“Race” Part 1: The Meanings of “Race” and Ethnicity

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

"Race", Ethnicity and Educational Achievement

The set of links provided here are followed by a document into  three sections:


Section One:  The Meanings of "Race" and Ethnicity - Click Here

Section Two: Ethnicity and Educational Achievement: Data - Click Here

Section Two (B): Ethnicity and Educational Achievement : Statistical Update - Click here  [Added November 2023]

Section Three: Ethnicity and Educational Achievement : Essay - Click Here


[Click on the Education Link above for related information including some PowerPoint Presentations]

Page last edited: 09/06/2020 

 For The Shocking Truth bout Racism in British Schools [Guardian Podcast]  - Click here      July 2020

For "How Racist is Britain Today?" The Conversation - Click here    July 2020

For recent poll on incidence of racism in UK [Number Cruncher Politics for ITV] -  Click here   July 2020

Click here For podcast by Professor Tariq Modood on Race. Ethnicity and Nationality -     June 2020

For Runnymede Trust Publication: Race and Racism in English Secondary Schools [2020] -  Click here     June 2020

For Runnymede Trust Publication:: Ethnicity, Race and Inequality in the UK: State of the Nation [Chapter 5 covers Ethnicity and Education] - Click Here    April 2020

For recent detailed BBC coverage of Immigration and Racism issues - Click Here   January 20th 2020 

For DFE data relating to 2018/19 GCSE results - Click Here

Some data on ethnicity, free school meal eligibility and  gender can be found on pp7-12  in the main text document  but for more detailed information click on the third link [ Characteristics National Tables]  and then to find Tables CH1 and CH2   which are especially useful February 2020

For DFE publication December 2019: Widening Participation in Higher Education - Click Here

For BBC Radio 4 Series: How to argue with a racist - Click Here
For podcast on Racism and Genetics both from Dr. Adam Rutherford - Click Here

For BBC coverage of research suggesting that many black pupils' education is being "dumbed down" - Click Here   February 2019

For a very detailed report : Black Caribbean Underachievement in Schools in England [2017] - Click Here

For Class Differences: Ethnicity and Disadvantage - Click Here

For ethnic pay gaps data from ONS - Click Here

For BBC summary of this data - Click Here

For Education podcasts from Esher Sociology. There are two podcasts on Ethnicity and Education - Click Here

For BBC coverage of a report on the occupational aspirations of children across ethnic groups - Click Here September 2018

The attainment levels of Gypsy Roma and Irish Traveller heritage students are shown to be particularly low. The difficulties which these children face in pursuing their education have been discussed at a recent Select Committee meeting which is reported here by the BBC . Video coverage of the full Select Committee meeting  can be accessed here    September 2018
For another BBC item - Click Here
For a podcast in which Nicola Rollock discusses the important  study entitled The Colour of Class : The educational strategies of the Black middle class [Nicola Rollock, David Gilborn, Carol Vincent and Stephen J. Ball 2015 ] - Click Here  March 2018

For a Guardian article by Lola Okolosie ; Racism in the playground: that's just Britain  in 2019 - Click Here   May 2019

For the Guardian coverage of recent NSPCC Report on Racial abuse and bullying - Click Here
For BBC coverage of the report - Click Here   May 2019

For a recent Guardian survey suggesting racism is increasing in Britain - Click Here   May 2019

I am very conscious that I have not included information in this document on education policy and patterns of ethnic educational attainment and apologies for this omission. However this recent article by Professor Kalwant  Bhopal provides very useful information  and l I hope that students will be able to find other sources on this important aspect of the topic.   June 2018

For an article and podcast in which Professor Kalwant Bhopal discusses Race in education - Click Here    March 2018

For The unwelcome revival of "race science"  by Gavin Evans [Guardian] - Click Here   March 2018


A   new secondary school accountability system was introduced in 2016 and you may use the following link to find the latest ]2018/2019] information on Ethnicity , Free School Meal Eligibility and gender and attainment at GCSE level 

For DFE data relating to 2018/19 GCSE results - Click Here
Some data on ethnicity, free school meal eligibility and  gender can be found on pp7-12  in the main text document  but for more detailed information click on the third link [ Characteristics National Tables]  and then to find Tables CH1 and CH2   which are especially useful    February 2020

If required [which it may not be!] information on the years 2015/2016 to 2017/18 may be found via the following links 

For DFE statistics relating to 2015/16 GCSE results which are  based on this new system - Click Here
For data on ethnicity, free school meal eligibility and gender scroll down to pp16-25 of the statistical first release.
For further information in the accompanying Characteristics National Tables - Click Here

