Children's educational achievement seems to have risen during the 18 years of Conservative government. But what of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged? Reva Klein looks beyond the exam league tables.
"The Education Reform Act (1988) heralded the most extensive-ever post-war changes to the state education system and gave no serious attention to issues of ethnic diversity - all this just a few years after the publication of an 800-page report (the Swann Report) documenting the need for concerted efforts to improve the educational experiences and achievements of children from a range of ethnic-minority groups." David Gillborn, University of London Institute of Education in "Racism and Reform: New EthnicitiesOld Equalities?" to appear in the British Educational Research Journal, special issue 1997.
Despite the heightened profile of equal opportunities over the past 18 years and the overall upturn in academic achievement, pupils from some ethnic minorities are not achieving at the same level as their white counterparts.
African-Caribbean boys do less well than white boys as they progress through their schooling, even though a Birmingham study suggests they start primary school with better numeracy and literacy skills. In addition, they are now six times more likely to be excluded from school than white children.
The achievement of South Asian pupils is more variable. Children of Indian descent do better than other Asians and, in some urban areas, outperform their white peers. Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils generally do less well academically than white children.
Sophisticated statistical analyses have revealed that when academic, social class and other factors are taken into account, Chinese and Indian candidates are more likely than whites to be offered - and to accept - places in the older universities. But African-Caribbeans and Pakistanis have not been matching the white admissions figure.
In the former polytechnic sector the position is slightly different. Here, Indian and African-Caribbeans have been more successful than white candidates, but Bangladeshi and Chinese applicants have fared less well.
While these statistics are confusing, there are clearly identifiable trends and political philosophies that have not helped the cause of ethnic-minority children.
The focus on race issues by many educationists in the late 1970s and early 1980s has given way to what Kate Myers, of London University's Institute of Education, has called "equiphobia I an irrational hatred and fear of anything to do with equal opportunities".
The 1985 Swann Report into the needs and achievement of African-Caribbean children was undermined by Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education.
Among the points that the Conservatives felt unhappy with was Swann's attributing the "underachievement" of ethnic-minority children both to the disproportionate rate of poverty and associated deprivations among black people and the "prejudice and discrimination bearing directly on children, within the education system, as well as outside it". Eleven years on, there has been little movement.
The 1988 Education Act and the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority in 1990 jointly sounded the death knell for a serious focus on ethnic-minority pupils' experience of education.
John Major himself declared at the 1992 Conservative party conference that primary teachers "should learn how to teach children to read, not waste their time on the politics of gender, race and class".
The Government can defend its record by pointing out that it recently announced that the Pounds 86 million Section 11 scheme would be extended until August 1998. This was a significant, and widely welcomed, decision because this programme is regarded as an essential prop for ethnic-minority children who are learning English as a second language.
But it is hard to deny that the new, highly-pressured marketplace education system runs contrary to equal opportunities.
Research indicates that a disproportionate number of children from ethnic minorities are put into lower-ability groups, that many African-Caribbean pupils are often in conflict with white teachers, and that South Asian children may be particularly prone to racist verbal and physical harassment.
The selection practices of some schools have also been shown to discriminate against pupils with foreign-sounding names.