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White Working Class Underachievement Is Not Simply About Individual Families

18/06/2014 15:02 BST | Updated 18/08/2014 10:59 BST

Daniel Silver (@DanSilverSarf) and Amina Lone (@Amina_Lone) are co-Directors of the Social Action & Research Foundation, an action-research think-tank that aims to tackle poverty in all its different forms

Some "children are coming in hungry, some children are falling asleep" a head teacher of a school in Higher Blackley, Manchester told us as part of research for the Open Society Foundation's "Understanding Europe's White Working Class Communities".

A House of Commons Education Select Committee has reported on white working class underachievement and chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw is calling for head teachers to be given the power to fine parents who fail to ensure their children turn up to school on time or complete their homework. This fails to take into account the hidden barriers that impact on a parent's ability to parent effectively and can mean punishing parents and children for their family's poverty, which would often make the situation worse. This seems to be part of a wider social narrative that individualises blame for poverty, which fails to recognise the economic, cultural, social and political marginalisation that many white working class communities experience.

This same narrative explains white working class underachievement by blaming a 'poverty of aspiration' within families. Research we conducted for the Open Society Foundations that launched this week, revealed a different and more complex picture. Parents we spoke to wanted the best for their children, so they would be able "to better themselves", and also that their children "hopefully get better than what we've got." Many parents also expressed the view that it was not all about academic education but also about their children having the opportunity to train in a skilled secure profession and provide for their families.

One father described how, "You've got to help them in any way you can. My daughter is just about to go to uni and that's going to cost me a fortune, but if it helps her get the job she wants and the lifestyle I know she wants then good." This sense of aspiration was supported through our conversations with young people. For instance, a girl, who was 14, said that she wanted "to do well in school and get qualifications."

Underachievement is very rarely just about the individuals, the social and cultural context of pupils must be considered. Wilshaw said that poverty should not be an excuse for underachievement. While this may be true, poverty is a very real reason for it.

Our research found that many people are struggling with insecure and low-paid work, a lack of suitable housing, and poor mental health. This clearly affects children's ability to do well in school. Parents we spoke to knew about the benefits of eating healthy food, but told us that often they simply could not afford to do so - an issue that has become worse since the recession. These wider social factors all affect families, and in turn have an impact upon a child's ability to achieve at school.

Just because a child is poor does not necessarily mean they will fail in education. But this doesn't mean that poverty is not a factor; it creates much more risk in a child's life, which increases the risk of young people falling through the net. These risk factors and how they interact on particular families is complex and to identify one as an exclusive cause of underachievement is flawed. Risk factors identified through our research included both individual and wider social issues: poor and inconsistent parenting, substandard housing, complex family issues, financial difficulties and parents with mental health or addiction issues.

We heard from a mother whose family of four living were living in one room. This family's housing situation affects the ability of her children to be able to do well in an educational setting. Not having a quiet space to be able to do one's homework has a significant impact on children's ability to think and learn. She felt powerless to be able to change anything and believed that she had not received appropriate support. She was in employment, but working within the childcare sector, which pays low wages and fails to provide the security that is needed for long-term planning. This example illustrates how the insecurity that was a feature of the white working class community our in-depth study focused on, has a direct impact on children's lives and potentially their future ability to succeed.

Schools alone cannot compensate for social inequality and punishing families will not achieve the desired effect. Our research shows the need for more nuanced, structural accounts of working-class educational achievement. This requires further creative interventions that seek to genuinely engage with and value the unique lived experiences of working-class families, whilst also addressing the wider issues that impact on communities. The different public services working in a particular community need to work more closely together throughout all stages of a pupil's development, and we found excellent examples of this already happening.

White working class underachievement is not simply about individual families. We must recognise the marginalisation that many communities are experiencing. Until we do this, the cycle of underachievement will continue; most importantly, the blame-game will not help the very children who we want to support to succeed.

Follow Amina Lone on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Amina_Lone