Sam Freedman: 'Why are black pupils doing so well?'

10th February 2014 at 14:43

Sam Freedman, director of research, evaluation and impact at Teach First, writes:

Yesterday, I was playing around with GCSE data and found an interesting trend. Over the past five years, black pupils have almost caught up with white pupils in the main five A*-C measure, including English and maths.

My first thought was that this must be a function of the "London effect", as over 60 per cent of black pupils live in the capital. But actually, black improvement has been faster in other regions. 

(Health warning on this chart - some regions have very low numbers of black pupils, especially the North East, where just 139 pupils took GCSEs in 2013).

My next thought was that it might be a result of immigration. Unfortunately, we don't know how many recent immigrants are included in the figures, but we can look at differences between black Caribbean and black African as a proxy, as the latter are more likely to be recent immigrants.

It turns out that the percentage of black African pupils as a proportion of all black pupils has increased over the past five years from 54 per cent to 59 per cent, while the proportion of black Caribbean pupils has decreased from 33 per cent to 29 per cent. This explains some of the faster rate of improvement for black pupils overall, as black Africans do about 8 percentage points better than black Caribbeans.

But the rate of improvement has actually been faster for black Caribbeans (13.9 percentage points over the past five years, compared to 12.8 for black Africans). So there's something else going on as well.

I then noticed that black boys have improved faster than black girls over the past five years (14.4 percentage points to 12.8). This is the opposite of what's happening with white British boys and girls (7.8 to 11.2). It seems like this gender difference is another part of the jigsaw.

Then I dug into the gender/ethnicity data a bit more and found that white British boys, not black boys, were the outliers.

Despite all the attention on the under-performance of white British boys, this surprised me. I had thought the issue was with poor white British boys. But white British boys on Free School Meals (FSM) make up a small proportion of these figures (and are improving at the same rate as their non-FSM peers – albeit from a much lower base).

So, to answer my initial question, I've identified two reasons why black pupils are improving faster than white ones. First, there is a larger proportion of higher-performing black Africans. And, secondly, black boys are improving faster than white British boys (as are Pakistani/Bangladeshi boys).

Of course, this analysis only begins to scratch the surface of what's going on here. And it throws up a whole lot more questions. Perhaps most of all: what's going on with white British boys (poor or rich)?


All the data in the blog is taken from here.
All terminology is that used by the Department for Education
Reproduced, with permission, from Sam Freedman's blog: 


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