06/06/2017 18:17 BST | Updated 07/06/2017 11:05 BST

Theresa May's Forgotten Pledge: How Does The UK Get More White Working Class Boys Into University?

Three experts tackle the problem raised by the PM on the steps of No.10.

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When she became Prime Minister in July 2016, Theresa May stood on the steps of No.10 Downing Street and set out her own personal mission for changing Britain.

She talked about helping ‘ordinary working families’, the gender pay gap, the dominance of private schools in public life, mental health and racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

But also among her list of the ills afflicting the country was this line: “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.”


The Institute for Fiscal Studies is among several think tanks to report that school pupils from all ethnic minority backgrounds are now, on average, significantly more likely to go to university than their White British counterparts.

Just 12% of white children from poor households go on to university, compared to 29% of Afro-Caribbean, 36% of Pakistani, 45% of Bangladeshi, 53% of Indian and 65% pf Chinese children from the same socio-economic group.

Young girls across all classes are 35% more likely to go to university than young boys, the Higher Education Policy Institute has suggested.


As part of our ‘Beyond Brexit’ series - looking beyond polling day to April 1, 2019, when the UK quits the European Union - HuffPost UK asked three leading experts on social mobility to give their solutions to the problem.

None of them thinks that one of May’s main answers on education - the creation of ‘new’ grammar schools - gets to the heart of the issue.

But all of them have policy proposals, some radical, some incremental, to tackle it. 


Sir Peter Lampl: Better teaching, more outreach

Sutton Trust

In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May highlighted the shocking access gap at our universities, saying that white working-class boys were “less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university”.

But surprisingly social mobility has not been the issue it should have been in this election.

Our own research has shown that white working class boys are the least likely to get 5 good GCSEs of any major ethnic group and to go on to study after GCSE.  This seriously limits the number that have the chance to go on to university or a higher level apprenticeship.

The poor academic performance of all disadvantaged pupils is a tragic waste of talent which results in a significant economic cost.

While we must narrow the gap for all pupils who continue to fall behind, the sheer size of the disadvantaged white British community means that it is a priority that we make a concerted effort to improve their results.

Fairer access to the best schools is part of the solution, but the Conservatives’ proposed expansion of grammar schools is unlikely to be a quick fix.

It has been well documented that disadvantaged pupils are underrepresented at grammar schools and our own research has shown that white working class pupils in particular enter grammar school at the lowest rate of any major ethnic group. 

Our mobility manifesto proposes practical steps to improve access to grammars and the best comprehensives. These include outreach, giving poor kids a break and using ballots to allocate students to schools. 

However, the most important thing we can do is to improve the quality of teaching.  The difference between a good and bad teacher for disadvantaged pupils can be as much as a year’s learning.  So, making sure teachers have access to the training and development they need is the most effective way to raise standards.

We also need to instil that same will to learn that we see in many ethnic minority groups. This means engaging with parents, particularly those whose own experience of school was not positive. The Education Endowment Foundation found that texting parents about upcoming tests and homework deadlines boosted maths results and reduced absenteeism too.

Boosting aspirations is vitally important.  We need to offer more support to disadvantaged young people throughout their education so that they are able to fulfil their potential after GCSE. Interventions like our Summer Schools give teenagers from low and middle income homes the confidence to apply to top universities.

But it’s not all bad news. There is evidence that the attainment gap has been narrowing in primary schools.

But if those elected on Thursday are serious about further narrowing those still wide gaps, the new MPs and ministers must look at the evidence as to what has worked and redouble their efforts to address the huge inequalities that continue to blight our country.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation


Sam Freedman: More teachers in deprived schools

Sam Freedman

Theresa May was absolutely right to highlight the academic performance of white working class boys as one of the biggest problems in the education system. If we look at data for boys on free school meals, the standard proxy for low-income, we find that just 33% of White boys got A*-C grades in their English and Maths GCSE last year compared to 49% of their black peers and 53% of their Asian ones.

So why do poor white boys do so poorly? A lot of it is do with geography. In the decades following World War 2 white working class families were systematically moved out of poor quality housing in inner cities and on to large overspill council estates on the edge of cities or in smaller towns.

These communities are often quite homogenous and most adults have themselves not had a positive experience of schooling. A lack of parental engagement, combined with the effects of poverty, make it much harder to run successful schools on these estates than in poor parts of inner-cities which tend to have much higher aspirational immigrant populations.

Any Government that wants to tackle these problem needs to invest in these communities. Primarily that means getting the best teachers and leaders to work there. Ahead of the election Teach First launched an education and social mobility manifesto, where we called for student loan repayments for teachers to attract more people to the profession.

