Our University Was Accused Of A Failure To Let In White Working Class Boys: The Reality Is More Complex
The relationship between education and white lower socio-economic communities is a complex one, writes Marva de la Coudray. | PA Images
We are proud of our diversity at SOAS and will continue our important work which has led to increased proportions of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups studying at our university, including the white working class.
Last month SOAS University of London was accused by The Mail on Sunday of failing to recruit any white working class students in 2017. The story was cited on this website by the Tory MP for Mansfield, Ben Bradley, who claimed it “typified” problems with how schemes promoting female and BAME students make inequalities worse.
There’s just one problem: The story is not true.
In fact, 50% of our students who enrolled from the lowest participation areas that year were white students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are proud of the active work we are doing to engage with disadvantaged students from across London and the UK. So how was this newspaper’s wrong conclusion drawn from seemingly valid data?
The newspaper drew on a 2019 report from National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) - “Working Class Heroes - Understanding access to higher education for white students from lower socio-economic backgrounds” - which highlighted challenges addressing the participation of this group across the Higher Education (HE) sector.
This report showed that white young people in receipt of free school meals (FSM) are the least likely of any social group to enter HE. It also recognised that “the relationship between education and white lower socio-economic communities is a complex one and to re-orientate it requires long term work to address social and economic inequality.”
The definition for students from this group is complex. There are many socio-economic variables which can be related to who is considered to be “working class” and decisions on which variables to use can make significant differences. For example, a pupil being eligible for a Free School Meal has typically been considered the most appropriate measure of disadvantage, since it is based primarily upon the income and employment status of a pupil’s family.
However, the definition which NEON were discussing in the specific statistic picked out by the newspaper is students who come from neighbourhoods which have a low level of participation in HE. NEON used this definition partly because information on Free School Meals eligibility of applicants to university is not easily available. Being from an area of “low participation” can be checked simply by knowing an applicant’s postcode, commonly known as the Participation of Local Areas measure (POLAR).
Many would argue that this POLAR measure does not capture the real disadvantages that are prevalent in large cities. And the POLAR measure is particularly challenging for London-based institutions such as SOAS, since 45% of local areas in the capital are classified as high participation areas. And just 1.3% which are classified as those with the lowest participation.
9% of students taken in by SOAS in 2017/18 were white disadvantaged students. In 2018/19 it was 18%
At SOAS, we use the IMD (Indices of Multiple Deprivation) measure in order to have a more robust measure of underrepresentation. IMD considers not just one but seven fundamental areas of disadvantage: income, employment, education, skills and training, health deprivation and disability, crime, barriers to housing and services, and the living environment.
On this measure, 9% of students taken in by SOAS in 2017/18 were white disadvantaged students. In 2018/19 it was 18%. The sector average is approximately 20%.
At SOAS, we recognise that social background and identity continue to be key drivers for access and success. By using this more rounded measure – as well as using individual-level data (rather than area-based data) where possible – we aim to work with learners most affected by disadvantage.
Whatever the definition deployed, however, what we do have in common with NEON and bodies working in this area is a belief that sustained action is needed – and we have been working with local schools and bodies for years to achieve this.
The “Working Class Heroes” report identifies that the low levels of participation in HE is related to the poor attainment of deprived white students at compulsory education. In 2016-17 only 17% of students from white free school meal backgrounds achieved Level 5 in GCSE Maths and English.
SOAS delivers a range of programmes to support increased attainment. These form part of our long-term attainment raising activities with partner schools. Feedback from school teachers is overwhelmingly positive, with most quoting improved grades for pupils who are engaged in such activities.
Notwithstanding the weakness of the POLAR measure for London, we also have action targeted on Low Participation Neighbourhoods too. We continue to directly address the proportion of White students from the Low Participation Neighbourhoods in our access and participation engagement. We work with organisations such as The Access Project whose programme at the Wood Green Academy (in the West Midlands) which has a majority White British-identifying population, works with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to support progression to higher education.
We are proud of our diversity at SOAS and will continue on our important work which has led to increased proportions of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups studying at our university, including the white working class.
Marva de la Coudray is Head of Access, Participation and Student Success at SOAS.