‘Why are some ethnic minorities failing at school?’ is a commonly asked question within education. However, some evidence indicates that this is not the case as children from Asian backgrounds – Chinese including Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, etc., are top of the exam league tables in terms of overall GCSE exams passes when five ‘good’ passes are looked at. Also some research, such as that by Demack, show that it is not always the case that ethnic groups fail in exams.


There are three main types of ethnic minorities who go to school in Britain – Indians, Blacks and Pakistani/Bangladeshi.


Even though Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Blacks have the lowest overall exam attainment when the UK is studied as a complete whole, there are regional variations where this simply is not the case. Demack found that in one in ten local education authorities Black pupils were most likely to obtain 5a*-c’s at GCSE. In four in ten local education authorities Pakistani pupils were the most likely to obtain 5a*-c’s. These findings were based on 4 main ethnic minority groups and whites, which suggest no ethnic group is less capable than any other.


Most ethnic groups in the UK are from working class backgrounds. Part of their level of their attainment can therefore be explained in terms of class rather than ethnicity. Bangladeshi pupils followed by Pakistani and black pupils are more likely to be raised in low income families (Pilkington). These pupils can face serious language problems, which has to hinder any form of educational progress. Bangladeshi’s are likely to be less familiar with the English language. Children from Asian backgrounds were perceived by teachers to be well disciplined and highly motivated and this comes out from past and current exam results. Teacher perception values also saw Black-Caribbean pupils as aggressive, disobedient and disruptive. This meant that even though various tests indicated that they had a relatively high academic ability and that their final exam attainments could be high, they were put in lower sets because of a perception that they would cause trouble in higher sets and hold back the more able. Once labelled a ‘failure’, many Black-Africans    acted out the role with poor behaviour and relative exam failure becoming hallmarks of their final years in education.


Research by the ‘Independent’ newspaper found that ethnic students tend to do better in the UK than any other people. This includes Asians, Indian, etc. It is said that Indian girls achieve the most in class, because they tend to be quieter and well- motivated. The ‘Independent’ found that if African-Caribbean boys take the most discrimination in class, they develop an urban street attitude in class, which affects performance in education. The implication this has on current education strategy is major as by 2013 secondary education in some format will be compulsory to the age of 18. Therefore what form of education will be offered to those who seemingly feel the current structure offers them very little? It is estimated that by 2015, Britain will need up to 90,000 more apprenticeships. Will there be a greater vocational bent in post-16 to 18 education to fulfil this target? Within some ethnics minorities certain factors affect their ability to achieve in school. For example, Indian children from a non-manual background achieve better grades than Indian children who come from a manual background. If these children from manual backgrounds have to remain in some form of education after their GCSE’s, what format will that education take?


When A-level results are analysed, the gap in achievement between white children and non-white children narrows quite markedly. However, many of those non-white A- level achievers come from professional backgrounds. This again raises the question, what form of education will be offered to those children from an ethnic minority working class background once children have to remain in education to the age of 18?


In 1971, Bernard Coard presented a stinging assessment of the UK’s educational system when ethnic minorities were taken into account. He claimed in his research that the British education system actually makes black children become educationally subnormal by making them fell ‘inferior in every way’. West Indian children are told that their way of speaking is second-rate and unacceptable, the implication being that they themselves are second-rate as human beings. Coard claims that the word ‘white’ is associated with good; the word ‘black’ with evil. Coard gives an example of a children’s book in which the ‘white unicorn’ and the ‘white boys’ are able to repel an attack by the violent and evil ‘black pirates’. The content of the education children receive tends to ignore black people. Reading books often contain only white people, and when blacks do feature they are normally shown in subservient social roles such as servants. Coard claims that the people whose lives are studied and acclaimed (the heroes and figures from history and the present day) are white. Black culture, music and art are all conspicuous by their absence from the curriculum. The attitudes to race conveyed in the classroom are reinforced by the pupils outside it. In playground arguments, white children may describe West Indian children as ‘black bastards’.


How relevant Coard’s research is to 2011 remains a moot point. A huge amount of work has been done within education to address issues he found in 1971. All racist incidents have to now be logged and are classed as ‘hate incidents’. History, for example, now teaches slavery in Key Stage 3 and all the ramifications surrounding it, the slave trade, Britain’s part in it, William Wiberforce etc. However, for all this work, the issues raised by Coard in 1971 may still be relevant. All the reforms may be in place but they may have changed little when it comes to perceptions. The key issue Coard wanted to study was inclusiveness – making ethnic minorities feel as if they are part of a community within a school and that their chances of success are no different to a white child at that school. The Black American writer, Zora Neale Hurston, wrote about American schools after they were desegregated by law. She noted that white children still stayed in the same social groups as did Black American children. Her point was that segregation may be a legal entity but if segregation remains in the heart, then the law is meaningless.


Research between 2000 and 2010 shows that certain ethnic minority groups, such as Black-Caribbean, are not achieving their full potential in secondary education. By that very nature, they must feel a sense of being outside of the system despite that system having on paper done a lot to rectify this. Perhaps in reality very little has changed since Coard’s research. 

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

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