White working-class pupils have been "neglected" by the education system for decades, MPs have said as they urged schools to cease using the term "white privilege".

Ministers have failed to acknowledge the extent of the problem and instead insist that pursuing the same policies for youngsters of all ethnicities is the answer, according to the education select committee.

Their report highlights how white working-class students persistently underperform compared with other ethnic groups throughout the education system, from nursery to university.

But MPs have warned that the Department for Education (DfE) has so far refused to address the issue, choosing to focus instead on broader issues such as poverty. 

"For decades now, white working-class pupils have been let down and neglected by an education system that condemns them to falling behind their peers every step of the way,” said Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the committee.

“White working-class pupils underperform significantly compared with other ethnic groups, but there has been muddled thinking from all governments and a lack of attention and care to help these disadvantaged white pupils in towns across our country."

Standards of development

During their inquiry, MPs found that in 2018/19, just 53 per cent of white British pupils on free school meals met the expected standard of development at the end of the early years foundation stage, which is one of the lowest percentages for any disadvantaged ethnic group.

In 2019, only 17.7 per cent of the poorest white British pupils achieved Grade 5 or above in English and maths, compared to 22.5 per cent of their peers who are in the same income bracket. 

MPs also heard how the proportion of white British pupils on free school meals who went on to study at university after finishing school was just 16 per cent, the lowest of any ethnic group other than travellers of Irish heritage and gipsy/Roma.

"If the Government is serious about closing the overall attainment gap, then the problems faced by the biggest group of disadvantaged pupils can no longer be swept under the carpet," Mr Halfon said. "Never again should we lazily put the gap down to poverty alone, given that we know free school meal eligible pupils from other ethnic groups consistently outperform their white British peers."

Specific challenges

He said that so far, the DfE has been "reluctant" to recognise the specific challenges faced by the white working class, "let alone do anything to tackle this chronic social injustice".

The committee recommended that schools should not use divisive concepts like "white privilege" that "pits one group against another". 

MPs said that promoting this kind of  terminology in schools could potentially contravene their duties under the Equality Act 2010.

The committee also noted that a lack of family engagement with education is partly to blame for white working-class pupils falling behind.

MPs advised that parental engagement in white working-class communities could be boosted by creating a strong network of family hubs.