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Myth and reality of the race factor

Reva Klein untangles the elusive facts on underachievement and disaffection among ethnic-minority pupils and outlines how the tide is being turned with help from Section 11 funding and, below, thriving community projects. Haringey education department's latest conference was optimistically called "Success in the City". But it was lack of success - or rather the continuing underachievement of ethnic-minority pupils - that many of the black and Asian educationists at the conference wanted to talk about.

Haringey's inspector for humanities, George Fisher, noted that "in 1969 there was a meeting to discuss the underachievement of black children in this borough. There was another meeting in 1979. And now in 1995, here we are at yet another meeting looking at how success has still not filtered through to Afro-Caribbean children." By success, he was referring as much to black children's relationship with their schools as to exam results.

But getting an overall view of figures and trends in the educational attainment of ethnic-minority children, not only in Haringey but nationwide, is notoriously difficult. Despite an attempt by the Department for Education to collect basic information on children's ethnicity from LEAs and grant-maintained schools, as recommended in the 1985 Swann Committee, the response has been incomplete. Last year's survey returns from most GM schools and more than one-third of LEAs failed to identify the ethnic origin of pupils. A new DFE consultation paper is proposing changes to the survey which would yield more information about the progress of ethnic-minority pupils.

For its part, the Office for Standards in Education has commissioned the first major review of the performance of black and ethnic-minority pupils since the Swann Inquiry. The review, by David Gilborne and Caroline Gipps of London University's Institute of Education, will be published in the autumn. OFSTED itself is preparing to widen the framework of assessing schools by looking at the achievement of ethnic-minority groups. And another survey, this time on the ethnic profile of excluded pupils, is being planned by the Commission for Racial Equality in association with other agencies.

It is known that a disproportionate number of Afro-Caribbean boys are excluded from schools, although there are no current national figures. A DFE report in 1993 cited 8.1 per cent of the total excluded pupils in 1991 and 8.5 per cent in 1992 being of Afro-Caribbean origin. Pratap Deshpande, Birmingham education authority's ethnic minority needs adviser, suggests that most local authorities will have an exclusion probability ratio of four black boys to every white boy.

In terms of academic achievement, the picture is less clear-cut. Several studies show that Afro-Caribbean children start school with the same attainment levels as white counterparts, and sometimes higher. But as they progress through to junior level, black boys fall behind. However, while this downturn peaks at around the time of secondary transfer, the picture changes dramatically at secondary level. According to a nine-yearlongitudinal study of inner-London schoolchildren published in 1994 by the London Institute which follows on from Professor Peter Mortimore's junior schools project, School Matters, Afro-Caribbean boys catch up in time for their GCSEs. Dr Pam Sammons, author of the report, concludes that: "Although ethnic minority groups attained less highly during their junior education (both in absolute and relative terms), these patterns altered markedly during secondary education. In terms of relative progress, the Asian, OtherNot Known and Caribbean groups obtained significantly better GCSE results than their white peers."

Other data would appear to contradict those findings. Birmingham's 1994 GCSE results show only 12 per cent of AfricanCaribbean boys achieving five or more A-C grades, as opposed to nearly twice that figure for Asian boys and 33 per cent for white boys. In all categories, girls did appreciably better.

There are similar apparent discrepancies when it comes to Asian children's achievement.

Tower Hamlets has the largest number of bilingual pupils of any education authority in the country (60 per cent of the pupil population). Bangladeshi children, who make up the biggest group, come out with the highest GCSE results of all ethnicnational categories, performing on average almost half a grade above their white counterparts. This is despite the fact that nearly 50 per cent enter school as absolute beginners in English.

Pam Sammons points out the difficulties in non-standardised methods of presenting data. Her study, unusually, looked at socio-economic factors, which, she says, "may account for low or high performance more than ethnicity does. Studies of this kind need to present figures in terms of progression at primary and secondary levels, at socio-economic considerations as indicated by free school meals, at gender and at school effectiveness. Underachievement by specific groups may be influenced by school and assessment systems as well as by cultural and individual differences."

She adds: "Ethnic minority groups often experience greater socio-economic disadvantage than other groups and these factors have a powerful impact on achievement. It is important not to attribute lower performance to ethnicity when it may relate to disadvantage."

Clearly, race and ethnicity should not be viewed as problems for the education system when, as Dr Sammons points out, for three consecutive years value-added analyses of GCSE results conducted for an Economic and Social Research Council study of London secondary schools have shown that no ethnic group performs worse than the "white" classification. "This should help to counter negative stereotypes," she says.

This trend is acutely obvious in Tower Hamlets. Section 11 support for English as a second language teaching has made a major contribution to achieving this. High aspirations at home, buttressed by an education authority that has ensured that all primary and secondary classes have Section 11 teachers, plus an extension of the borough's pre-school provision, means that bilingual children get the help they need to achieve their potential, despite the loss of 100 Section 11 teachers in the past year.

Statistics tell one story - of progress, achievement and determination. A different story is being lived out by black and ethnic minority parents whose children are not thriving academically and by teachers who are stretched beyond endurance with inadequate support. What is called for is clearer pictures and clearer thinking about how to make success in the city a reality for those of all cultures - including the white working-class communities - who experience educational disenfranchisement.

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