Trapped by expectations; the poverty of ambition

There has been a confected row in the UK in recent days. A parliamentary select committee report on the educational attainment of poorer pupils, what it refers to as the white working class, was reported in the media as an attack on the theory of ‘white privilege’.

In particular, the recommendation that schools avoid promoting the concept of white privilege was essentially the only report recommendation that gained any media coverage. That is in spite of the fact it was only one of at least 20 recommendations in the report (this is the lowest possible count; several of them bundle various individual points), and despite the fact that the committee found no evidence that any school anywhere in the country has ever actually promoted the concept of white privilege.

It’s a shame because the confected row masks the important truths revealed in the report: that the poor, from all races, are underserved by our education system. Poverty seems to foster a poverty of expectation, and limit educational outcomes. That blights achievement levels, and it blights lives and communities. 

It’s not universally the case, of course – there are exceptions, both school and individual – but there is a general truth here. It also masks the fact that London, which has spent more trying to address the issues, significantly reduced the disparity. The Select Committee cites a Kings Fund report that the London Challenge enhanced the success of the city’s poorer students, and its national statistics seem to bear this out. Poverty tends to constrain educational outcomes. But with targeted policy, it can be addressed.

A report from more than 15 years ago may cast some light on what is going on – though of course it is just one study and its cultural context is very different.

It is a study concerning India’s caste system, which still seems to shape belief and expectations even when it has been leant against for decades. Lower and higher caste schoolkids solved mazes, and achieved equal success when their caste background was not made relevant. Once caste was mentioned, whether within a mixed group or within segregated groups, the lower caste children’s success rate fell by 23%. Having applied various control experiments, the study shows that merely by sensing that the system was again stacked against them, the lower caste kids’ achievement levels fell dramatically. 

The study sums up its conclusions very simply: 

“Mistrust undermines motivation.”

This chart highlights the impact visually:

The study makes clear that it is the expectation of others’ treatment that demotivates, not some inner lack of confidence or belief. This means that reversing this sense should not be impossible, indeed it should not be costly – it is notable how relatively cheap were the measures in the London Challenge process. Many involved overdue spending on school buildings, which may have been enough to communicate to the schoolkids that they matter.

But it does argue that the issue needs to be addressed honestly and directly. Ingrained beliefs need to be challenged, and spending money, even small amounts, is likely to be needed. It is just a shame that a report that talked in large part about ways in which this needs to be done – not least that there need to be genuine work opportunities for young people to aspire to – was spun as a story about non-existent racial framing by schools.

The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, House of Commons Education Committee, June 16 2021

Case Study: The London Challenge (part of Making Change Possible), the Kings Fund, July 2015

Belief Systems and Durable Inequalities: An Experimental Investigation of Indian Caste, Karla Hoff, Priyanka Pandey, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3351, June 2004