What Puts White Working-class Boys Off University?

Meet Michael James, a thirteen-year-old boy who has just had a growth spurt and has the long, lean look to prove it. Michael has set his sights on becoming the first person in his family to attend university, despite his father being a lorry driver. His siblings have left school and are now working, with varying aspirations. Michael is interested in football management and believes that attending university will be a great help in achieving his goal.

However, Michaels family has expressed doubts about the value of university education, questioning whether it justifies the high cost. Despite these concerns, the government is pushing for more boys like Michael from working-class families to attend university. The universities minister has publicly acknowledged that while nearly 40% of young people go on to higher education, only 10% of white boys from the poorest backgrounds make it to university.

This disparity is part of a wider issue of underachievement among white, working-class children in the UK, with white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds being the lowest performing ethnic group. Addressing this issue will be a complex challenge that policymakers and educators must tackle head-on.

On PSHE day for year 9 at Ipswichs Chantry Academy, pupils have been attending presentations on careers and life choices. Michael and his classmates have attended a talk by University Campus Suffolk, which is affiliated with the universities of East Anglia and Essex. Of the twelve teenagers who spoke to The Guardian, nine expressed interest in continuing their studies at a higher level, with science being a popular choice.

While one boy is not interested in attending university before becoming a policeman, and another is considering joining the army, most of the boys see the value of higher education in improving their job prospects. Some feel motivated to attend university so that they can become the first people in their families to achieve this goal.

Chantry Academy is a mixed school located in the Chantry estate in Ipswich. About half of the schools 700 students are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the majority are white British. Under the leadership of Principal Craig DCunha, the school has made progress in improving academic results, with 46% of pupils achieving five GCSEs at A*-C including English and maths in 2020, up from 24% in 2014.

The enthusiasm shown by Michael and his classmates for higher education is encouraging for both Chantry Academy and the governments efforts to encourage more working-class children, particularly boys, to attend university. While there are challenges to be faced in reversing the trends of underachievement, the determination of young people like Michael to succeed is a positive sign for the future.

Changing deeply ingrained attitudes towards school, work, and higher education has proven to be a challenging task, especially among parents who personally havent had a positive educational experience. This difficulty is further compounded by the fact that university tuition fees cost a staggering £9,000 annually. DCunha, a teacher who was the first in his family to attend university, explains that parents who have experienced the benefits of a university education are more inclined to encourage their children to do the same.

However, students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds will likely be deterred from pursuing higher education due to the governments plans. The maintenance grants previously available to these students will now be transformed into loans, exacerbating the issue of debt. This development has created more fear among the very groups of students that universities have been striving to reach.

For instance, 16-year-old Matthew, who dreams of becoming a sports physiotherapist, is receiving mixed messages from his family and school. He was informed that university education will help him advance his career, but his family is worried about debt. Matthews father, who works at a printing company, wants his son to achieve his best but is anxious that Matthew may not devote sufficient effort and find himself in debt or not pass the courses. Matthews uncle has warned him of the struggles of attending university and the struggle to repay the loan.

D’Cunha sympathizes with these trepidations and recognizes that students and parents from low-income families find it daunting to commit to substantial debt. Although students will not have to commence their repayments until they are earning enough, people balk at the notion of being in debt, which serves as the primary hindrance. The root barrier is the expense, according to D’Cunha. Parents and children attribute high value to education, but the financial burden can make attending university seem unattainable.


  • daisymay

    Daisy May is a 34-year-old blogger and student who is passionate about education. She has been blogging about her educational experiences and tips for other students since 2010. Daisy May is currently studying for her Master's degree in Adult Education.



Daisy May is a 34-year-old blogger and student who is passionate about education. She has been blogging about her educational experiences and tips for other students since 2010. Daisy May is currently studying for her Master's degree in Adult Education.