During a recent recording of The Big Questions there was an animated discussion about the failings of white working class boys.According to a report published last year by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, poor white boys are now the lowest-achieving group in Britain, with just 28 per cent getting five GCSEs at grade C or above. They are also 10 per cent less likely to participate in higher education than any other ethnic group.
It is a growing problem that sits alongside the increasing gender gap in higher education, Britain’s disappointing PISA rankings, and even the debates over shorter holidays, longer school days and the taking of holidays during term time.
In each of these areas, the response is that spending more time at school will solve the problem. It most surely will not.
Rather, the greatest challenge we face as a society is motivating large numbers of our school population to take education seriously, to see it as relevant to their future and job prospects. But we are not going to do so without some radical attitudinal changes.
Where are the extra apprenticeships, the new skills, the new curricula with their greater relevance, encouraging creativity and enterprise?
But it is not just the lower socio-economic group that is currently being disadvantaged by the current education system, although their marginalisation is the most catastrophic. It is a crisis facing all the young, locked into a school system still influenced by a curriculum that is steering students towards careers that are fast becoming redundant.
Increasingly, there is a contradiction in pace and direction, between where education is headed and where the world is going to be by the time children leave school.
The report this week by the Commons Science and Technology Committee, that the United Kingdom needs 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017, highlights the parlous state of teaching computer science in our schools, with a shortage of teachers and a shortfall of adequate equipment.
The reality is that our schools are in danger of becoming obsolete and that technology, in particular, is still a tag-on in schools rather than helping define the curriculum and the process of learning.
We cannot keep blundering on in a school system with a curriculum (and assessment methodologies) that have been extensively tinkered with, without being fundamentally changed in content and process, since the mid 20th century. We cannot just allow educational and vocational opportunities to go to those who can afford them; closing the door to those who cannot.
What we teach and how we make schooling relevant to children and employers will require some very considerable action in the years ahead.