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The North East Challenge

North East

As an educational initiative, The London Challenge has been hailed by many as a great success, and the strategies are being applied by some leaders in the North East. Unfortunately, even in London, it is the white working class boys who are still underachieving, and unfortunately, this is something they share with the white working class boys of the North East. When I worked in London in the mid to late 1990s, one of our most memorable initiatives was ‘Black Boys in English’. We devised and implemented a variety of strategies to ensure that we engaged the black boys. But even then, I distinctly remember a department meeting where we also discussed how we could engage and motivate the white working class boys, who were a minority, but a concern.

What about the White Working Class Boys?

One colleague and friend, who had grown up in Edmonton as part of a strong and vibrant working class community, was a particular champion of the working class white boys. We worked together in Enfield, a very racially mixed community, a high proportion of children of Greek and Turkish descent, but our school also had Somali, Nigerian, Sri Lankan, Kurdish… I could go on! Out of the black boys, the most disaffected were the boys of Black Caribbean origin, they were second or third generation British nationals.On no account did we ignore the white working class boys, we encouraged them as best as we possibly could, but as far as initiatives and investments go, they were not considered important enough to get funding. Or maybe it was assumed they could access everything, but chose to disengage? Nevertheless, they were from poor backgrounds, and they certainly could have done with some specific funding and support.

London 2016

On Thursday 21st January 2016, ‘The Evening Standard’ printed an article about the performance of London schools. Although the headline was unnecessarily negative: ‘30,000 London teenagers fail to make the grade at GCSE’ some of the statistics they quote within the article itself promote a more positive outlook:

– 29,592 London pupils failed to pass five A*-c GCSEs including Maths and English, up from 29,125 last year.
– The GCSE five A*-C pass rate in London is 60.9%, down from 61.5% last year.
– London continues to outperform the national average of 53.8%
– The percentage of children who passed the English Baccaulaureate in London has risen slightly to 30.5% up from 30.2%

These results are pretty impressive. But, what about the white working class boys, how did they do? In a tiny paragraph right at the end of the article it states, ‘The Department of Education said concerns were raised about white working class boys who continue to perform poorly.’ They do not offer a strategy, or an initiative, or even a hint of an idea, their response is ‘We refuse to accept second best for any young person and must now focus on extending opportunities for all’. I look forward to hearing what their ‘opportunities’ consist of, I suspect we will be waiting quite a while. Who does champion the white working class boys in today’s society? Depressingly, I see they are debating ‘National Service’ once again. Is this their solution, line up the poor kids as cannon fodder?

The North East Challenge

I often hear leaders in the North East using the London Challenge as a mantra for success. Although I appreciate the sentiment, I am also concerned that adopting such an approach is no guarantee of success. The biggest challenge for the North East is engaging and encouraging the white working class boys. It has clearly been of limited success in London, as it is the one demographic where the London Challenge had little impact. Therefore, if we want to engage the our most disaffected demographic in the North East, should we really be adopting an initiative that has had limited impact on what is the North East’s biggest challenge?

We have a unique insight into such a challenge, I am white working class from the North East, having lived and worked in London. My husband is white working class from London, but who now lives in the North East. We have come to the conclusion. that the North East needs a different initiative to accommodate the ‘failures’ of its biggest demographic, white working class boys.

Where, in the past, we had almost guaranteed employment for the white working class boys in the traditional industries of coal mining, steel, ship building, as well as the many factories that contributed to industry, we are left with a major generational gap of employment with the death of these industries, and in many respects with the death of traditional identities too. The confidence and security of growing up in a strong and thriving community has all but disappeared, and the flotsam and jetsam of the post industrial storm through our communities, is what to do with the white working class boys. Even the proud tradition of being a footballer has been eroded by the major teams buying in big money players, they cannot realistically even see this as a way out of their situation. There is a thriving service sector that accommodates many of the girls, this in itself gives them employment and an aim in life. The biggest growth industry in the North East is in ICT, maybe this is an sector to encourage? Ultimately, in education, this is our biggest challenge in the North East.


Our challenge is to give the white working class boys:
– a sense of hope
– a sense of purpose to their education
– some clear ideas about what they can achieve
– aspirations

In reality, this has to happen in primary schools, and then we have to build on it in secondary. We also need much stronger links with industry to give them some ideas about what they could be in the future, and what they need to do to achieve it.

A major concern is the enforced return to a more rigid academic process with the introduction of the new GCSEs and A levels. We need to think very carefully about how this will impact on white working class boys. Schools need to ensure that the routes they take are not decided so early that they have no hope of achieving academically. If they have no hope of academic success, is there any point in forcing them through a traditionally academic route that could result in negligible outcomes? We need to think very carefully about the purpose of education, and if it just about academic success, my fear is that yet again, it is the white working class boys who will be left by the wayside.

The North East Challenge is to have initiatives in place to ensure they fly, not flounder. We need to have the money and the initiates to get these programmes going now, before it is too late for yet another generation of working class white boys.