But we also need to make sure they teach in the right places. Making teaching in more challenging schools a prerequisite of progression to well-paid leadership roles might help. As would providing support rather than sanction, in this first instance, for schools that get poor inspection results.

Government also needs to ensure that social care and mental health services are properly funded. One issue in the type of communities under discussion is that schools are having to pick up a lot of pastoral support as local authorities and health providers manage the impact of cuts.

This inevitably reduces the ability to focus on improving education outcomes and, in extreme cases, can lead to emotional burnout for teachers.

Finally, there needs to be more help for pupils in making decisions about their future, given that parental support is often lacking. We need more careers support in schools and we need elite universities to focus more on parts of the country where they have little presence.

Too much university outreach at the moment is focused on their immediate locality. The Government could encourage this through the access agreements they have with each university.

But change will only happen if the next Government makes it a priority. It’s been good to see more debate about education in this election than in previous ones but the focus has been on grammar schools and tuition fees.

All of these things may help the middle classes but they will make little difference in the communities that need the most help.

If you would like social mobility to be featuring more in this election please go to this link and send the Teach First manifesto to your local candidates.

Sam Freedman, Executive Director for Participant Impact and Delivery, Teach First.


Anna Vignoles: Investment in pre-school and FE

Cambridge University

What should we be doing to improve the chances of white working class boys going to university? We need to be guided by the evidence, some of which is counter intuitive. At age 18/19, students from the richest fifth of households are approximately three times more likely to go to university than students from the bottom fifth. This probably chimes with public understanding that poorer students are far less likely to go to university. Less well known is that if we compare students with similar achievement at GCSE, poor students are just as likely to go to university. This may seem to clash with personal experience: yet these two facts are entirely consistent.

Although it might seem that the costs of university make it far more difficult for a poor student to get to go, in reality the system protects the poorest from some of the upfront costs. Students can borrow to fund their higher education and repay loans after graduation, but then only if they have high enough income. Recent analysis indicates that between 2006 and 2013, the poorest students actually narrowed the gap slightly in terms of their likelihood of going to university relative to their richer counterparts. We need to remember however, that since then maintenance grants have been abolished and students are acquiring more debt. This may reverse any progress. To date though, the evidence suggests that white working class boys are far less likely go to university because they have such low achievement at school – not because of barriers at the point of entry into higher education.

So what does the research tell us we should do?

First, increase our investment in high quality early years education. If we are serious about narrowing the gap in education achievement, this early investment should be heavily targeted on the poorest families rather than being a general subsidy.

Invest more in high quality teaching, which requires us to make teaching a more attractive career to improve recruitment and retention. Disadvantaged students benefit disproportionately from high quality teaching so this is crucial (for richer students, parents find ways to take up the slack).

Devote less resource to repeatedly reorganising the school system and recognise that constant change consumes resource. The pace of change has been rapid (academies, free schools, A level reform, GCSE curriculum reform, reform to the teacher education system etc.). With limited resource this ends up stressing the system. Less is more in this case.

Do not reintroduce a grammar school system. Different types of school (academies, grammars etc.) do not vary a lot in terms of their impact on achievement. Recent analysis has suggested that those who get into a grammar school do only marginally better than their peers (estimates vary from zero to about half a GCSE grade) and that those who attend the resulting “secondary modern” schools do worse as a result.

At best, a grammar system is no better than a comprehensive one. Grammar schools have never been a major route to success for a poor but able child: very few poor children actually enrolled in grammars in the past. Recent research on modern grammars suggests that this remains the case.

Focus more on giving poor students a second chance. Post 16 a majority of children from poor backgrounds enter the Further Education system which has had its funding cut disproportionately in recent years. We need to recognise the importance of this part of the education system and ensure high quality teaching in this sector too. Since teaching terms and conditions are worse in FE, this is pressing.

Remember that education is an investment. Not all money spent on education is spent wisely of course and you cannot write a blank cheque. However, unlike many other aspects of government spending, education spending is an investment in the future skills and productivity of the younger generation. We forget this at our peril.

Professor Anna Vignoles, Faculty of Education, Jesus College, University of Cambridge 




As part of our mission to get to the guts of Brexit, HuffPost UK is looking at voters’ priorities beyond the hubbub of the election campaign trail and what they want beyond March 29, 2019, not just June 8, 2017. Beyond Brexit goes outside the bubble of Westminster and London talk to Britons left out of the conversation on the subjects they really care about, like housing, integration, social care, school funding and air quality.