RACE HAS little effect on test scores and policies that target education funding at pupils based on their ethnicity are misguided, says a government equality adviser.
Professor Edward Melhuish, who contributed to the Government's recent equalities review, said funding should tackle deprivation, which was a much greater influence on performance throughout school life. Apparent racial inequalities were "to a large extent the product of disadvantage," he told The TES.
When statisticians controlled figures for factors such as poverty and mother's education, they saw the influence of race shrink and in some cases disappear, he said.
Test scores have been analysed by race since 2002, producing headlines lamenting black underachievement and praising the performance of Chinese pupils, who often do better than white pupils. Millions of pounds have gone into Aiming High, a project designed to raise ethnic minority exam scores.
A Government report published last week accused schools of being unwittingly prejudiced against black pupils, who are three times more likely to be excluded than white children.
But the equalities review education study, Promoting Equality in the Early Years, suggests that many of these effects could be down to deprivation rather than race.
"Pakistani pupils appear to underperform but, in fact, when you compare them to white children from a similar background, they are average," said Professor Melhuish, a sociologist at Birkbeck college in London. "Funding should reflect that."
Seventy per cent of ethnic minority families live in the most deprived UK boroughs.
Dr Deborah Wilson, an education researcher at Bristol university, said that the reality was more complicated, as race and class were interlinked.
"From a statistical point of view, past attainment and class are by far the biggest influences, but they don't explain everything and race does have a residual effect," she said. "Some would say ethnicity is so wrapped up in class, background and neighbourhood that to ignore it would be missing the point."
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said tackling child poverty was one of the Government's main priorities. "We have reduced child poverty faster than anywhere in Europe," he said.