Inverted snobbery and the narrative of ‘privilege’ have made poor white British boys today’s educational left-behinds
I’d like to live to be at least a hundred years old. That will take me past the middle of this century; perhaps by the time I receive my congratulatory holographic message from King William, some of the mysteries of the human condition will have been revealed to me. Will artificial intelligence defeat our humanity? Why do perfectly sensible people take up politics? And who conned so many into believing that Brussels sprouts were fit for human consumption?
I doubt, however, that I’ll ever work out why the British appear untroubled by the fact that so many of their children emerge from over a decade of expensive, compulsory education with scarcely more in the way of literacy and numeracy than the average Neanderthal. Yet we are quietly resentful that disciplined, hard-working Asian students are flooding into the highly remunerated jobs offered by global enterprises, particularly in the creative industries and big tech—areas our nation once dominated; and that cheerful, multilingual continental Europeans and South Americans populate our hospitality businesses, while our own teenagers struggle to put a coherent sentence together, never mind display simple good manners.
This casual approach to education is particularly puzzling to the quarter of a billion or so immigrants (and their progeny) who have fanned out across the globe during the past century, in search of that legendary “better life”. They travel thousands of miles into territory that is often cold and strange, to live amongst people who are even colder and stranger than the landscape. Few international migrants are fleeing starvation or war; if they were they would not have the means to move to another continent. These people—including my own parents—are poor by European or North American standards; but what marks them out is that they are the clever, restless, ambitious ones in the village. Every immigrant child internalises a version of the same parental lecture: “You will have to do twice as well as everybody else at school to get half as far in this world”. It’s understandable that our parents prize a good education so highly—once you’ve had it, it’s probably the one thing no-one can steal from you.
Immigrants to Britain are understandably super-keen to take advantage of the quality offered by our elite educational institutions. MPs such as Kwasi Kwarteng, Thangam Debbonaire and Chuka Umunna found their path to the top via independent schools, in some cases through academic or music scholarships. Cambridge University has recently celebrated the donation of a pair of bursaries for black students by the grime artist Stormzy; he has been (rightly) lionised for his desire to “give back” to those who come from his own, African-heritage background.
Many of our finest schools understand the passion of the formerly oppressed to climb the ladder offered by education. They enthusiastically pack their dorms with the children of African and Asian billionaires. Yet, as the experience of one of our most distinguished educators has recently demonstrated, they aren’t always so keen to offer the same opportunity to other poor but clever children, even if someone else is prepared to pay the price of the ticket. And the reason is, shockingly, entirely to do with their race.
On half a dozen occasions over the past five years, I’ve been asked to advise on whether it is acceptable to offer bursaries or scholarships to one minority group or another. Invariably, I have said yes; but donors remain nervous, and beneficiary institutions are routinely discouraged by their lawyers. I have no idea how many such generous offers have been turned down; but I do know that in recent months two well-known fee-paying schools have lost bequests totalling over a million pounds that might have supported some of our most disadvantaged children for one reason: the donor, like Stormzy, wants his money to go to people of his own background—poor but talented white British boys.
I will come to the schools’ stated reasons in a moment; but to start with, is this, frankly speaking, a racist proposal? Not in my opinion. No one much minds that almost every large employer, including the civil service, supports a BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) network, and pays for special programmes to accelerate minority advancement. Big companies increasingly insist that recruitment firms—such as the one I chair—provide lists of candidates for senior positions which include both women and people of colour. Each of these actions constitutes a legitimate effort to ensure greater equality between races; and each is permitted under the Equality Act 2010. We did not call the legislation the “Be Kind To Blacks Act”; the key word in the title is “equality”. In circumstances where the racial group that is disadvantaged is white, there should be no bar to doing for them exactly what we would do for so-called BAME groups. Indeed, in some cases we actively set out to protect the rights of a “white” group; think, for example, about the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into the treatment of Jewish members of the Labour Party.
Of course, the law aside, it must be reasonable to question whether a white person can ever really be at a disadvantage in the way that a person of colour frequently is; in essence, should white people be regarded as part of a racial group? Ethically, this looks like a far trickier question; but the answer is unequivocally “yes”.
Why? Because ethnicity and race aren’t just about colour; unless you happen to be a 19th-century eugenicist, no-one believes that skin by itself affects your capability for a job or an education. In short, melanin does not make you stupid. Racial disadvantage arises out of a combination of factors—unjustified discrimination, historical deprivation of opportunity, and cultural attitudes, all of which help to define a racial grouping. Our equality law reflects this by making the test of racial disadvantage not biological but essentially statistical; is a person in a particular ethnic category more or less likely to achieve a good outcome when applying for a job or a university place, whatever the reason?
