Lee Elliot Major on why children need cultural as well as academic learning.

Assistant headteacher Bhavin Tailor admits that he often finds himself alone at coffee mornings aimed at engaging the parents of white working class boys. We’ve all seen the stark statistics that expose this particular group of children as education’s worst performers. But it’s a real privilege as a school governor to hear from someone like Mr Tailor, who is on education’s frontline, actually trying to doing something to tackle a seemingly intractable challenge.

The stories from Queens Crescent in Kentish Town could be retold across the country: single parents struggling to get by, juggling benefit payments, suspicious of a school system that they believe failed them, and feeling increasingly alienated in the diverse local community in which they live. It is little wonder that their sons’ are losing the education race they are hopelessly ill-equipped for. ‘Cultural capital’ is according to Mr Tailor what these young boys lack – the skills, know-how and attitudes needed to get on in life.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am to report that the White British Achievement Project will be evaluated. We know parents matter so much; but we know so little about how to help parents to improve their children’s prospects. At the Education Endowment Foundation we are trialling some interesting ideas including financial incentives for parents and texting parents to improve school engagement. We would like to study many more.

Sutton Trust research this week cast fresh light on the major factors outside (and inside) the school gates that boost the educational progress of bright poor children. Students were nine times more likely to get good A-levels when they did daily homework. They were much more likely to get good grades if they read books at home for pleasure – not just those books they had to study for school. And their results improved if they had visited museums, galleries and went on outings with their families or schools.

It won’t surprise anyone that the report also found that white working class boys performed worse than girls and ethnic minority students – being less likely to do all of the above.

Powerful forces drive these inequalities. During my recent public lecture on Britain’s social mobility problem at York University I conjured up the image of a ‘vortex of declining opportunity’. Widening wealth gaps have created a privileged class hell-bent on preserving that privilege for their offspring and armed with ever more resources to enrich their children educationally. At the same time ‘working class’ kids have been stripped of the traditional places where they once developed cultural capital: the youth club, town hall, local library, or children’s centre.

In the US, the richest families now spend 7 times more on out of school enrichment than the poorest families, a much bigger gap than 40 years ago. All the data point to a similar gap in the UK.

Given this, the role of schools as places of cultural and social as well as academic learning has become even more critical. The Trust recommends that schools’ pupil premium money could be used for enrichment vouchers to offer middle class experiences to those who actually need them most. Our best schools also need to ensure fairer admissions – through ballots or banding – so they serve all children in their local community.

Our research found that bright poor children prospered in ‘outstanding’ schools, where they were more likely to be sharing classrooms with middle class pupils. It is surely no coincidence that countries and regions across the world with higher social mobility are those where schools have a greater social mix of children. As a white working class boy from split parents, my own life was transformed when I lived with my best friend’s family who gave me all the cultural capital I needed (not that I knew it at the time). I just hope Mr Tailor’s efforts will have a similar impact on the boys in Kentish Town.

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