Supporting and engaging white working class children

Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant event: SSAT Aspirations Show 2018 

Daniel Jarrett, Safeguarding Manager, education charity School-Home Support (SHS), highlights some of the challenges white working-class children face and outlines what schools can do to improve their outcomes and aspirations

A 2016 report from Sutton Trust, Class Differences, found that white working class pupils achieve the lowest grades at GCSE of any main ethnic group, with just a quarter of boys and a third of girls achieving five good GCSEs.

One argument as to why this has happened is the legacy of deindustrialisation in the UK and the collapse of secure employment, leading to feelings of hopelessness. In a New Statesman article, Phil Karnavas, executive principal of a school in Kent with a large proportion of underprivileged white pupils, noted, ‘The culture of white, Anglo-Saxon, working-class boys is one which has historically led them from the terraces to the factory, the fields or the farm. That doesn’t exist any more.’ Seeing a lack of jobs around industry can have the effect of making it difficult for the children to be motivated in doing well at school. In their eyes, and in many of their parents’ eyes, with university too expensive to access, the only route left is unemployment and a reliance on benefits.

Low aspirations can be a vicious cycle. While the idea of hundreds of thousands of families living in unemployment for generations is a myth (a Joseph Rowntree Foundation study found under 1% of workless households might have two generations who have never worked – about 15,000 households in the UK), the idea that there is no need to worry because the benefits system will cushion your fall still persists in some households.

But while this may have been the case for some parents, it is not the case for their children.

What can be done?

School-Home Support (SHS) is dedicated to helping disadvantaged children and young people overcome educational barriers. We believe that widening children’s worlds and helping them access the wealth of opportunities and experiences available is essential for improving educational attainment. This means helping young people realise their potential and think positively about their future careers. It can be achieved through supporting them in accessing extra-curricular activities that suit their interests and learning styles – dancing, film and music production, web design, etc. Such activities can help them recognise their unique skills and worth, and leave them eager to learn more.

It’s also necessary to work closely with parents. Parental engagement is paramount for them to encourage their children, reinforce positive messages about school, and support them in accessing further and possibly higher education. Parents need to ensure they attend secondary school and college appointments with their children, further helping them to realise the options available.

At SHS, one of the ways we try to encourage all this is by arranging ‘aspiration sessions’. We take a group of children and their parents to one of our corporate partners’ offices, introducing them to staff across all levels of the company who then describe their different routes to employment. This helps the families to see the careers that are available and to feel they are achievable.

In ‘aspiration sessions’, children and their parents meet staff across all levels of a company, who describe their different routes to employment

Other tips for engagement

One of our school-based pastoral support experts, Helena Loizou, works in a school where she’s been tasked specifically to improve engagement with white working class boys. She suggests that schools:

  • Try to engage with the whole family, particularly wider family members who may have been very involved with the children from an early age. There is often a lot of respect for the older family members and they are very keen to see their children get into employment, so they can be a positive source of encouragement and support.
  • Help young people and their older family members to understand the local job market. Many of the wider family members used to remain in the local area for housing and work but this has changed drastically over the years: both parties need to understand what the local opportunities for employment are and what role education could play in this.
  • Don’t assume that white working class boys have parents who don’t see education as important. They often do, but their experience of education was very different to the education being offered now (even though it’s frequently the same school!). This needs to be explained to them in order for them to engage with school and help their children progress.

Of course, many of the issues raised above apply to children from all backgrounds and cultures, and in fact the feeling that there’s a lack of opportunity affects all young people. It’s important that schools work with student bodies as a whole to improve aspirations and help them to find exciting and fulfilling avenues to pursue. Only then can we ensure no-one gets left behind.

SSAT Aspirations Show 2018 on Friday 6 July in London will give young people the chance to feel they have control over their own futures through exploring their potential future pathways. Student places availble from as little as £8 each: Find out more and book now

Read more on the SSAT blog: Ensuring white British working class boys on pupil premium don’t get left behind 

Daniel Jarrett, School-Home Support

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