Overwhelmingly, during my lifetime, the answer for people of colour has been a negative one. But times change. We now have better data that allows us to be specific about the who, the where and the when, and what we know is that not all people who look alike suffer in the same way. Twenty years ago, the Department for Education made no distinction between different kinds of brown children, placing Pakistani Muslims and Indian Hindus in the same bracket. Latterly we have been provided with far more sophisticated data about, for example, pay; people of Indian heritage, on average, earn about 40 per cent more than their Bangladeshi-heritage cousins.
In education, the GCSE attainment gap between the Indian and Pakistani heritage groups (23 per cent) is far larger than the gap between Asians overall and the average white child (8 per cent). So it obviously makes no sense to think of all Asian children as a single ethnic grouping when it comes to the classroom. As for white children, we now know they are marginally below average. White boys’ results, whilst not in the deep well occupied by Caribbean heritage boys, are almost identical to those of Pakistani heritage boys, some 7 per cent below average. So based on our normal statistical test, there should be no greater reluctance to provide special help for white boys than for brown boys—unless you happen to be the sort of person who thinks that the only reason that non-white people are disadvantaged is because of their colour—in which case, you’re unlikely to see any point in bothering to educate them at all. We have a word for people who think in this way.
But my experience is that most institutions are ridiculously squeamish about accepting that their treatment of whites as a “non-race” is itself racist. They have become so confused in these “woke” times that a lethal cocktail of inverted snobbery, racial victimhood, and liberal guilt ends up rewarding schools for favouring the black and brown rich whilst neglecting the white poor. Most authorities today acknowledge that whilst family background and income do play a role in student success, the most acute and puzzling failure is to be found amongst boys who are eligible for free school meals, particularly those from white and African Caribbean backgrounds; and the standout crisis lies amongst the far more numerous white group. To put it in technical terms, we now know that race is an independent variable when it comes to educational success, and we still aren’t sure why. But to help tackle the problem, we don’t have to know all the answers—the fact that we don’t know everything about cancer doesn’t prevent us from treating its symptoms.
Sir Bryan Thwaites will next month celebrate his 96th birthday, after a long and distinguished academic career. Not only was he a noted innovator in the field of fluid mechanics; for many decades he was one of the most determined advocates of mathematics education, campaigning for more and better teaching on the subject; the School Mathematics Project which he co-founded in 1961 reached some 80 per cent of the country’s secondary schools by the early 1970s. He even took pupils behind the Iron Curtain to compete in the International Mathematical Olympiad. Sir Bryan was a scholarship boy at Dulwich College and Winchester College, both top-rank independent schools. I have no doubt that in his own childhood experiences, Thwaites can see the impact of better access to a good education for underprivileged children, in much the same way that I can see from my own post-war immigrant experience. What we share is a desire not just to polish the problem but to do something about it. The ultimate remedy lies in reforming the state system; but as someone once said there’s little point in cursing the darkness, when you can light a single candle.
Two decades ago, I attempted to make a small contribution, in much the same spirit as Stormzy’s initiative; my TV company paid to send a young black student from south London to a successful public school, and made a film about his attempt to escape the clutches of gangs and crime. We thought that the boarding experience, and the strong ethos of the place might allow him to find a new future. As it turned out, he made a good fist of it for a year or so; but ultimately our effort failed, because we just didn’t appreciate how hard it would be for him to be separated from his family. But since then, the idea that our best fee-paying schools can and should do more to open the gates of opportunity has gained ground with all strands of political opinion.
Similarly, as he approached his personal centenary Sir Bryan sought to parlay his own good fortune into concrete backing for the ambitions of bright boys like himself. He made a generous offer to the schools of which he himself had been a pupil. Dulwich College and Winchester College were offered bequests, respectively, of £400,000 and £800,000, to provide bursaries for under-privileged white British boys. Both schools declined to accept the bequests under his conditions. Their reasons were similar, both ethical and legal. Ethically, they just did not want to be seen to be favouring a white racial group for what people these days call “reputational” reasons. I think they are worrying unnecessarily; but my principal reason for alarm at their refusal lies in their faulty understanding of the law.
Both schools understandably took legal advice. As often happens, they were warned (see left) that the bequest would risk breaking the 2010 Equality Act—though no such gift has ever been challenged in the courts. Unfortunately, they followed this advice, and in doing so, they reinforced an interpretation of the law that will lead to the deprivation of opportunities for children of every ethnic background.
