Race inequality `as bad as ever'

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Reva Klein looks at the background to a new report that shows black children still get a raw deal from the education system.

When the Swann Report was published in 1985, schools were very different places - in some ways. The 800-page document, more than five years in the making, looked at the education of ethnic minority children in an environment as yet untouched by the 1988 Education Reform Act.

Margaret Thatcher had not yet done away with the Inner London Education Authority and its ground-breaking equal opportunities policies. We were still relatively innnocent of racial violence in schools: the well- publicised murder of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah by a white boy in the playground of Burnage High School in Manchester happened a year after the publication of Swann.

But if there are vast differences between then and now, there are also similarities that should be causing concern. Swann concluded that "there is no doubt that West Indian children, as a group and on average, are underachieving, both by comparison with their school fellows in the white majority as well as in terms of their potential".

This week sees the long-awaited publication of Recent Research in the Achievement of Ethnic Minority Pupils, the most far-reaching research review on its subject since Swann. Commissioned by the Office for Standards in Education, the report not only confirms what Swann revealed about inequalities in our education system but also concludes that the gap between the highest-achieving and lowest-achieving ethnic groups is actually growing in many localv authorities.

African-Caribbean pupils, particularly boys, "have not shared equally in the increasing rates of general achievement", it says. In some areas their performance has deteriorated. The use of selection in schools attempting to boost their GCSE results is cited as one factor in this trend.

The similarities of the conclusions of the two reports should be ringing alarm bells. How has the situation that the Swann Report exposed been allowed to persist and, in some ways, grow worse?

The authors of the review, Dr David Gillborn and Professor Caroline Gipps, both of London University's Institute of Education, offer no simple answers. But part of the problem, they believe, is the very concept of "underachievement". Swann's use of the word led to widespread misunderstanding and, worse, unwittingly encouraged some teachers to lower their expectations of black pupils.

Gillborn and Gipps demonstrate the fallacy of this thinking by pointing to patterns of attainment among African-Caribbean children as seen in Birmingham's baseline assessment figures. In 1994, 4.6 per cent of black five-year-olds were performing at levels expected of six or seven-year-olds, compared to 3. 6 per cent of white children. Key stage 1 national tests showed Birmingham black children outperforming their white peers in 1992 and 1994. If African-Caribbean children were somehow incapable of achieving academically, what were they doing outstripping white children throughout key stage 1?

To complicate the picture even more, there is a wide discrepancy between black African pupils and black Caribbeans, with the former generally outscoring the latter. Furthermore, something happens to many African-Caribbean children, particularly boys, as they progress through school. Many lose their way and get into trouble: African-Caribbeans are six times more likely than other children to be excluded. By the GCSE year, they are at the bottom of the heap, on average about five exam points lower than white pupils.

Recent figures indicate a further widening of the gulf. Gillborn and Gipps refer to an education authority in which, between 1993 and 1994 "the gap between the average performance of black pupils and the LEA as a whole increased almost equivalent to an additional higher-grade pass". In that authority, only one in five black pupils achieved five or more higher-grade GCSEs, compared with the LEA average of one in three.

Qualitative research, with its focus on interview and observational data, yields disturbing insights into what may be taking the wind out of children's sails.

On racial harassment, for instance, Gillborn and Gipps say: "Available data suggest that in recent years both the frequency of attacks and the sense of threat and insecurity has risen for south Asians." Asian pupils are the main butt of racial harassment by other children because they are perceived to be weak. How this affects children's academic achievement has yet to be investigated.

Another tension dealt with in the review is that between African-Caribbean pupils and their white teachers, an issue also referred to in the Swann Report. Several studies since the 1970s have shown that black pupils are more likely to be criticised, punished and derided for their "bad attitude" than pupils of any other ethnic group.

According to Gillborn and Gipps: "Irrespective of the teachers' conscious desire to help all pupils equally, the level of teacher-pupil conflict in the researched schools was such that, as a group, black pupils experienced school in ways that were significantly more conflictual and less positive than their peers. Teachers and schools may play an active, though unintended, role in the creation of conflict with African-Caribbean pupils, thereby reducing black young people's opportunity to achieve."

If the stereotype of the misbehaving, underachieving black pupil is still entrenched, so, too, are the preconceptions about south Asian children. Research suggests that they are either seen as better-behaved, more academic and more highly motivated than their black peers or as low-ability because they speak English as a second language and come from "too strict a culture".

Racial stereotypes apart, Gillborn and Gipps argue that inadequate classifications of ethnic origin - merely white, black, Asian and "other" - hinder any real understanding of differences in achievement, particularly if social class and gender are ignored. This is most pronounced when looking at the achievement of Asian pupils.

While research carried out in London in the 1980s showed that Asians were performing on a similar or slightly higher level than white pupils and, more recently in Tower Hamlets, that they were outstripping them, 1992 and 1994 figures from Birmingham, which has the most south Asian pupils in the country, shows a very different picture. In Birmingham, where most Asians are of Pakistani background, both sexes are being outperformed by their white peers at GCSE, although they are faring better than African-Caribbean children.

Gillborn and Gipps point out that studies comparing the performance of different ethnic groups rarely take account of social class. In many areas, for instance, Indian students are more likely to come from middle-class backgrounds than their peers, which will account for their higher performance.

If the picture is complex, some generalisations can be made. All major ethnic groups are achieving better results than they were five years ago. In post-compulsory education, Asian students tend to take the more academic route through university, while African-Caribbeans opt for vocational courses. And the ethnic inequalities in education are at least as big as when Swann was published.

According to Gillborn, "This work suggests that because the education reforms haven't treated race as an issue, they have allowed the inequalities to persist and, in some cases, to get bigger. For example, research suggests that the use of setting and other forms of internal selection often disadvantages ethnic minority pupils. There must be concern that many politicians see selection as an unequivocally positive step."

Gillborn and Gipps argue for detailed ethnic monitoring, and suggest that OFSTED inspections should pay more attention to pupils' ethnic backgrounds and undue variations in achievement. They also want to see school-based research on exclusions.

Gillborn hopes that the report "will put race back on the agenda. There is a willed amnesia about everything we've learned from past research, about the way that judgments about the aptitude, ability and motivation of pupils are disfigured or reproduced by racism. The more we try to ignore the fact that race matters, the more we leave the door open for these trends to go on unchallenged."

Recent Research in the Achievement of Ethnic Minority Pupils, Pounds 9. 95, from HMSO bookshops, HMSO agents or the HMSO Publications Centre, PO Box 276, London SW8 5DT.

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