Also click here for DFE statistics relating to 2016/17 GCSE results  For data on ethnicity, free school meal eligibility and gender scroll down to pp22-34  of the statistical first release. Further information can be found in the accompanying Characteristics National Tables where Table 2a is especially useful. Also click here for a brief exercise based upon the latest GCSE data ****** January-February  2018

Also click here for DFE data relating to 2017/18 GCSE results Some data on ethnicity, free school meal eligibility and  gender can be found on pp22-31  in the main text document  but for more detailed information click on the third link [Key Stage 4 and Multi-academy trust performance Characteristics National Tables]  and then to find Table 2a  which is especially useful  January 24th 2019


Also click here for A Level data relating to the 2017/18 Examinations. This data is rather more limited but see p 33 for data on A Level Subject Average Point Scores related to ethnicity.

Also click here for University entrance data

For relevant data prior to the introduction to the new accountability measures in 2016 students may  click here for a detailed paper by Professor Steve Strand {Ethnicity, deprivation and educational achievement at age 16 in England ;trends over time .}. In this paper Professor Strand provides a clear comprehensive graphical description of relevant trends as well as detailed analysis. The charts and tables on pp40-50 provide the best description that I have seen of trends relating ethnicity, free school meal eligibility, gender and educational attainment at GCSE level

You may also click here for a recent DFE Report on destinations of pupils after Key Stages 4 and 5 which has useful information on access to Higher Education and ethnicity, free school meal eligibility , gender and special educational needs on pp 23- 28....and much more . January 2017  

From Here, you can read the whole Page by scrolling through, or this page is Broken down into 3 Sections follow the links below

Section One:  The Meanings of "Race" and Ethnicity - Click Here

Section Two: Ethnicity and Educational Achievement: Data - Click Here

Section Three: Ethnicity and Educational Achievement : Essay - Click Here



Part 1: The Meanings of "Race" and Ethnicity

Click here for Race: The Power Of An Illusion

  • The meaning of "Race"  
1.UN Statement on Race and Racial Prejudice 1978

Any theory which involves the claim that racial or ethnic groups are inherently superior or inferior, thus implying that some would be entitled to dominate or eliminate others, or which bases value judgements on racial differentiation has no scientific foundation and is contrary to the moral and ethical principles of humanity.

2.M.Banton and J Harwood [The Race Concept 1975 quoted in "Race in Britain : Continuity and Change edited by Charles Husbands 1982]

As a way of categorising people, race is based upon a delusion because popular ideas about racial classification lack scientific validity and are moulded by political pressures rather than the evidence from biology

2. Robert Winston [Human Instinct]

Scientists believe that over 90% of all genetic difference can be found within a given "race" rather than between "races", so that, biologically speaking, a white Londoner is likely to be just as similar to or different from his or her white neighbour as he or she is to a neighbour from Jamaica or Kuala Lumpur.

As social contacts increased between Europeans and the peoples of the Americas, Africa, Asia , China and Australasia following the so-called voyages of discovery, the expansion of international trade [including the egregious slave trade] and increasing imperialist colonialisation, European   people turned increasingly to the modern concept of race to understand the clearly observable physical differences between themselves and the people of far off lands.

The word "race" had apparently entered the English language in 1508 and the precise meaning and usage of the term has varied considerably since then Prof. M Banton's Racial Theories 1987?] but the modern concept of race was formulated in so called theories of scientific racism which developed in the course of the C18th and C19th in the work of writers such as Georges Cuvier and Arthur de Gobineau. Broadly speaking these theories contained the following elements.

  1. The world population could be classified into a limited number of distinct races on the basis of differences in observable physical characteristics  such as skin colour, head shape or cranial capacity, hair texture and  facial characteristics such as eye shape and lip thickness. It was agreed also that there could also be physical variations within these   broadly defined races.
  2. Different theorists suggested different classificatory schema but the following table outlines  one well known schema indicating 3 broad races with considerable variations within them. Here, .for example Chinese , Japanese and other South and East Asians and Northern and Latin American Indians are all classified as "Mongoloid" while Indians , North Africans, Middle Easterners as well as Europeans are all classified as "Caucasoid" . Remember also there are noticeable physical differences  as between Southern and Northern Europeans.


  1. These physical differences among the races and especially the racial differences in cranial capacity were presented as evidence biologically determined differences in intellectual abilities and moral and cultural tastes among the races.
  2. Of the three races in the above schema the Caucasoid race was recognised as the intellectually, morally and culturally superior race and within the Caucasoid race White Europeans were recognised as especially intellectually, morally and culturally superior. although not if they happened to be Jewish or Irish.
  3. Since the intellectual, moral and cultural capacities of the different races were biologically rather than socially determined there was no possibility that the supremacy of white Europeans at the top of the racial hierarchy could be overturned.

