Ethnic profiling: a target too far

27th June 2008 at 01:00
If proof were needed that it's time to curb the Government's target-setting enthusiasm, figures for the achievement of ethnic groups, revealed in today's TES, are surely enough
If proof were needed that it's time to curb the Government's target-setting enthusiasm, figures for the achievement of ethnic groups, revealed in today's TES, are surely enough. Ministers' desire to stamp out gaps in performance is laudable. So is their willingness to brave the political sensitivities surrounding ethnicity. But the decision, four years ago, to require 150 local authorities to draw up targets for up to 20 different ethnic groups is not. The results are a mess. It cannot be right that Pakistani pupils are expected to do 10 times better in Sutton in south-west London than in Telford and Wrekin, or white pupils twice as well in Hammersmith and Fulham as they are in Sandwell.

What is the point in asking council bureaucrats to spend hours bent over their calculators and spreadsheets when schools already have their individual targets?

Imagine, too, the effect on classroom teachers. As they look out on an inner-city class including white working-class pupils, Afro-Caribbeans, Indians, perhaps a few Turks, will they be spurred on by the calculation that they need to improve the exam results of one group by 4 per cent, another by 2? More likely, they will wonder if the new ethnic targets conflict with the existing ones to bring as many pupils as possible up to the GCSE benchmark.

The councils carrying out this exercise deserve some sympathy. Research shows that ethnic targets can never be simply about cultural background. A study last year by Professor Edward Melhuish, of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues, found that ethnicity had little effect on test scores. What matters is social background: 70 per cent of ethnic families live in the most deprived boroughs.

Others take issue with this. But last month Manchester University academics argued that the target culture in our schools was holding back struggling pupils of all ethnic backgrounds. Professor Alan Dyson wrote of the interaction between ethncity, gender and class: "You have to look at the whole picture, and help partnerships analyse what's going on, to have a real impact."

The Government would be more likely to achieve its goals by abandoning these targets. They should trust teachers to assess the pupils from different ethnic groups in their class and decide what is best for them.

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