White working class kids have become the nation’s under achievers at school. Stephen Lambert argues that’s why the region needs a North of the Tyne learning challenge to help raise all children’s life-chances

IT’S becoming blatantly clear that social class or socio-economic status and not gender or race determine how well a child does at school. The more affluent the family, measured by wealth or job, the more successful a youngster will be and the greater their life-chances.

The defining mission of any responsible government must be to eliminate these differences and ensure every child in our region has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential, regardless of family background.

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The Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation report for 2017 is the latest to observe that working class kids or those from poorer neighbourhoods achieve weaker exam results than those of their peers from more well-to-do families. Diane Reay in her new book, Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes (2017) notes: “There remains an entrenched and unbroken correlation between social class and educational success.’’ As Professor Green, the rapper, observes in his Channel 4 documentary the white working class are losing out big style.

Strikingly, less than half of young people from unskilled manual-working families stay on in post-16 full-time education compared to nine in ten from managerial or professional households. Twenty one per cent of 16 to 25-year olds in our region are NEETS, (not in education, employment or training) according to the think-tank, Policy North. Class inequality is alive and well and reproduces itself from one generation to the next. A quarter of MPs, 82 per cent of barristers, 81 per cent of top judges and 52 per cent of national journalists have been to Oxbridge. Meanwhile, only 12 per cent of chief executives, six per cent of hospital doctors and 12 per cent of print journalists come from a working-class background.

So how can we explain what’s going on, and what can government do about it?

Some experts like Lord Adonis and Stephen Pollard put in it down to the quality of schooling. Teacher labelling, negative stereotyping of working-class pupils too often led to the self-fulfilling prophecy where youngsters believed they were failures.

There is substantial evidence to support the former Premier Tony Blair’s view that a good school, in a poor low-income neighbourhood, can make a difference.

In 2003 the Labour Government established London Learning Challenge. In the last decade schools across disadvantaged city boroughs such as Hackney and Islington, with a child poverty rate of 41 per cent, have seen the class gap gradually narrow. Despite these accomplishments, schools, however, good or outstanding, can’t compensate for the inequalities in the real social world. Good schooling can help to mitigate inequality but it can’t eradicate it. As Prof Reay writes: “We need to look beyond the school gates. There is only so much that educational institutions can do to improve social class inequalities, given the economic and social context in which they operate.”

One of the key factors for working-class under-achievement, is poverty and material circumstances. In Newcastle Central, more than 37 per cent of youngsters experience child poverty, an increase from two years ago, which has clearly had an impact on their educational success or failure.

According to the report, Children’s Life Chances, produced by the North East Child Poverty Commission in 2015, there is an attainment gap between pupils who receive free school meals and those that don’t. Fifteen per cent of boys receiving free school meals didn’t get five GCSEs. Likewise, according to the Newcastle Education Commission in 2005, problems at home are to blame for poor exam results than schools such as low incomes and poor parenting. The reality is too many poor youngsters living in our inner-cities and outer-council estates in overcrowded conditions, where there is little space to do homework, and many lack computers.

TO date both Labour and the Lib-Dems’ educational policies have placed a spotlight on these issues. Educational Achievement Zones committed to compensatory schooling, including breakfast clubs in poor neighbourhoods, free school dinners for all primary school pupils up to the age of 11 are recommended. Sure Start programmes aimed at deprived pre-school children under five need be safeguarded.

The restoration of EMAs and student grants for youngsters from low-income households could also play a key role in boosting educational participation in the north. Most schools and colleges in Britain are doing their best, with able and dedicated teachers with an emphasis on inclusive learning. Kids are working harder. But at the end of the day they can’t compensate for the iniquities of a socially divided nation.

If we’re serious about raising the attainment levels of disadvantaged youngsters, elected mayors, devolved combined authorities and central government must adopt public policies to bring about a more equal and fairer society. The setting up of a North of the Tyne Learning Challenge based on the successful London model, made up of those who can walk the walk rather than talk the talk, is a regional priority. Contrary to popular belief, the distinctions of social class haven’t vanished. It’s these that affect how well children do in their GCSE exams and the future laid out before them.

nStephen Lambert is executive director of Education4Democracy and a Newcastle city councillor.