These conclusions, apparently based upon the best that contemporary scientific method had to offer coalesced with a longer history of British prejudice especially against Black people but also against the Jews and the Irish reaching back into the 16th Century even if prior to the 18th Century the word "race" was not actually used in relation to such prejudices. Examples of sources of British prejudice against Black people include the following sources which in their time were considered highly authoritative.

  1. David Hume [1771] "I am apt to suspect the Negroes..... to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There never was a civilised nation of any complexion other tan white, or even any individual eminent in either action, or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences. There are Negro slaves dispersed all of Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity."
  2. The Encyclopaedia Britannica [1884 edition] "No full blooded Negro has ever been distinguished as a man of science, a poet, or an artist, and the fundamental equality claimed for him by ignorant philanthropists is belied by the whole history of the race throughout the historic period."

If the prejudiced notions of Black racial inferiority and White racial supremacy received the support of eminent philosophers such as Hume and in eminent publications  such as Encyclopaedia Britannica it should come as no surprise that such prejudices were widespread in Britain as well as in Europe and the USA. It is also clear that such notions were used in attempts to legitimise a range of economic and social processes which operated to the advantage of the White race and against the interests of the Non-White races or against the interests of certain sections of the White race, most notably ,of course , the Jews. Such processes included:

  1. Slavery and the slave trade;
  2. European imperialist colonisation which may ,however, have aided the peoples of the colonised lands to some extent although they were certainly keen to regain their independence as soon as possible;
  3. The Apartheid regime in South Africa;
  4. The racially discriminatory laws operative in  the Southern States of the USA until the late 1960s;
  5. The persecution in Nazi Germany of the Jews who although they were White had come to be defined as a separate race in Nazi ideology.
  • Criticism of the Concept of Race

However especially from the 1940s onwards the notions that it was possible to classify the human population into separate races on the of physical traits such as their skin colour , cranial capacity and facial features etc and that these physical differences were  evidence also of differences in intellectual capacity and moral and cultural taste came under increasing attack as a result of important developments in population genetics. Population genetics is a highly complex discipline and I can only sketch  in  a non-technical fashion  some of its key findings which are undermine the concept of race as outlined above. Thus

  1. Individuals each have approximately 50,000 individual genes and the significance of many individual genes for the development of each individual person is as yet unknown.
  2. About 75% of all known human genes do not vary in any way as between different individuals.
  3. Differences in skin colour, facial characteristics and hair texture are influenced by the combined characteristics of a very small number of individual genes.
  4. It is likely that once  members of Homo Sapiens began to migrate northwards out of Africa about 70,000 years ago various environmental influences led to modification in the genes which over a period of many years resulted in a gradual lightening of the skins of people who had migrated to less sunny, colder climates. For example the lightening of the skin may have been a genetic response to the limited availability of sunlight or to the colder climate while the continued existence of black skin in Africa protects against the dangers of skin cancer and may also permit black people to work more strenuously in hot climates than would be possible for white people. It is likely also that the differing shapes of white and black individuals' noses derives from a long term evolutionary genetic response to colder European air.
  5. About 25% of known human genes do vary as between different individuals  and  population geneticists have drawn very important conclusions from their analysis of these variable human genes  which can be illustrated broadly in the following example.
    • It is clear that the genetic endowments of individuals within the entire population of the world do vary considerably.
    • If we now consider the white population of Britain [who we shall describe as a "white British tribe" of the "white race" in general] we find that approximately 85% of the genetic endowment  within the population of the entire world is present among the individuals of this "white British tribe".
    • Approximately another 5-10% of the total world variation in genetic endowments  is accounted for by the genetic variation between the "white British tribe" and other "white tribes" such as the Germans, the French, the Spanish and so on.
    • Finally the last 5-10% of the total world variation in genetic endowments is accounted for by genetic variation between the "white race " as a whole and the "black race" as a whole.
    • It follows that  the overall average genetic differences between say, white British and black African people are very small and , indeed, far smaller than genetic differences which exist within the white British population. Therefore Professor Robert Winston state that "biologically speaking, a white Londoner is likely to be just as similar to or different from his or her white neighbour as he or she is to a neighbour from Jamaica or Kuala Lumpur."

