British students are slipping. Should mom and dad take the fall?

British students are slipping. Should parents take the fall?

White working-class children in the U.K. are lagging behind their peers. Fining parents could be the answer

A man and woman sitting outside a house smoking.
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There is a cultural crisis afoot in Britain’s state school system today, but not the kind you’d expect.

A recent government report has found that only 32 per cent of white working-class children achieved a good grade—defined as A to C in five subjects—on their General Certificates of Secondary Education exam, taken by all pupils between ages 14 and 16. The dismal result stands in sharp contrast to immigrant students in the same family income bracket. Sixty-two per cent of British South Asian students achieved a good result on their GCSEs, as did 51 per cent of students of African descent. Even Afro-Caribbean children, who have long lagged behind in test scores, did better than their poor white counterparts according to the report (which defines working-class children as those whose family income level is sufficiently low for them to qualify for the government-funded school lunch program). An earlier report last year by the U.K.’s Centre For Social Justice confirms the trend.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Britain’s Office for Standards in Education, said the result illustrates that low school grades are not strictly linked to poverty, but are also the result of irresponsible parenting. He went so far as to urge the government to give principals the right to fine parents who don’t read to their children every day, show up for parent-teacher nights or make sure their kids complete their homework. (The government currently fines British parents for truancy in children up to 16 and sent out over 52,000 fixed penalty notices last year for $110 each, about half of which were paid promptly.)

Reminiscing about his own days as an educator, Wilshaw told the press, “I was absolutely clear with parents; if they weren’t doing a good job, I would tell them so. It’s up to [principals] to say quite clearly, ‘You’re a poor parent.’ If parents didn’t come into school, didn’t come to parents’ evening, didn’t read with their children, didn’t ensure they did their homework, I would tell them they were bad parents.”

The government has not responded to Wilshaw’s recommendations to fine parents and seems unlikely to take his demands seriously, especially considering the opinionated bureaucrat has publicly butted heads with Education Secretary Michael Gove before. But his airing of views comes at an interesting time, since Gove is said to be considering tougher sanctions for parents of children who repeatedly play hooky, including cutting their child-benefit payments.

On a broader social level, the issue of white working-class children falling behind is alarming for the British government, not just because of what it says about much of the country’s struggling native poor but because, overall, Britain is slipping in the international educational rankings. According to the Program for International Student Assessment, which compares the grade levels of students in 32 countries, Britain’s last performance was grim: its students ranked 23rd in reading and 26th in math.

But according to many educational experts, fining bad parents is not the answer. Children of immigrants often fare better at school for a variety of reasons, including the fact that their parents may have received post-secondary education in their country of origin, or they were brought up in a culture that values education and literacy above street smarts and toughness.

According to anthropologist Gillian Evans, author of the book Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain, the challenges facing poor whites in Britain must be viewed in a historical context. Traditionally, Britain’s native working class did not place huge cultural importance on education because until late in the last century, young people in manufacturing centres (particularly in the north of England) could leave school in their mid-teens and find decent employment.

But working-class identity and culture—based around the Labour movement and strong trade unions—has been systematically eroded, resulting in a demoralized population with high addiction and welfare dependency rates. While Evans reports that most working-class people today recognize the importance of education for social mobility, for a minority, this demoralization has resulted in a rebellious anger at the system. In poor neighbourhoods, a defiant (mostly male) youth street culture has emerged. Kids lash out and “tend to disrupt the learning of children from working-class families who want to learn and do well at school.”

Or, as the Times columnist Caitlin Moran recently put it, “A working-class teenage girl does not want a pony—she wants a revolution.” The irony, of course, is that her best way of getting one is to get an education first.