Is Britain failing its white working class boys?

Feb. 5, 2020
Paula Delaney

Paula Delaney

Learning Design Manager, Ambition Institute

Last Sunday I was asked to represent Ambition Institute in the audience of BBC’s The Big Questions. The specific question I was there to discuss was: ‘Is Britain failing its white working class boys?'

Growing up in a white working-class household and having worked in schools with a high proportion of pupils from this background, I knew this was something that I could speak about with authority and passion. I was excited to share my experiences but, more importantly, what I and my colleagues at Ambition believe to be a solution.

I don’t like discussing pupils as data or percentages, but to show you the disadvantage faced by pupils on Free School Meals (FSM), let’s put these numbers in real terms by looking at take-up of FSM in relation to 2019 GCSE results.

The average Attainment 8 score for pupils not eligible for FSM was 45.6.

Currently, around 10% of white pupils, 20% of black pupils and 45% of Bangladeshi pupils receive FSM. In total, there were 33,697 boys on FSM who sat their GCSEs last year. Of these:

  • 1,093 Bangladeshi boys achieved an average score of 42.8*
  • 2,880 Black boys achieved an average score of 34.5
  • 22,720 White boys achieved an average score of 28.5

The data shows us that white boys in receipt of FSM are falling behind; but it also highlights that there is a huge number of disadvantaged pupils in the system who need our support to unlock their potential.

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When I was called on to speak in the live audience, I shared my background and began to discuss my solution to this challenge: helping teachers and school leaders to keep getting better.

I realise that, as someone who works for an educator development charity, my answer won’t come as a surprise: but I chose to work for Ambition Institute specifically because of my experiences as a pupil and as an educator.

My experience tallies with the research that shows quality of teaching is the biggest factor, within a school’s control, that impacts pupils’ outcomes; and that the quality of teaching has a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged pupils over other groups. Meanwhile, school leaders set the climate in their school in which teachers are supported and empowered to do their best work.

"The extra work required of teachers serving in challenging contexts means it is unsurprising that teachers in these schools are twice as likely to leave the profession, especially early in their careers."

As someone who came from a working-class background, and grew up on benefits, I can attest to the difference it can make to a pupil's life chances if they have quality teachers who set high expectations. As I said in my response on The Big Questions: at times when I didn’t believe in myself and what I could achieve, my teachers did and were there to support me.

However, pupils living in pockets of deprivation are more likely to have unqualified teachers, and more likely to be taught by teachers working outside their subject specialism. I’ve been one of those teachers, working as an unqualified teacher in my early career, and I can attest that I was a far better teacher after developing my expertise and gaining my teaching qualification.

Teachers in areas with a high proportion of FSM pupils are also more likely to be required to provide pastoral support. From my own experience, it wasn’t unusual for a member of support staff to appear at my classroom door looking bewildered and asking “Do you have porridge in your desk?”, as a pupil had shown up to school hungry.

You might have a stack of marking which you know you’ll fall behind on, or a lesson to plan; but the only reaction in that moment is to prioritise making breakfast for your pupil. You know it took a lot for them to ask for food, and you may be one of the first adults that day to ask them if they are ok. You will stay and listen to their story, telling yourself you will mark essays at lunchtime or work a bit longer that evening.

"Pupils living in pockets of deprivation are more likely to have unqualified teachers, and more likely to be taught by teachers working outside their subject specialism."

The extra work required of teachers serving in challenging contexts – providing pastoral support, more one-on-one time with pupils with barriers to learning, and having to adapt to changing circumstances that come with high pupil mobility – means it is unsurprising that teachers in these schools are also twice as likely to leave the profession, especially early in their careers.

So even when pupils have built a trusting relationship with a teacher there is a higher chance, compared to more affluent settings, that the teacher will move on. They will be replaced by a new teacher – potentially an unqualified one – with less experience, who has to start building relationships with pupils all over again.

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The Early Career Framework early rollout in regions across the North, which I’m currently working on at Ambition Institute, is a start in helping to develop teacher expertise from the very start of teachers’ careers. It’s so important to give NQTs the knowledge they need to tackle the persistent problems that come with the territory of teaching, especially in challenging contexts. By extending the support for early career teachers, the ECF will help us to build the strongest foundation for a high-quality teaching workforce.

But we need to ensure educators have access to similar programmes for teachers at all stages of their careers. Teachers in schools within disadvantaged communities are best placed to make a difference to these pupils and they need our support. We need to raise the status of the teaching profession and make sure our teachers feel valued.

In this way, we level the playing field – so that all children, regardless of background or race, can achieve their ambitions. The numbers show we need to act now.


* Bangladeshi boys sit within the broader category of Asian where there were 4,331 boys on free school meals, with an average score of 40.2. We focused in Bangladeshi data here to reflect the conversation on The Big Questions.

Find out how the Early  Career Teachers programme can support your NQTs and their mentors. 

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