How ethnic groups measure up to targets set for primary pupils

4th July 2008 at 01:00
The aim should be for all KS2 pupils to reach level 4 in English and maths by the end of Year 6, but in practice local authorities have different expectations. Helen Ward reports
The aim should be for all KS2 pupils to reach level 4 in English and maths by the end of Year 6, but in practice local authorities have different expectations. Helen Ward reports

Key stage 2 targets set for different ethnic groups expose the stark differences in expectations for the three million pupils in England's primary schools.

The targets, set by most local authorities, have never been published together before and were obtained by The TES through a Freedom of Information request.

Last week, we revealed the differences between GCSE targets, which show that expectations for some ethnic groups can be as much as 10 times greater in one local authority than another.

The differences between goals in tests for primary school pupils at 11 are narrower than they are for secondary students.

Take Black Caribbean pupils, for example. In Cheshire and Herefordshire, 100 per cent are predicted to reach level 4 in English, but in Kingston upon Thames, only 33 per cent are.

There is less variation for white British pupils, whose targets range from 92 per cent in Hertfordshire to 73 per cent in Leicester.

However, white British and Travellers' children were the only groups for which not one authority predicted 100 per cent will attain level 4 this summer. By contrast, 10 authorities predicted that result for Chinese pupils.

The difference was due, at least in part, to the numbers involved. In January 2008, there were 2.4 million white British pupils in England's primary schools and 11,000 Chinese. Authorities with only a handful of Chinese pupils are clearly better placed to set a 100 per cent target and all concerned predicted good results.

The differences are also a product of social class.

The lower average target for Bangladeshi pupils than their white British classmates, for example, reflects the fact that just 7 per cent of Bangladeshi parents are from families classed as professionals, compared to 41 per cent of white British pupils. However, the gaps in expectations may not just be related to pupils' home circumstances.

A study last year commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families found that even once these differences were accounted for, some groups did worse than predicted - particularly black Caribbean pupils.

Although the difference in results between groups was more apparent in secondary schools, the study concluded that intervention schemes to help low-attaining ethnic minority groups needed to focus more than they have been on primary pupils.

"This is because ethnic group differences in attainment at 14 are largely a replication of pre-existing ethnic group differences at the end of primary school," it said.

The targets produced by the local authorities are based on information from their schools.

Past research has suggested that teachers tend to underestimate from their own assessments how pupils will perform in English tests, particularly Bangladeshi and black African pupils. But comparing the targets and the results for tests in 2007 shows that, in English, the predictions of the local authorities were almost spot on, with 2 per cent of Chinese pupils doing worse than expected.

By contrast, predictions for maths were too optimistic for almost all groups, by up to 5 per cent. But 3 per cent of Chinese pupils did better than expected.

To what extent does setting targets help?

Alan Dyson, professor of education at Manchester University and co-director of its Centre for Equity in Education, sees targets as a mixed blessing.

"In some ways we are very fortunate in the volume of data we have, because for the first time we know how different groups are doing, who is doing well and where the problems are. To that extent it is very positive," he said.

"But the difficulty is when the data get turned into targets and those targets become an end in themselves. The targets don't give you answers, they allow you to ask questions."

How the different ethnic groups are expected to perform compared to each other is a familiar story.

Chinese and Indian pupils are predicted to do best, with 86 per cent expected to reach level 4 in English, compared to 83 per cent of white British pupils, 78 per cent of black Caribbean and 74 per cent of black African pupils. Traveller and gypsy pupils are predicted to do worse, with only 38 per cent and 43 per cent respectively expected to reach level 4.

Professor Dyson is concerned that low targets can ingrain low expectations. "If you are given a number and then you reach it, the implication is that one has got there and there is not much more you need," he said.

At Cheetham Community Primary in Manchester nearly all the pupils speak English as an additional language, as most are from Pakistani families.

Last year, the Manchester target for Pakistani and white pupils was for 76 per cent to attain level 4 in English. At Cheetham Primary, 90 per cent of pupils made that level.

Paul Barnes, Cheetham's headteacher, remains unconvinced about the goals. "We can't go on just measuring, measuring, measuring," he said. "Isn't personalisation supposed to be about looking at the individual? Now we're lumping them together."

Mr Barnes said his school preferred to look at pupils individually.

"You may have three or four targets at first, but you end up with so many targets you're tripping over them. That's why we stick to our own agenda," he said.

Chris Davis, spokesman for the National Primary Headteachers' Association, said that heads were often reluctant to produce different targets because they wanted to treat all their pupils the same.

"Over-analysis in a host of ways is not always beneficial," he said. "A pupil's ethnicity has historically been relevant, so it is more acceptable to ask for it than, say, shoe size or hair colour. But where do you draw the line? This data needs to be very carefully handled."

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