White Working Class Boys

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Why do white working-class boys fail to go on to study at university?

I am a white British male. My family comes from a working class background. I achieved average grades at school and due to student loans and no tuition fees, I was able to attend university. My parents were also the significant factor. I was the first in my generation (and the one before) to attend higher education.

What does it mean to be white working class?

Low attainment at school accounts for much of the problem of low participation in Higher Education by white working class boys. This report digs beneath the factors and asks what it means to be a white working class boy and how this can make it more difficult to progress to higher education. We find that fears about the value of higher education in the workplace and a lack of knowledge about applications and interviews are key barriers to participation.” (Director of Research at LKMco Dr Sam Baars)

‘The under-representation of white working class boys in higher education: the role of widening participation’ has been published and could not be more timely, coming less than a week after the historic decision to bring responsibility for universities and skills into a newly expanded Department for Education. The new Prime Minister Theresa May said in her speech, that “if you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university”.


The report by education and youth think-and-action tank LKMco, commissioned by King’s College London’s Widening Participation Department, provides new analysis of why so few white working class boys progress to higher education and how this can be addressed.

The report can be found here.

Uniquely, it brings together the insights of teachers, universities, academics and sector professionals.

The report finds that:

  • Some white working class boys feel forced to conceal their identity in order navigate the world of Higher Education (HE).
  • Parents should be targeted as part of efforts to increase white working class boys’ participation in HE.
  • Efforts to increase white working class boys’ access to HE should begin at primary school.
  • Young people’s belief in the value of attending university can be reduced by their awareness of successful high-profile entrepreneurs who have not been to university or by friends who have left university and failed to secure jobs.
  • There is no agreed definition of the term ‘white working class’ and this makes it difficult to target and monitor support.
  • White working class pupils’ access to some courses is limited by their awareness of subjects like Economics and Philosophy.
  • Universities need to do more to emphasise the practical and vocational elements of HE to white working class pupils.
  • Highly selective universities consistently fail to meet equality targets but this might be explained by pupils’ grades and subject choices.
  • Further Education apprenticeships are failing to act as a springboard to HE
  • Interviews and personal statements may act as a barrier to white working class boys’ access to HE.

The report will prove invaluable to the newly appointed Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening who is the first Secretary of State for education to have attended a fully comprehensive secondary school, and who is expected to make social mobility for white working class communities a priority.

The underrepresentation of white working class boys in higher education

The report can be found here.


Despite the government’s focus on widening participation to white working class boys, few HEIs formally document the Widening Participation activities they are targeting specifically at this group. The literature, roundtable and case studies identify the following features of best practice:

  • Parents and carers should be recognised as a key influence and Widening Participation should provide them with information on the value of university as well as details such as accommodation and day-to-day life on campus.
  • Widening Participation should develop CPD for teachers on identifying WP target groups and promoting HE to these pupils.
  • The relevance and value of university degree subjects should be emphasised through careers education and exposure to a wide range of subjects. The vocational aspects of academic subjects should also be exposed and championed.
  • Information, Advice and Guidance should be readily accessible and delivered through a range of methods that appeal to white working class boys’ existing interests, whilst avoiding stereotyping.

Widening Participation should balance the promotion of elite institutions with the need to ensure that white working class boys are aware of the range of higher education institutions and course offers available.

  • Role models and mentors can effectively promote HE and support pupils in their decision making. Mentoring schemes work best over the long term and can take a variety of forms including partnership with local schools and student-to-student mentoring.

I wonder where I’d be today if my parents did not help me aspire to attend university. I also wonder if we could have afforded the tuition fees – considering they are null and void today – despite being a student on free school meals.

I think this report is recognition, that this issue needs a much higher profile.


2 thoughts on “White Working Class Boys

  1. Hi Ross, great summary of a key issue. Where do you find research articles like this? I’d like to use more research in my teaching, but I’m not sure where to start.

    1. This was sent to me by LKMco. I am inundated with research articles via my blog. Without it, it would be difficult where to start. BERA, BELMAS. Subject associations etc.

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