The missing facts on race

29th August 1997 at 01:00
Hugh Reilly deplores a failure to gather statisticson Scots Asian pupils

Do you have an opinion as to how Scots Asians are faring in schools? Is your opinion based on anecdotal evidence, or some experience of teaching Scots Asian pupils, or perhaps comments made by colleagues in that hive of misinformation called the staffroom? Don't worry, it appears that gathering statistics doesn't figure much in the plans of decision-makers.

There is anecdotal evidence that Scots Asian children are underachieving. In my own school, a disproportionate number find themselves in Foundation Standard grade sections and being identified as requiring learning support. Twenty-three per cent of fourth-year secondary pupils identified as being poor attenders were Scots Asians, who constitute only 8 per cent of that year group. I wanted to discover the facts rather than rely on hearsay evidence.

First stop was the Commission for Racial Equality in Edinburgh. It had no figures regarding academic achievement, but not through lack of trying. In correspondence with the Scottish Office, the commission has asked for a comprehensive survey of achievement and exclusions. In England, the Office for Standards in Education published a 91-page document last year entitled Recent Research on the Achievements of Ethnic Minority Pupils. This was the first major review for more than a decade and the authors were able to make analyses on achievement, educational progress and school effectiveness, and post-compulsory education. To my astonishment, the CRE informed me that the Scottish Office had no similar statistics and no plans to gather them.

A telephone call confirmed the CRE's statement. A Scottish Office spokeswomen said that the only figures held referred to "ethnic background" but were of little use given the low level of returns from the various education authorities. So I sought to carry out my own research. From my knowledge of Glasgow secondary schools (the supply teacher circuit does have a positive dimension) I identified those which has a significant Scots Asian population and posted off a questionnaire, making it clear who I was and the purpose of the correspondence. In my naivety, I miscalculated the level of sensitivity felt by schools.

One headteacher complained about the "negativity" of the questionnaire, despite the large space headed "further comment". Another head pointed out that research carried out in any local authority school required the permission of the council. To be frank I felt it was a bit rich to seek dispensation to do work which the council should be doing itself. But I followed the suggested protocol and sent a letter to Richard Barron, senior education officer. I also sent letters of apology to the offended headteachers.

In the meantime I contacted Maggie Chetty of the West of Scotland Community Relations Council in Glasgow. She was equally dismayed at the refusal of the Scottish Office to gather statistics. It was her belief that racial incidents were underreported and that there was evidence that rates of exclusions for Scots Asians were disproportionately high. The absence of raw data made her theory impossible to prove. In England, quantitative data showed that Asian children were more likely to be excluded than whites (black pupils were seven times more likely to be excluded). She concluded that the change of government, in addition to the reorganisation of local government, might lead to a change of policy.

Glasgow education department, which received two commendations at the European Commission Scottish Equality Awards, operates a body entitled MCARE (Multicultural Anti-Racist Education). Ruby Pillay, spokesperson for the group, chanted the by now familiar mantra "we have no figures". She enthusiastically pointed out that she could put me in touch with someone else who also needed such data. It seemed that other groups yearned for enlightenment.

In a chance conversation with a Scots Asian pupil I discovered the existence of SAAC (the Scottish Asian Action Committee), based in north Glasgow. Set up in the early 1980s, it has campaigned for a monitoring scheme but with no success. Kam Sambhi, the development officer, felt strongly that lack of communication between schools and Scots Asian parents was a real problem. Parents who contacted SAAC with school-related problems complained that schools made little effort to involve them.

Mohammed Huq, a lecturer at Strathclyde University and an executive member of SAAC, had forthright ideas on how to raise ethnic minority achievement. He proposed an increase in the number of Scots Asian teachers through changes in recruitment policy in order to provide more role models for the students. Further, he wanted an end to bilingualism being perceived as a handicap. To end claims of racism in the marking of SCE exam papers he had pressed for anonymous marking to be introduced, bringing schools into line with most Scottish universities. After three years he appears to be no nearer his goal. Using OFSTED data, he pointed out that in England secondary school Asian pupils make better progress than whites of the same social background. By the age of 18, Asians are the most highly qualified of all groups (including whites). Without statistics one cannot know if the situation is mirrored north of the border.

The interview with Mr Barron, the senior education officer, was illuminating. He acknowledged that the council had no overall figures. Statistics on Scots Asian achievement and levels of exclusions were held by individual schools. He conceded it would be a simple matter to collate them and thus monitor these areas, but this was not council policy. Given the fact that monitoring could help the council to refute claims of unfair treatment of Scots Asians I found his answer incredible.

In response to SAAC's accusation that not enough support is given to Scots Asians, Mr Barron pointed out that English as a second language (ESL) had been subject to the same budgetary cuts as elsewhere in the service. There had been a loss of six posts but this figure was in line with the 6 per cent cut in education. Part of the problem lay in some schools having too many ESL teachers. The council was now catching up with demographic changes in the Glasgow Asian community and allocating ESL staff to schools on a ratio of 1:95. He realised that some would find this ratio unacceptable but it was the best the council could do in difficult circumstances.

Last year the careers service in Glasgow published the destinations of school-leavers in 1995-96, including ethnic minority pupils. The data tended to support the findings of the OFSTED research in England. More than 30 per cent of Scots Asian pupil left with three or more Highers, more than double the performance of whites. In addition, 31 per cent of Scots Asian leavers entered higher education compared with 13 per cent of the white community. Much more research is needed not only in Glasgow but in Scotland as a whole. Without quantitative data it is impossible to monitor, evaluate or amend educational policies either at local level or nationally. Without hard facts there will continue to be lies, damned lies but not statistics.

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