The lost boys: the white working class is being left behind

You can argue about the merits of pulling down statues, but it’s hard to make the case that mass protests serve no useful purpose. At the very least, they provoke debate and draw attention to uncomfortable topics that it might otherwise be easier to ignore. The recent protests have forced everyone to have difficult discussions about race, class, poverty and attainment. Any serious examination of the statistics shows that we’re pretty far from equal, but what the figures also show is that it’s wrong-headed and damaging to lump very different groups together. In these discussions politicians often lazily assume that all BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people are the same, and that all white groups are equally privileged. But a proper look at the data shows not just that there are striking difference within BAME groups, but that the very worst-performing group of all are white working-class boys — the forgotten demographic.

It might seem divisive to compare different groups, but attainment in education and in life is relative and if we’re to help the worst off, we have to know who they are. We should help everyone who needs it — but it is vital to be able to compare groups to know who’s falling behind, relative to their peers. Bangladeshi-Brits earn 20 per cent less than whites on average, for instance, but those with Indian heritage are likely to earn 12 per cent more. Black Britons on average earn 9 per cent less, but Chinese earn 30 per cent more. What these differences tell us is that employers aren’t systematically discriminating between people on the basis of their skin colour, and that we have to look elsewhere to see the roots of inequality.

Ucas, the university admissions service, can provide unique insight into these issues: it is the only outfit in the world to gather detailed information on all university applicants, including their age, gender, neighbourhood and school type. This is collected along with data on who applied for which courses and who was accepted, and it is renewed in huge detail every year.

Much of the data shows predictable results: there is a gap between rich and poor, as you might expect in a UK state system where the best schools tend to be located in the most expensive areas. But there are surprising discoveries too: nearly half the children eligible for free school meals in inner London go on to higher education, but in the country outside London as a whole it is just 26 per cent.

Black African British children outperform white children, whereas black Caribbean children tend to do worse. Poor Chinese girls (that is to say, those who qualify for free school meals) do better than rich white children. But, interestingly, the ethnic group least likely to get into university are whites. With the sole exception of Gypsy/Roma, every ethnic group attends university at a higher rate than the white British and, of the white British who do attend, most are middle class and 57 per cent are female.  The least likely group to go on to higher education are poor white boys. Just 13 per cent of them go on to higher education, less than any black or Asian group.