Headteachers have said the “culture war” over the term white privilege is unlikely to serve the disadvantaged pupils at the heart of the debate.
A new report has claimed the phrase undermines educational chances and may have contributed towards a “systemic neglect” of white working-class children.
This stance has sparked backlash among politicians, with Labour MPs on the education committee distancing themselves and claiming the report was being used to stoke “culture wars”.
Headteachers have also questioned whether the attack on the phrase would benefit disadvantaged pupils.
Jonathan Mountstevens, a deputy headteacher, told The Independent: “I think the prominent focus on terminology such as ‘white privilege’ is divisive and diverts attention from the rest of the report.”
“I agree that schools should exercise caution over the use of controversial terms and should avoid stigmatising any students on account of their ethnicity, but it is stretching the bounds of credibility to suggest that this is a significant cause of the underachievement of white students from low income backgrounds.”
In a new report, the Tory-dominated education select committee said white working-class pupils have been “let down” for decades by England’s education system and “divisive” language can make the situation worse.
The report suggests schools should consider whether the promotion of “politically controversial terminology, including white privilege” is a breach of equalities duties.
“I cannot think of a single example from my experience of ‘white privilege’ being taught to students and certainly not used to label them,” Mr Mountstevens from Hertfordshire told The Independent.
“The disproportionate emphasis on this in the report invites unnecessary controversy and ruins the opportunity to build consensus around making a real difference for young people who have not been well served for an extended period and deserve much better.”
Meanwhile Kieran McLaughlin, a headteacher in Durham, told The Independent: “I would say that the effect of multigenerational poverty and a wide range of societal factors beyond the control of schools have contributed to disadvantage.”
He added: “Framing this within a narrative of culture wars is unlikely to solve any of the problems affecting the most disadvantage.”
Matt Davies, a headteacher in North Yorkshire, told The Independent: “From the outside, the story seems very politicised and is perhaps forgetting that schools need proper funding to meet the needs of all children.”
On Tuesday, the education select committee released their report called The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it.
It made recommendations to improve white working-class pupils’ outcomes, including finding “a better way to talk about racial disparities” to avoid pitting different groups against each other.
The committee agreed with the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that discourse around the term “white privilege” can be “divisive”.
But Labour MPs on the committee opposed the criticism of terms like “white privilege” in the report.
Jo Grady from the University and College Union said the report will be “remembered for its divisiveness and for what looks and smells like a weaponising of educational inequalities to suit a different agenda”.
Robert Halfon, the Tory chair of the education select committee, has denied he was trying to engage in culture wars by bringing up white privilege.
“One of the reasons we found that white working-class boys and girls are struggling in education is because the families have disengaged from the education system and we believe this concept of white privilege perpetuates that idea,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
When asked whether the committee was trying to create a culture war, Mr Halfon said: “I have never engaged in culture wars, all I care about, as our committee does, is addressing the decades of neglect that have led to a situation where white working-class boys and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds are underperforming.”
A Department for Education spoksperson said: “Schools play a crucial role in helping pupils understand the world around them and their place within it, and in teaching about respect for other people and for difference.”
They added: “Schools have a duty to remain politically impartial and should not teach contested theory or opinions as fact. They must also be mindful of the need to offer a balanced presentation of opposing views.”