Tory MPs have been accused of stoking a “culture war” with a report that claims terminology like “white privilege” may have contributed towards a “systemic neglect” of white working-class pupils.
The Conservative-dominated Commons Education Select Committee said white working-class pupils have been “let down” for decades by England’s education system – and “divisive” language can make the situation worse.
The report suggests schools should consider whether the promotion of such “politically controversial” terminology is consistent with their duties under the Equality Act 2010.
However, Labour MPs on the committee opposed the criticism of terms like “white privilege” in the report.
Fleur Anderson, Labour MP for Putney, Southfields and Roehampton and a committee member, said: “I’m concerned this report will be used to fight a divisive culture war instead of address chronic under-funding of early years, family hubs, careers advice and mentoring, and youth services.”
In a tweet, she said: “There is a lot that needs to be heard in this report about children badly let down. But I joined the Labour members in deciding that we had to vote against it.
“The report makes the issue race when we found it is more about disadvantage based on place.”
Kim Johnson, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside and a committee member, tweeted: “Deeply depressing that we are seeing a Government that has presided over deep cuts to education diverting attention from that onto a fake culture war. Nothing changes.”
Committee chairman and Tory MP Robert Halfon denied he was trying to engage in culture wars by bringing up white privilege.
The committee made recommendations to improve white working-class pupils’ outcomes, including finding “a better way to talk about racial disparities” to avoid pitting different groups against each other.
The committee agreed with the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that discourse around the term “white privilege” can be “divisive”.
Labour MP Diane Abbott accused the Conservative MPs of hijacking the committee “to peddle divisive ‘culture wars’ nonsense”.
In a tweet, she said: “The truth is that this Government fails pupils across the board. They also have no significant proposals to fundamentally alter that.
“Instead their attack on the term white privilege is designed to cause division. This is the politics of divide and rule applied to education.”
Mr Halfon told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the term white privilege was “wrong-headed” because it “says there is collective guilt when it should be individual responsibility for racists acts”.
The Tory MP added: “What we are saying is that is the wrong way to describe this and deal with racism because it pits one group against another.
“One of the reasons we found that white working-class boys and girls are struggling in education is because the families have disengaged from the education system and we believe this concept of white privilege perpetuates that idea.”
When asked whether MPs were trying to create a culture war, Mr Halfon said: “I have never engaged in culture wars, all I care about, as our committee does, is addressing the decades of neglect that have led to a situation where white working-class boys and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds are underperforming.”
He told Times Radio: “You’re telling poorer white communities that they are white privileged, when all it does is lead to further disengagement from the education system and pits one group against another.”
The report concluded that disadvantaged white pupils have been badly let down by “muddled” policy thinking and the Department for Education (DfE) has failed to acknowledge the extent of the problem.
A network of family hubs should be introduced to boost parental engagement and mitigate the effects of multi-generational disadvantage, it said.
It added that funding needs to be tailor-made at a local level, initiatives should focus on attracting good teachers to challenging areas, and vocational and apprenticeship opportunities should be promoted.
Daisy Cooper MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for education, said: “The real story of this report is the Government is badly letting down all of our country’s poorest children.
“Pitting kids against each other based on the colour of their skin is a truly despicable thing to do.
“Instead of stoking up the culture war, the Government should get its act together and provide proper funding for the catch up programme families so desperately need.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “This Government is focused on levelling up opportunity so that no young person is left behind.
“That’s why we are providing the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade – £14 billion over three years – investing in early years education and targeting our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3 billion to date, to support disadvantaged pupils aged two to 19 with their attainment.”