A furious “culture wars” row has erupted at Westminster over a report that blames the use of the term “white privilege” for undermining the educational chances of white working-class children.
Conservative members of the Education Select Committee were accused of inserting the controversial claim for political reasons, in a way that one Labour MP said risked “legitimising narratives of white supremacy”.
In a highly unusual move, the committee split along party lines, with Labour members refusing to back the publication of a report that raised questions over whether bodies which use the “white privilege” terminology should continue to receive funding from public sources.
And they tabled an alternative report – voted down by the committee’s Tory majority – that branded the argument over terminology a “red herring” designed to distract attention from the true causes of educational under-achievement, which they identified as “the systematic deindustrialisation and underinvestment of successive Conservative governments”.
Meanwhile, a headteachers’ union said the row risked distracting from more significant elements of the report, which warned that white working-class pupils have been “forgotten” and “let down” by decades of neglect in an education system that “condemns them to falling behind their peers” and accused the government of being “reluctant” to address their problems.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the committee’s decision to enter the debate “does not seem helpful and is likely to divert attention from the rest of the report”. Schools were already well aware of their responsibility to provide opportunities for discussion in a “sensitive, balanced and measured way”, he said.
The majority report, released on Tuesday after being voted through by the committee’s six Conservative members, voiced concerns that the use of the phrase “white privilege” – increasingly widespread since the murder of George Floyd and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement – “may be alienating to disadvantaged white communities and it may have contributed towards a systemic neglect of white people facing hardship who also need specific support”.
The report cited US research which found that “learning about white privilege may reduce sympathy for white people who are struggling with poverty” and said the committee shared concerns expressed by equalities minister Kemi Badenoch over a risk of some “pernicious” ideology beginning to spread to organisations and charities that work with children.
Finding that white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are “far from privileged” in the education system, it recommended that schools should consider whether they are breaching equality duties by promoting “politically controversial terminology including white privilege”.
And it urged the Department for Education to issue guidance to all bodies to which it issues grants about how to deliver teaching on the issue in a “balanced, impartial and age-appropriate way”.
Labour members of the committee said the report was being used to stoke “culture wars” at a time when Downing Street is using the so-called “war on woke” to attract working-class votes from Sir Keir Starmer’s party.
They said the inquiry had found no evidence that the idea of white privilege affects outcomes for disadvantaged white pupils, while there was a “wealth of evidence” that their chances in life were harmed by lack of investment.
“To make recommendations which pit different groups within our multi-ethnic working class against each other in a struggle for meagre resources is to do an injustice to our most disadvantaged children, including specifically white communities that have been ‘left behind’,” they said.
Comments by Ms Badenoch and the recent report from Tony Sewell’s government-commissioned Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities show “a clear ideology beginning to form that borders on an authoritarian attack on freedom of speech and an insidious attempt to prevent racialised communities from articulating their experiences of racism”, the Labour MPs warned.
Ian Mearns, the Labour MP for Gateshead, said he had never seen such a strident attempt to use a report for political purposes in his 11 years on the cross-party committee, which normally goes to some lengths to ensure its reports win consensual support of members from across the political spectrum.
The issue of “white privilege” terminology was not raised by witnesses to the inquiry but by Conservative MPs who seized on a blog by the charity Barnardo’s offering advice to parents on how to explain the idea to their children, he said.
“The inclusion of that section is unfortunate and unnecessary” Mr Mearns told The Independent. “With all the culture wars stuff that is going on at the moment, we were concerned that this would be seized upon as though it was central to the discussion.
“We were concerned that it would be a distraction from the real issue, which is that poorer children whatever their background are underperforming at school.”
Another Labour member of the committee, Apsana Begum, asked: “Is it a coincidence that Downing Street seem to have a bit of an agenda on this specific area in electoral terms, in terms of which party represents the white working class?
“I think there is a specific agenda here which borders into aligning itself with legitimising narratives which are quite dangerous around white supremacy.”
Ms Begum said that while she could understand that many white working-class people would not feel that concepts of “privilege” applied to them, it would be “very concerning” if the government seized on the report as a justification for withdrawing funding from organisations that use the term.
But the committee’s Conservative chair, Robert Halfon, who did not take part in the votes on alternative versions of the report, denied that it was being used to stoke “culture wars”.
“I come from a Jewish background; my father was an immigrant and I know about antisemitism and racism and I despise them,” he told The Independent.
“However, the term ‘white privilege’ is wrong-headed because it implies collective guilt over individual responsibility. It’s wrong-headed because it implies that all white people, whatever their circumstances – particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds – are privileged. And it is wrong-headed because white working-class boys and girls underperform in every stage of the educational system compared to most other ethnic groups.
“Of course there will be fierce debate and disagreement about these issues, but we have to confront difficult issues and not sweep them under the carpet. We have to challenge conventional thinking, and that’s what this report tries to do.”
The report found that disadvantaged white pupils have been let down by “muddled” policy thinking.
It highlighted data showing that in 2018-19, just 53 per cent of white British pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) met the expected standard of development at the end of the early years foundation stage.
On GCSE performance, it also pointed to statistics showing that just over 17 per cent of the same group achieved at least a strong pass (grade 5 or above) in English and maths, compared with 22.5 per cent of all FSM-eligible pupils.
After taking evidence from experts, the committee said many factors had contributed to the poor data, but said it was unconvinced by the government’s “claim that the gap can be attributed to poverty alone”.
It pointed to other factors, including family experience of education, disengagement from the curriculum, regional economics and underinvestment, and a failure to address low participation in higher education.