White schoolchildren in Britain’s poorest communities lag behind peers who are black or of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, a Financial Times analysis of more than 3 million sets of exam results reveals.
Poor white children even achieve worse average results than deprived pupils for whom English is a second language.
The average black pupil from among the poorest fifth of children, identified by postcode analysis, gains the equivalent of one more GCSE pass at A*, the highest grade, than the average white child from a similar background.
The figures highlight the challenge facing the coalition, which has identified social mobility as one of its top concerns.
Earlier this month, the British government published a “social mobility strategy”, which stated that “tackling the opportunity deficit...is our guiding purpose”.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and Britain’s leading educational philanthropist, said the FT results showed that “if the coalition is really serious about raising social mobility, it will need to find a way to crack the problems of the English white working class”.
Poor white children have fallen behind by the time they reach the age of 7, the analysis of the 2009 National Pupil Database reveals. The difference between white and non-white pupils is steady until at least the age of 11, after which it grows rapidly.
About half of the poor white attainment gap at the age of 16 is driven by poor exam performances outside London where schools are much more likely to cater to all-white or nearly all-white pupil populations.
London schools have benefited from being the testing ground for educational reforms, such as academies, over the past decade, which has allowed the capital to offer better schooling to poor children.
Sir Peter, who ran a seven-year pilot project to open up Liverpool’s best-performing academic school to working-class children, said that low achievement by poor children was “a huge problem in the northern, working-class cities”.
In Hull, the worst-performing local authority area, a child eligible for free school meals, a widely used indicator of poverty, has a more than two-thirds chance of finishing in the bottom fifth of national exam results at the age of 16. In London, the equivalent figure is less than 30 percent.
Lord Adonis, a former schools minister and the current head of the Institute for Government, said: “New Labour’s most successful education reforms focused most intensively on inner London. School results have risen dramatically in the capital. Other cities now need to embrace similarly bold reform.”
The FT’s results reveal a broader north-south divide, although there are exceptions. Bury – historically part of Lancashire – is a top performing borough. Plymouth, Thurrock, Kent and Bristol are all in the worst 20 local authority areas.
The Department for Education said that it was making changes to school funding rules that would help close the “large and unacceptable” attainment differences between groups in England.