This is not what we intended when we drafted the equality laws. As one of the authors of the Act, and having encountered this situation before, I can see that the schools’ lawyers read the Act as though it were a law constructed purely to favour people of colour. It is not; it is designed to ensure equality, and in this specific case, the disadvantaged, under-represented group happens to be white. Unless you refuse to accept that white people constitute a racial grouping, they are entitled to the same rights as anyone else; and there is no shortage of such racially specific opportunities for people of colour.
For example, as Cambridge University’s website tells us, Stormzy was able to make a bursary available under conditions favourable to a racial grouping:
To be eligible for a 2019 entry “The Stormzy Scholarship” applicants must be of black heritage and be holding an unconditional offer.
An Oxford college recently announced that it would offer a postgraduate scholarship specifically for a BAME woman undertaking postgraduate studies, engaging both sex and race. I happen to know about this because the grant comes from a company I chair, Green Park Executive Search; in years to come we want to be putting more minority women in top jobs, and this is one way of making that possible. Happily, so far, my old colleagues at the EHRC haven’t come knocking on the doors at Oxford, Cambridge, Stormzy or Green Park.
The case for caution is that such preferential treatment should apply only to disadvantaged groups, and that disadvantage can’t possibly include white boys. But according to the Independent Schools Council, white pupils are underrepresented in fee-paying schools, when compared to the state sector nationally (66.1 per cent compared to 67.8 per cent). In London, where immigrant parents are concentrated, the majority of pupils enrolled in private schools are non-white (55 per cent). If the barrier here is supposed to be “white privilege,” someone isn’t reading the numbers properly.
Sadly for young white Brits, there will be no shortage of foreigners ready to seize the opportunity they are being denied. Indeed, demand for places from Chinese students is so strong that some independent schools are covertly imposing quotas on their numbers, worried that the “character” of their institutions is being diluted. Amongst the established British minority communities—especially South Asians and some Africans—parents with no more than a rudimentary education themselves are ready to take a second or third job in order to give their children the academic success and social polish offered by posh day schools in London, Birmingham and Manchester. So from the point of view of the racially dispossessed, there is no prejudice against public schools in this story.
Of course, the real-world experiences of black or Asian families have no place in the contemporary liberal narrative of racial victimhood, according to which all people of colour are poor, disadvantaged and excluded, whilst all white people are the beneficiaries of “white privilege”, unless they are lucky enough to figure in a Ken Loach movie. This absurd reductionism is to everyone’s disadvantage. I dislike the narrative because it presents me, a person of colour, as a hapless pawn of others’ prejudices and passions, devoid of any agency, waiting to be rescued by what African Americans call the “white saviour”. My Essex-born white relatives, descended from Irish immigrants, hate it because it ignores the fact that they too were not only poor, but excluded from polite society for most of the last century. Even now they are subject to various kinds of snobbery about their accents, dress and behaviour. The one thing that they don’t feel they get from being white is “privilege”.
This isn’t just a story about posh schools. The same fear of addressing racial difference honestly has, at the other end of the social spectrum, become a life and death matter. The prevailing narrative that all racial disadvantage is the consequence of white behaviour prevents the media and politics admitting that the wave of vicious assassinations which we now call “knife crime” are almost all about black children killing other black children. As a result, no police force can admit that the smart thing to do is to focus its resources on the areas where the crimes take place, and to treat the problem as racially inflected. Saying that this is a crime that disproportionately involves one group is not the same as saying that the group is criminally inclined. But while we resist the truth, two black children die on average each week. That’s a number similar to the prevalence of domestic violence against women—which the authorities rightly treat as a gender issue and into which we have properly ploughed huge resources.
Sir Bryan wanted to do the right thing by families who need support. The liberal guilt of a largely brahmin caste stands in his way. The guardians of our great schools should not be putting their own insecurities and sensitivities between his generosity and young people of talent. He feels badly hurt by schools to which he owes his own good fortune. But being of a pragmatic disposition, Thwaites isn’t hanging around hoping that his alma maters will change their minds. One state school has already accepted his offer. Ironically, but not surprisingly, its headmaster is black. Bad luck, Dulwich College and Winchester.
Statement from Winchester College
“The school, in common with many universities, has outreach schemes aimed at carefully selected and underrepresented communities. These schemes operate successfully and are regularly reviewed. Equality law commendably provides for positive action: charity law recommends, lest there should be unintentional negative consequence, careful consideration of reputational risk and the overall interests of the charity.
The school will always continuingly discuss with benefactors the effective delivery of their intentions. But the trustees are clear, having consulted widely, that acceptance of a bequest of this nature would neither be in the interests of the school as a charity nor the specific interests of those it aims to support through its work. Notwithstanding legal exceptions to the relevant legislation, the school does not see how discrimination on grounds of a boy’s colour could ever be compatible with its values.”