Talking Head

Headmaster's blog at Newcastle School for Boys

January 3, 2020

‘Poor white boys’ storm

Winchester and Dulwich College simply couldn’t win – whichever way they moved. Had they accepted a donation to provide bursaries for ‘poor white boys’, they would have been accused of discrimination and potentially faced future legal challenge. Having prudently – in my opinion – declined the donation under these terms, they are now accused of racism.

I had hoped that last month’s election might have marked an end to some of the ill-informed criticism of independent schools. Since I first crossed the threshold of an independent school at the start of my teaching career in the early 1990s, the sector has never been more aware of and committed to its social and moral responsibilities.

At Newcastle School for Boys, as I am sure will be the case at most – if not all – other independent schools, bursaries are awarded according to financial circumstances regardless of ethnicity.

In case you missed the news story over the holiday, Professor Sir Bryan Thwaites, age 96, offered to bequeath to the two schools he attended as a pupil – Winchester and Dulwich – a total of £1.2 million for bursaries to benefit ‘poor white boys’. Having taken legal advice particularly with regard to the 2010 Equality Act, both schools politely declined to create such, newly coined ‘ethnically restricted bursaries’.

Can you imagine the ensuing furore had they accepted and used the donations under those terms? Yet, the debate has rumbled on and former MP, Frank Field, is reported to have accused the two schools of racism for declining the donations!

The previous decade saw a growing body of evidence from respected sources such as The Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation confirming the relative educational underachievement of white working-class boys. They do relatively less well in exams and are less likely to go to university. There is, however, as yet, limited progress in addressing what is clearly a complex and multi-factored issue. This is worthy of further investment.

One thing’s for sure. It’s not going to be addressed by more binary mudslinging. As the Head of Dulwich College has constructively suggested to Mr Field: ‘let’s start the new decade by looking for common ground rather than inventing divisions.’