FOR those of us who believe that young people deserve an equal chance in life whatever the colour of their skin, the report published today by the Office for Standards in Education makes uncomfortable reading.
It tells the tale of a decade which has seen black and Pakistani pupils falling further behind their white and Indian peers. Between 1988 and 1997, the gap between the numbers of black and white children gaining five or more higher grade GCSE passes almost doubled. And the difference between Indian and Pakistani pupils increased seven-fold.
Black and Pakistani pupils are not any less capable than their classmates. Nor are they inherently more "difficult". As the report points out, there are areas of the country in which black and Pakistani pupils out-perform whites. Yet too many continue to be consigned to the educational scrapheap.
Conservative governments deserve much of the blame for this. Successive education secretaries pursued policies, such as parental choice, open enrolment and crude league tables, which seemed designed to polarise schools between the popular and successful and the unpopular and struggling. Few steps were taken to mitigate the knock-on effects on puils from ethnic-minority and deprived backgrounds.
But not all the Tories' policies made matters worse. The national curriculum, which they introduced in 1990, may have had some effect in reducing inequality between ethnic groups. Between 1995 (the first year that GCSE candidates had spent their entire secondary education studying the national curriculum) and 1997, black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils started to catch up.
The report does not contain recent enough data to tell us whether Labour, with its commitment to reducing inequality, has managed to close the gap further. Measures to tackle failing schools, the increased use of mentors and the creation of the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant should help improve matters.
But relying on central government alone is not enough. Schools and local education authorities need to do all they can to raise expectations and standards among all pupils.
One of the most worrying aspects of the report is the revelation that some LEAs have set targets for ethnic-minority achievement which would widen rather than reduce the gap. Such an approach amounts to nothing less than institutional racism and is simply not acceptable.