In view of these discoveries it has been widely argued that the concept of race can be rejected as biologically meaningless since although there are indeed observable physical differences say between African, Asian, Chinese and European people, these physical differences are trivial by comparison with the overwhelming genetic similarities between these groupings. Those who reject the concept of race in this way often write the word "race" in inverted commas to signify their recognition of its biological meaninglessness while at the same time they recognise that the socially constructed, widespread and inaccurate belief in the existence of different biological races [without inverted commas] has had and continues to have many very unfortunate consequences.

Many of those who use the term race will be unfamiliar with even the basic findings of population genetics and will believe that there are highly significant genetic differences between the races and in some cases the users of the term may believe that observable physical differences between the races also signify differences in intellectual , moral and cultural capacities as in the 18th and 19th Century theories of race. It is clear that such racial prejudice is widespread in contemporary UK society and that various forms of racial discrimination continue to exist in relation to political representation, employment, housing allocation and in the operation of the criminal justice systems.

We may note that not all of those who oppose racial prejudice and racial discrimination argue for the placement of the word "race" in inverted commas to signify its biological meaninglessness. The famous  Professor of Genetics at University College London Steve Jones agrees that genetic differences between the races are small but the fact that they exist at all means that the term race does have some usefulness .However he also emphasises that in his view there is no  valid biological evidence to support the view that any one race is intellectually superior to another.

However , old ideas die hard and some academics, sand as we shall see in Unit 13,some academics continue to argue that ethnic differences in educational achievement are influenced by ethnic differences in genetically inherited intelligence,  a view that has attracted widespread criticism.

The Meaning of Ethnicity

In Units 12, 13 and 14 we shall be analysing in some detail the relative educational achievements of Black, Asian, Chinese and White pupils.  These pupils are classified by sociologists not in terms of their "race" but in terms of their ethnicity and so it is important to distinguish carefully between these two concepts. It is recognised that there are observable physical differences between Black, Asian, Chinese and White individuals but these physical differences are far less significant than the overall genetic similarities between so-called "races". However ethnic differences between these groupings may be substantial and they may influence the relative educational achievement of the different ethnic groups in several ways.

An ethnic group is a group of individuals   whose members have several important similarities which influence their behaviour in various ways so as to differentiate them as members of their ethnic group from members of other ethnic groups. Thus  ethnic groups within a given society may differ for several inter-connected reasons.

  1. Members of a given ethnic group may be conscious of their own history which differentiates them in various ways from members of other ethnic groups.
  2. They may originate from  different parts of the world by comparison with other ethnic groups.
  3. They may follow different religions than members of other ethnic groups.
  4. They may speak different languages as their "first language" than members of other ethnic groups.
  5. They may feel that they are discriminated against in various ways if they are a relatively powerless ethnic minority group within a particular society. This may be especially likely to occur if members of an ethnic minority group share physical characteristics which mean that they are defined unfairly as a separate and inferior "racial " by the dominant ethnic group within a society.
  6. All of these factors may combine to ensure that members of a given ethnic group will develop their own distinctive values, attitudes and norms of behaviour which together define the overall culture of the ethnic group which is different in various ways from the cultures of other ethnic groups.

On the basis of these points we may distinguish between the following main ethnic groups within the UK: White British, Black African, Black Caribbean, Chinese, Indian,  Bangladeshi and Pakistani. However within the White British category many Roma, Irish , Scottish and Welsh people may regard themselves as members of separate ethnic groups as will many white immigrants for example from Eastern Europe .

There are also important variations within ethnic groups as well as between them : for example within a given ethnic group, not all members necessarily follow the same religion; there may be significant social class-based differences in attitudes and values within the White British ethnic group; there may be significant generational differences in attitudes and values within all ethnic groups and particularly in the younger generation many members of one ethnic group may be prepared to adopt the  attitudes, values and indeed the fashion accessories more often associated with other ethnic groups. It is also the case that individuals are prepared to define themselves as members of different ethnic groups at different times depending upon the circumstances.

Despite these complexities sociologists believe that the classification of individuals into separate ethnic groups does serve some useful purposes not least in the investigation of ethnic differences in educational achievement.

[A fuller discussion of Ethnicity can be found in "Sociology: Themes and Perspectives" [M. Haralambos and M. Holborn].


  1. Explain the meaning of the concept of  race as it was used in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
  2. How did the findings of population geneticists undermine the concept of race as it was used in the 18th and 19th centuries?
  3. Why do many sociologists choose to pace the word "race" in inverted commas?
  4. Explain briefly  the differences between "race" and ethnicity.
  5. Give five examples of  ethnic tensions and conflicts which have troubled the world in recent years.

For "Race" Section 2 - Click Here