. A while ago TV programme makers took lazy, unmotivated white kids to live with families in India for a few weeks. Though there were many sulks and tears, rebellions and furies, they came away chastened, serious and more mature. I have sometimes taken on such kids too, usually after teachers have asked me to, and though it was tough, at least three out of five did benefit from being brainwashed by this immigrant. One is studying to be a TV cameraman, another a teacher. You have no idea how proud that makes me. And here is an offer: I’ll do the same for another young person from a poor white background, hopefully with encouragement from the family. Other immigrant professionals could do the same. Every little helps.
Sir Michael’s passion and mission is laudable. These still excluded children of our nation deserve a better future , a chance in an increasingly competitive world. Their parents need to wake up and step up. And the rest of us must do our bit too. As they say in Africa, it takes a village to raise a child.
The Daily Mail, June 2014