Paul Mason gives it the full Peter Hitchens, just as Peter Hitchens has long been giving it the full Paul Mason (in the words of Owen Jones, "If you're surprised at what Peter Hitchens is saying, you obviously haven't watched my interview with him"):
The report came couched in the usual language of inclusion, technocracy and “what works”.
Disadvantaged children are doing so badly at school that only one in five hits an international benchmark designed by the authors.
But the headline grabber in the paper from the liberal thinktank CentreForum concerns ethnicity: the serial losers after 28 years of marketisation, testing, a centralised curriculum and decentralised control of schools are poor white kids.
“During the early years, white British pupils are among the highest achievers,” say the authors.
“By the end of secondary school however, those white British pupils are overtaken by 10 other ethnic groups to just below average, when compared with other ethnicities.”
Let’s confront squarely what this means. If the country is populated with low-achieving, inarticulate white kids it is something that happens between the year they stop being toddlers and the year they start being Neets (Not in Education, Employment or Training).
So what is it? In short, it is their lives.
The detailed ethnic breakdown in the report makes for depressing reading. The worst performers are white Irish traveller children, then “white gypsy/Roma” children – both of which school fails by a long chalk.
They are followed by mixed-race children with Caribbean backgrounds, then white British. These are the only groups who collectively go backwards in the two years researchers have been crunching the numbers.
By contrast, black Caribbean, and white Irish children go forward a bit, and Chinese and Indian children a lot.
Though I regret the marketisation of education, the league tables and the testing, these cannot be the primary cause.
It’s 30 years since I taught in the school system – at a high school and then a special unit for behaviourally disruptive teenagers in Leicestershire.
So the only relevant first-hand knowledge I can bring to this debate is that the same problems were apparent then.
By the late-1980s people from a white, working-class background already knew we had a problem. We had seen the film Kes, and chuckled at the poverty of aspiration we were all in the process of leaving behind.
Our culture was the one celebrated in Ken Loach movies: politicised and articulate, wanting only libraries big enough to house the books we had to wait weeks for.
Then, as if by a 50-tonne steel press, we had Kes status imposed on us as a class. My dad was one of those kids in the 1930s who would have failed any test designed by a liberal thinktank.
He left school at 15. A lifetime of trade unionism, workplace discussion and self-education meant he could sight-read music, grapple with serious novels and sit though five hours of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
I can still remember, in front of a coal fire and on a carpet with a stone floor beneath it, my dad drawing me a picture of Oxford and Cambridge, complete with rugby fields and laboratories, and trying to explain how I might make the choice between them.
He’d never been to either city, but to an impressionable five-year-old, this was a profound message: education is the way out.
It was not always the case that ethnic-minority children did better than white English ones, but the reason why some of them do now is pretty obvious: their problem – racism – is defined; their language skills tend to be well-developed; their culture is one of aspiration; they have social and religious institutions that promote cohesion.
By contrast, the problem of poor white kids cannot be properly defined: not in the language of freemarket capitalism, at least.
It has nothing to do with being “overtaken” – still less with any reverse discrimination against them. It is simply that a specific part of their culture has been destroyed.
A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid.
It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980s.
Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in the solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave drivers; the outright hoodlums operating in plain sight as the cops concentrated on breaking strikes.
We thought we could ride the punches. But the great discovery of the modern right was that you only have to do this once.
Suppress paternalism and solidarity for one generation and you create multigenerational ignorance and poverty.
Convert Labour to the idea that wealth will trickle down, and to attacks on the undeserving poor, and you remove the means even to acknowledge the problem, let alone solve it.
Thatcherism didn’t just crush unions: alone that would not have been enough to produce this spectacular mismatch between aspiration and delivery in the education system. It crushed a story.
And what the most successful Chinese, Indian and white Irish children probably have – although you would need more research than offered here to give this assertion rigour – is a clear and compelling story.
In my first week at university, myself and a few other working-class kids on our course were quizzed by our middle-class peers: “You must be exceptionally bright to get here, against these odds,” was the theme.
We were incredulous. We had been headed for university since we picked up Ladybird books.
Without solidarity and knowledge, we are just scum, is the lesson trade unionism and social democracy taught the working-class kids of the 1960s; and Methodism and Catholicism taught the same.
To put right the injustice revealed by the CentreForum report requires us to put aside racist fantasies about “preferential treatment” for ethnic minorities; if their kids are preferentially treated, it is by their parents and their communities – who arm them with narratives and skills for overcoming economic disadvantage.
If these metrics are right, the present school system is failing to boost social mobility among white working-class kids.
But educational reforms alone will barely scratch the surface.
We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story.