Updated: Dec 27, 2020
In late August, Britain was rocked by the most sensational education scandal in recent memory, with the A-Level and GCSE exam results crisis exposing rife class-based educational inequalities.
As the uproar slowly begins to dissipate, we must now turn our attention towards the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the lockdown generation. More specifically, one must consider how interventions can be made to prevent the under attainment of British pupils most at risk.
I will be examining the circumstances faced by underprivileged Black-Caribbean pupils in Britain and identify the policy interventions required to prevent further entrenchment of educational inequalities.
Even prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, the attainment gaps at key performance indicators between Black-Caribbean pupils and their peers warrant nothing less than outrage. In 2019, the average Black-Caribbean student scored 31% less of a grade than the national average.
However, challenges faced by young Black people in education are far beyond poor attainment. In 2019, over 25% of all Black-Caribbean students in state-funded secondary schools were eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) - a conventional indicator of disadvantage. For Black-Caribbean students receiving FSM this rose to 54% of a grade, meaning these pupils were achieving over half a grade less.
Also, their education is unevenly characterised by high levels of expulsion. Black students are disproportionately exiled from mainstream education, through exclusions and being sent to Pupil Referral units/Alternate Provision. The IRR have raised concerns over this ‘criminalisation’ of Black working-class pupils as part of a ‘two tier system’ that threatens to ‘remove a section of the urban multiracial working class which poses a threat to incoming gentrifying students’.
Hence, not only are Black-Carribbean students more likely to be achieving less than their white counterparts, but their odds of attaining well are slashed by their race and socio-economic status.
These students are now facing the additional and potentially devastating impact of lockdown. According to the Sutton Trust, during lockdown, middle class pupils (30%) were almost twice as likely as working class pupils (16%) to be attending online classes everyday. We can assume therefore, that Black-Caribbean students were likely to have unfairly burdened by class-based barriers to accessing online education.
With Black-Caribbean students disproportionately falling within these underprivileged categories, urgent intervention from the Department for Education is needed. Whilst a £350 million National Tutoring Programme has been introduced, research for the Sutton Trust suggests that the programme - aimed to account for the lost teaching time for the most disadvantaged pupils - will not be sufficient in helping those worse affected by school closures. Moreover, even if the Tutoring Programme were able to make up for schooling missed during lockdown, such a programme does not provide the targeted intervention required to resolve years of entrenched racial attainment gaps.
It is of utmost importance that both long-term and short-term policies are introduced, directly aimed at pupils who are predicted to have the worst educational odds. The Government should commit to providing additional Pupil Premiums that are strategically allocated in to a fund for improving the position of Black-Caribbean students.
To put it frankly, funding for Black-Caribbean students must not just be available in the short term, as a band-aid for the impact of lockdown. Rather, it should be a springboard to provide the right conditions for disadvantaged youth to prosper. Such a fund could cover the costs of extra small group tuition, to allow students to catch up on lost teaching and help to level the playing-field with their non-Black-Carribbean counterparts in the long term. Moreover, funding for laptops to facilitate working from home could be allocated, to prevent the impact of further lockdown and restrictions, whilst allowing poor Black-Carribbean to reap the same benefits of online learning resources, as their middle-class peers.
This funding should be distributed at a local level, under the guidance of Black-Caribbean community members. For obvious reasons, the ability of government officials in Whitehall and beyond to adequately conceive the specific challenges and barriers faced by Black youth is minimal, hence, it is important that this funding is placed in the hands of those with lived experience. The intervention(s) must also be supplemented by an inquiry into the underachievement and criminalisation of Black youth in the education system, as a means of understanding the driving factors.
In today's neoliberal climate however, will such policy interventions be introduced? Most likely not. Consecutive governments under Blair, Cameron and Johnson have placed outright emphasis on disciplining disruptive pupils, with the expansion of alternative education provisions for excluded pupils being prioritised over understanding why Black-Caribbean students are more likely to underachieve.
In the cases of the black and white working classes, cultures are routinely pathologized, with attitudes and behaviours being the main focus of analysis. In Black-Caribbean students, their ‘troubled’ families and anti-social behaviour are often blamed for poor attainment, rather than the structural inequalities that produce their disadvantage.
If we are to begin to resolve this crisis, we must not fall foul to the individualistic notion that struggling pupils are to blame for the hardships they face. Instead, we must hold the institutions and structures to account that allow race and class differences to manifest into inequalities and threaten the livelihoods of promising and equally deserving young people.
cover image credits: ©Kyle VanEtten - No Shortcuts Photography