Statistics and working class culture

The Conservative party report on the educational failure of ‘white working class boys’ (http://povertydebate.typepad.com/education/) got headlines in several papers and the BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6150042.stm). I thought it sounded an interesting piece of research, until I actually saw the statistics they were basing the headlines on. They claim:

17% of white working class boys gain five or more A-C grades at GCSE, slightly fewer than the 19 per cent of black Caribbean boys of similar backgrounds…But among boys from low income Chinese families, the success rate is 69 per cent.

That ‘low income’ is the give-away. Because when you see how they collected their statistics, it is based not on socio-economic class, but one very crude measure: boys who have free school meals. So I checked the rules for eligibility for free school meals. The main criteria are being on income support or Jobseeker’s allowance (i.e. being unemployed) or having a low family income (not more than about £14,000). That is not a definition of ‘working class’ that most people would accept (as opposed to a definition of poor). In particular, the majority of skilled working class jobs would be excluded. The median annual pay for full-time skilled trades (such as in agriculture, construction, electrical work) is £20,000, the median annual pay for drivers is nearly £19,000 etc.

What that means is that whether working-class families (with at least one full-time income) are eligible for free school meals for their children is going to depend crucially on what jobs they’re doing. If they’re in low-pay sectors such as catering or shop work, they may well be eligible. If they’re a motor mechanic or a fork-lift driver, their children won’t be. And given that some ethnic minorities (such as Chinese and South Asian) are concentrated in low paying industries, that immediately casts severe doubts on the validity of the statistics, since they are often not going to be comparing like with like. If you are going to argue (as the Conservatives do), that the difference is about culture, then you need to be controlling for employment status. Do the boys of the long-term unemployed (or those with a father in full-time employment) do equally well/poorly, whatever their ethnicity/culture?

There are also a whole lot of questions raised about what you mean by ‘culture’ when you’re talking about the ‘white working class’. Is there still a ‘working class’ culture in the same way, when the traditional work is no longer there? An important part of male working class culture, traditionally, as I understand it, was working at specific types of heavy/dangerous/dirty manual labour, many forms of which have almost gone in this country – mining, iron and steel industry, car production. You can define a class ‘culture’ in other ways than jobs, of course – I would argue that being part of the middle class is far more about education and attitudes to it than specific forms of employment after education. But if (male) working class culture depended heavily on the existence of manufacturing jobs that have now disappeared, then the Conservatives ought to start thinking a bit harder about their role their policies have and might play in damaging that culture.

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