To give pupils of all ethnic groups the same chance to succeed, first build on what already works, argues Estelle Morris.
There is an urgent need to tackle inequalities within our education system. The growing gap between those who achieve and those who do not is mirrored by the gap between the achievement of different ethnic groups.
The Youth Cohort Study showed that the percentage of pupils from some minority ethnic groups obtaining five or more GCSEs at grades A-C is little more than half of that for pupils as a whole. The study found that in 1995 only 23 per cent of black pupils and only 23 per cent Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils achieved five or more good GCSE compared with 44 per cent for all pupils.
Such inequalities in achievement are a concern for us all. Underachievement at school can lead to young people dropping out and becoming disaffected. If we are to achieve equality of opportunity within the job market we have to create equality of educational opportunity.
We are committed as a Government to achieving educational success for all. Our commitment to raising standards - as set out in our White Paper, Excellence in Schools - applies to all in overcoming underachievement and disadvantage in education. All pupils, whatever their ethnic background, must be expected to achieve.
The needs of Britain's minority ethnic communities and the important role which education has to play in countering underachievement were chronicled as long ago as the Swann Report in 1985. Many committed people have put much energy into trying to meet some of these needs. We must not overlook the success stories and the examples of good practice which exist. Our strategy for raising the educational achievement of all ethnic minority children will make sure that these examples of good practice are disseminated.
The reasons behind underachievement are complex and, while social disadvantage can never be an excuse for failure, they can relate to socio-economic circumstances. Minority ethnic pupils are disproportionately represented in schools serving areas of social disadvantage. Raising the achievement of these pupils and, indeed, of many white pupils from deprived social circumstances is an extra challenge. It is a challenge we do not shy away from.
Many parents from minority ethnic communities are concerned about the educational opportunities afforded to their children. Nationally, black pupils are three times more likely to be excluded from schools than white pupils. The extent of this over-representation varies significantly between schools and between local education authorities, but it is clear that there is a real and pressing problem.
Young people excluded from school soon become lost to mainstream education and often are found among the young unemployed. Unemployment among ethnic minority people of working age is twice as high as among the white population.
Some schools are better than others at tackling this problem of exclusion. We need better information on what works well and we need to encourage wider take-up of good practice.
The guidance for schools which the Commission for Racial Equality has published this week should be very helpful in this regard.
The problems of racism, social exclusion and educational failure are particularly acute for gipsy and traveller children. Only 5 per cent are still registered or regularly attend school by key stage 4, and the numbers in vocational training and further and higher education are worryingly small. Disproportionate numbers are excluded from school and levels of achievement are lower than for any other minority ethnic group. The reasons for this are complex and deep-rooted and cannot be solved overnight.
However, we are making good progress, particularly at primary level, through targeted support to schools with particular numbers of traveller children. But much remains to be done to tackle problems which for too long have been brushed under the carpet, among a community of up to 150,000 children.
Despite the difficulties, there are centres of excellence within our education system, schools which demonstrate what can be done to help pupils overcome the many disadvantages that they face. Section 11 funding has led to many excellent teachers enabling pupils to make a full contribution to school. I pay tribute to the work they are doing. Our task must be to enable all schools to learn from the experiences of those schools.
The Open University is currently carrying out research for the Government into teaching and learning strategies in successful multi-ethnic schools. The Office for Standards in Education is also undertaking focused inspections into contributory factors and school responses to raising the achievement of minority ethnic pupils.
We shall make guidance on best practice available to all schools in the New Year. This will include guidance on tackling racial harassment and stereotyping and in creating a harmonious environment in which learning can flourish. We also consider it important for schools to monitor minority ethnic pupils' performance and to create and implement effective plans of action where monitoring reveals underperformance.
Our White Paper signposted the policies which we believe will be the foundation for educational achievement for all. Many of these are targetted at helping those who are falling behind and making sure that those at risk of doing so are supported and helped to achieve their potential.
The White Paper includes many strategies which will benefit minority ethnic pupils alongside other children: for example the new focus on literacy and numeracy, zero tolerance of underperformance and other measures to raise standards and effectiveness - such as smaller class sizes, especially at the infant stage - enabling more attention to be given to children needing particular support. These are policies which will achieve excellence for all.
I am chairing the task group to raise the achievement of ethnic minority pupils. I am committed to ensuring that as policies develop and progress the impact they will have on ethnic minority groups will be assessed. I hope that the task group will be a guide in this work.
It includes representatives of those who are particularly concerned to ensure genuine equality of opportunity for all pupils, and those who head schools which have been particularly successful in meeting this challenge.
Estelle Morris MP is education junior minister