Why is it the case that some ethnic minorities underachieve in the education system? Of the ethnic minorities in the UK, 50% are Asian or Asian British (Indian, Pakistani etc.), 25% are Black or Black British (Black African, Black Caribbean etc.), 15% are Mixed Race, 5% are Chinese and 5% are of other ethnic backgrounds.


In 1985, the Swann Report, officially called ‘Education for All’, called for the UK to have an education system that was multi-cultural regardless of a school’s location, the ethnic make-up of the locality a school served and regardless of a school’s age group taught.


In March 1999, Ofsted’s Director of Inspections, Jim Rose, stated that some schools were “institutionally racist”.


Black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be excluded from school as white pupils – but the difference is narrowing. Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, has suggested that black boys might benefit from a US experiment in which they are taught separately for some lessons, in a bid to rekindle an interest in education and to counter the idea that learning is unfashionable. In 1998, black pupils were six times more likely to excluded, than their white counterparts. In terms of ethnic background, exclusion rates ranged from three in 10,000 for Indian pupils to 38 in 10,000 for Black Caribbean pupils – a distinct improvement on the previous year’s figure of 46. The figure for white pupils was 13 in 10,000.


The Macpherson Report was conducted after the death of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man murdered in 1993 in South London. The report was conducted because it was public opinion and the opinion of his parents that the police force acted in a racist way and not dealt with the murder fully because Stephen Lawrence was black.


Conducted by Sir William Macpherson, the inquiry found that the Metropolitan Police Service investigation had been incompetent, charging that officers had committed fundamental errors including failing to give first aid when they reached the scene, failing to follow obvious leads during their investigation and failing to arrest suspects. He found that there had been a failure of leadership by senior MPS officers and that recommendations of the 1981 Scarman Report, compiled following race-related riots in Brixton and Toxteth, had been ignored.


Macpherson found that the police were institutionally racist, and made a total of 70 recommendations for reform in his report dated 24 February 1999. His proposals included abolishing the double jeopardy rule and criminalising racist statements made in private. Macpherson also called for reform in the British Civil Service, local government, the British National Health Service, schools and the judicial system to address issues of institutional racism.


Why do ethnic minorities underachieve in education? Ethnic backgrounds that are less successful in education – Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Blacks – have a higher percentage of pupils from working class backgrounds. So their ethnicity affects their class and their class affects their ability to achieve in education. Also we know that the lower a child’s class position, the lower their income. Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black pupils are more likely to be raised in low income families. This can affect how well they do in school because lack of funds means lack of school equipment, less favourable working conditions e.g. cold house, no desk etc.


Cultural deprivation theory: extreme versions of the cultural deprivation theory see the speech patterns of those at the bottom of the class system (social class five) as inferior.


These speech patterns are argued to be consistent with many low income families which are inadequate to meet the demands of the education system. These patterns directly contribute to educational failure as students cannot always understand elaborated speech codes which teachers use and teachers often misunderstand students who use the restricted speech code. As a result there is a breakdown in communication between teachers and pupils.


In contrast to this, speech patterns were examined by William Labov in low income African-American children in Harlem, New York. Labov found that their speech codes were not inferior to standard English – they were just different. Those who saw them as inferior failed to understand low income black dialect – these people were ignorant to such a speech code


Restricted speech code has been studied by Basil Berstein. He found that short hand speech was tied to a context and that detail was omitted and that the context of that speech cannot be fully understood by others outside the speech code. Berstein found that such speech patterns were generally used in the lower social classes.


Basil Berstein also studied elaborated speech code. This is where meanings are made explicit and details spelt out and meanings are universalistic. Berstein found that this form of speech was generally used in the higher social classes.


In general, the lower a person’s class the less likely they are to understand the elaborated speech code – the general speech code used in education is the elaborated speech code which many ethnic minority children are unfamiliar with.


In conclusion: Teachers teach classes using the elaborated speech code. Therefore children from lower social classes (the majority of working class and ethnic minority groups) fail to comprehend the information being taught and therefore fail because of this. When a child attempts to answer questions or express their inability to understand, they are misunderstood by teachers because of the apparent language barrier. 


Black boys need more male role models in school, said Labour MP Diane Abbott. She has stated her belief that the underachievement of black boys at school could be more effectively tackled if there were more black and male teachers and mentors. She suggested that primary schools, which often have a majority of female staff, provided too few examples of adult males involved in education. Diane Abbott says that too many black pupils are underachieving. Abbott also said there had to be greater efforts to overcome a situation in which black pupils began school with a similar level of achievement to other ethnic groups, but by “aged 16 their achievement has collapsed, particularly black boys”.


Children from broken homes with warring parents “tend to have lower academic performance”. Another report claimed “in particular, continuing contact between effective non-resident fathers and children after a divorce is positively associated with the child’s achievement at school.”



Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex