“Race” Section Three: Essay “Race”, Ethnicity and Educational Achievement

Russell Haggar

Site Owner


Section Three: Essay "Race", Ethnicity and Educational Achievement

Please note: that I have currently written 7 essays on the Sociology of Education and intent to write a few more in the near future. Note that in each case these essays are far longer than could be written under examination conditions and that although they include points of knowledge , application and evaluation I tend to use separate paragraphs for each of these categories rather than to combine several categories in each paragraph  as in the strongly recommended PEEEL approach whereby each paragraph should included Point; Explanation, Example: Evaluation and Link to following Paragraph.

I hope that you find the information in these essays useful but would strongly recommend that you write your own essays using the PEEEL approach or something very similar to it. Obviously your teachers will advise you as to appropriate essay writing technique.

"Race", Ethnicity and Educational Achievement:

• Introduction
• IQ Theory
• Ethnicity, Social Class and Material Circumstances
• Ethnicity and Subculture: Language, Family Life and Youth Culture
• School Organisation
• Educational Attainment and the White Working Class
• Conclusion




Before analysing trends in ethnic educational achievement it is important to clarify the distinction between the concepts of "race" and ethnicity. In many Sociology textbooks the term "race" appears in inverted commas because sociologists and many others are sceptical as to the validity of the term.  "Racial" differences refer to supposed biological differences between individuals such as differences in skin colour, hair texture or shape of eyes or noses and it has in the past been alleged that these biological differences are correlated with differences in intellectual or cultural characteristics suggesting the cultural and intellectual superiority of the white "race" over all other "races" . However geneticists have shown that real genetic differences between so-called biological "races" are extremely limited such that ,for example, it is entirely possible that if two black persons and one white person are chosen at random there may be more genetic similarities between one of the black persons and the white person than between the two black persons although many geneticists may still argue that the genetic differences which exist between different races are sufficient to make race a meaningful scientific term although they agree very strongly  that ideas of racial superiority have been exposed as sickening but nevertheless dangerous myths . Sociologists therefore aim to investigate ethnic cultural rather than "racial" biological  differences in educational achievement.

In the late C20th the educational attainment levels of Black and Minority Ethnic pupils [ other than those of Chinese and Indian origin] were considerably lower than those of  White British pupils and sociologists advanced a variety of theories [to be discussed later in the document] as to why especially   Afro- Caribbean origin boys and Pakistani and Bangladeshi students in the UK were  less successful educationally than their whites peers .The focus of attention was often been on ethnic differences in GCSE and GCE Advanced Level performance but it was noted that even among ethnic minority groups whose members underachieved at school overall rates of enrolment on Higher Education courses were higher than for white students although white students were disproportionately likely to enrol at the more "prestigious universities."

However more recent statistics on GCSE attainment indicate that patterns of ethnic educational attainment at GCSE Level have changed significantly.

  • Chinese and Indian pupils' attainment levels have continued to  improve at a faster rate than those of  White British pupils. You may click here for a Guardian article[2011] by Warwick Mansell  analysing the high attainment levels of Chinese pupils
  • Bangladeshi pupils have in recent years overtaken White British Pupils.
  • Pakistani pupils have almost reached the same level of attainment as White British Pupils.
  • Although White British pupils  still attain higher attainment levels than Black students [including Black Caribbean pupils the gap has narrowed significantly.
  • Unfortunately, however the attainment levels of Romany and Traveller pupils are far lower than pupils in all other ethnic groups.
  • Furthermore among pupils eligible for Free School Meals  While British pupils are especially likely to underachieve, and  the attainment gap between pupils eligible and ineligible for Free School Meals is greater for White British pupils than for any other ethnic group.
  • It is also very important to consider ethnic differences in achievement at Advanced Level and ethnic patterns of enrollment in Higher Education. Data a on these issues is provided.
  • Relationships between ethnicity, gender, free school meal eligibility and access to Higher Education

Several explanations were advanced to explain the relatively poor performance of Black and Pakistani and Bangladeshi students but the students of  Chinese and Indian  ethnic minority groups have for many years out-performed White British students and since in recent years Bangladeshi students have overtaken White British students while Pakistani and to a lesser extent Black students are beginning to catch up White British students we must now recognise that although Black and Minority Ethnic pupils continue to face some educational disadvantages in the education system they are beginning to surmount them and it has become increasingly necessary to analyse also the educational problems faced by White British pupils [and particularly White British working class pupils {especially boys}] within the education system. It is important to consider also the the possible reasons why especially Chinese and Indian pupils outperform both white pupils and pupils from other ethnic minority groups.

You may click here for a Conversation article  article by Saeeda Shah [Reader in Education University of Leicester] in which she discusses these changing trends in patterns of ethnic educational achievement .

In the remainder of this essay I first discuss some of the theories which have been used to explain the relative educational underachievement of some black and ethic minority group students  before turning to the recent relatively slow improvement of White British students educational attainments.

  IQ Theory

It has sometimes been argued that the relatively poor performance of some ethnic minority students  can be explained in terms of their lower mainly genetically inherited intelligence but sociologists are generally critical of this view .Thus they point out that. it may be impossible to define exactly what ""Intelligence" is; IQ tests may be culturally biased; they may not measure "Intelligence" but simply the ability to do IQ tests; individuals’ IQ test results depend upon whether they were nervous when taking the test  and on how seriously they have taken the tests ; that even if it could be shown that individual intelligence is to some extent inherited this would not prove that , for example, Asians as an ethnic  group had inherited greater intelligence than Whites as an ethnic group; that IQ test scores depend upon a range of economic, cultural environmental factors and  that  with the current state of knowledge it is not possible to assess the relative importance of heredity and the environment as factors influencing Intelligence.

We may note also that Blacks' IQ test scores have increased relatively quickly in the USA since the introduction of Civil Rights reforms and in South Africa since the ending of Apartheid and that if current trends continue it will not be long before Blacks' IQ scores surpass Whites' IQ scores; that American East Asians currently outscore both American Whites and American Blacks ; and that given the "racial" similarities between Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis it is surely nonsensical to explain differences in educational achievement among these groups in terms of racially inherited differences in IQ. In any case in England Chinese and Indian students have long outperformed White British students at GCSE Level; Bangladeshi pupils have overtaken White British pupils in recent years and the performance gap between Pakistani students and White British students and between Black and White British students are narrowing.

Further information on IQ Theory is provided below

        The comparison of IQ test scores of members of different ethnic groups has occurred more frequently in the USA than in the UK and in the USA the available data suggest that Americans of Asian origin typically score slightly higher in IQ tests than White Americans who in turn have typically scored  10% -15% higher than Black Americans although the gap between White American and Black American test scores is narrowing.

Supporters of IQ Theory such as Arthur Jensen, Hans Eysenck, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray make the following claims:

  1. Intelligence can be clearly defined.
  2. Intelligence, once defined, can be measured accurately in IQ tests.
  3. Between 40% and  80% of the variation in intelligence between individuals can be explained by genetic factors.
  4. Average differences in intelligence between upper, middle and working class people can be explained to a considerable extent by genetic factors although the precise significance of heredity and environment in this respect cannot be known with certainty
  5. Genetic factors help also explain  differences in intelligence  between ethnic groups  although once again the relative importance of genetic and environmental factors cannot be known with certainty.
  6. However in "The Bell Curve" [1994] Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray suggest that it may be reasonable to assume that 60% of the variation in intelligence between Black and White Americans may be explained by genetic factors.

[Charles Murray also developed a theory of the "Underclass" in the USA in the 1980s which he explained the intergenerational persistence of mainly Black and Hispanic  poverty partly in terms of the fatalism and lack of ambition of Blacks and Hispanics which he believed to have been caused by their excessive reliance on generous welfare benefits which creates a "culture of dependency" from which they cannot escape. In The Bell Curve Murray and Herrnstein suggest that Black poverty may result also from the lower inherited IQ of black people. and their  ideas have been seized upon by the supporters of the "New Right" who argue that since poverty is to be explained  mainly  or at least partly by genetically inherited low IQ , increased government spending on social security and education will be unlikely to solve the problem. However IQ theory in general and The Bell Curve in particular have also attracted several criticisms]

Many sociologists are critical of  arguments that differences in intelligence can be accurately measured by IQ tests and that differences in IQ test scores between Blacks and Whites  can be explained to a significant extent by  differences between Blacks and Whites in their genetic inheritance of intelligence.

With regard to the limitations of IQ tests sociologists point out that::

  1. It is difficult to define what "Intelligence " actually is although Eysenck and Jensen have defined it as "abstract reasoning ability."
  2. It is open to question whether so called Intelligence  Tests or IQ tests can accurately  measure current intelligence or the potential to increase one's intelligence in the future. The fact that one can quickly improve one's test scores with a little practice suggests that these tests are unlikely to measure our fundamental intelligence or our potential to develop our intelligence in the future.
  3. These tests may be culturally biased in various ways as where they demand knowledge more likely to be available to white [and middle class],  respondents
  4. Related to the above point such tests may therefore be may be testing knowledge rather than intelligence .
  5. Test results are likely to vary according to the conditions surrounding the test. In racist societies the self-confidence of ethnic minority members may have been systematically undermined so that they under-perform in IQ tests much as they have sometimes done  in the education system more generally.
  6. More straightforwardly the tests results may fail to accurately measure intelligence  because some respondents may be nervous, unwell or may not take the test seriously.

Let us now consider the arguments that claims that differences in IQ test scores between Blacks and Whites  can be explained to a significant extent by  differences between Blacks and Whites in their genetic inheritance of intelligence.

  1. Herrnstein claimed in the late 1960s that between 40% and 80% of the differences in IQ scores between individuals could be explained by inherited differences in intelligence. The relative importance of heredity and environment as determinants of intelligence may be estimated in a variety of ways  most notably via the study of separated identical twins reared in different environments such that any observed similarity in IQ tests scores might be explained more reasonably by the similar genetic endowments of the twins than by environmental factors which would be different in the case of each separated twin. However, critics of Herrnstein such as Leon Kamin have pointed out that the separated twins were often reared in similar environments and indeed in different branches of the same family so that the observed similarities in IQ test scores could be explained much more by environmental factors than suggested by Herrnstein. Kamin further claims that a careful analysis of other types of study designed to isolate genetic and environmental influences on IQ test scores suggest that environmental influences are far greater and genetic influences far smaller than is suggested by Herrnstein.
  2. In The Bell Curve [1994] Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray do not of course wish to argue that difference in IQ test scores are determined entirely by genetic factors. Thus they state that " the debate about whether and how much genes and environment have to do with ethnic differences remains unresolved" but having made this statement they quickly  re -iterate, [despite the criticisms of Kamin and others]  the original Herrnstein estimates that hereditability explained between 40%  and 80% of individual differences in IQ test scores [and hence, according to them, in intelligence ] so that it might be reasonable to assume that a mid-point figure that of 60%  of  the difference in IQ test scores between Blacks and Whites might be explained by differences in inherited intelligence between Blacks and Whites.
  3. When critics claimed that the differences in IQ test scores could be explained by the  higher average socio-economic status [i.e. social class position] of Whites which meant, for example, that Whites, on average,  had more years of schooling than Blacks , Herrnstein and Murray rejected these criticisms on the grounds that  Whites were shown to achieve higher IQ test scores  than Blacks   even when the test scores  of Blacks and Whites in the same social class position were compared.
  4. Herrnstein and Murray also rejected all of the potential criticisms of IQ tests which I have outlined above .

Not surprisingly The Bell Curve has attracted massive criticisms including the following.

  1. It is pointed out [as was mentioned early in the previous Unit] that overall variations between "racial" groups are far smaller than variations between "racial" groups leading many to claim that the concept of "race" has no scientific validity or usefulness or at least that such small differences between races as do exist are highly unlikely to result in differences in intelligence.
  2. It is pointed out that no intelligence gene has so far been discovered so that the strength or weakness of genetic influence on intelligence must be a matter of speculation. Acknowledged expert sociologist and geneticist  respectively   Christopher Jencks and Steve Jones both state that the relative influences of heredity and environment on intelligence are currently unknown and even probably unknowable.  May it not be just as  possible that Black Americans have inherited greater intelligence than White Americans rather than vice versa?
  3. It is pointed out that in the USA there has been considerable intermarriage between Black and White individuals so that many "Black" and "White" Americans might more accurately be described as of "Mixed Race."
  4. Although  Herrnstein and subsequently Herrnstein and Murray have claimed that because there are differences in IQ test scores between Blacks and Whites in all social classes this indicates a limited environmental effect on intelligence , we may note  that in 1972 Bodmer had pointed out that over two hundred years of prejudice and discrimination in the USA against black people prevents an equalisation of the environment with whites and this undermines the validity of the Herrnstein comparison of  IQ test results because even if it is possible to control for the effects of membership of different social classes it is impossible to control for the adverse effects of racism which is likely to affect blacks in all social classes. It is difficult to see how Jensen and Eysenck could make valid comparisons between black and white people in racist societies because even when they attempted to compare blacks and whites from the same social classes  these groups might have similar incomes  but black people would still be socially disadvantaged as result of the effects of racism. Identical criticisms were made in the USA of Herrnstein and Murray almost immediately after the publication of The Bell Curve.
  5. There is considerable evidence that environmental influences on the relative IQ test scores of Blacks and Whites are considerable.
  • The higher IQ test scores of Northern relative to Southern Blacks in the USA for much of the 20th Century may be explained partly by the greater levels of discrimination faced by Southern Blacks.
  • Researchers such as James Flynn have pointed out that IQ test scores are rising on average at the rate of 3% per decade  and that in the USA, for example, Black and White IQ scores have been rising at annual rates of 0.3% and 0.45% respectively which means that in perhaps another 40-50 years Black scores will have overtaken white scores. [James Flynn was interviewed as part of the  recent Documentary for Channel 4 by Rageh Omaar: "Race" Science's Last Taboo
  • Such rapid increases in IQ scores cannot possibly be explained via genetic evolution which occurs only very gradually but can certainly be linked to environmental factors such as improvements in health, housing and education.

Most of the above discussion surrounds the analysis of differences in IQ test scores between Black and White Americans. Comparisons of ethnic differences in IQ test scores have rarely been made in the UK but the Swann Committee Report [Education for All 1985] did attempt to investigate the possible strength of  environmental influences on IQ test scores and came to the conclusion that ethnic differences in IQ were insignificant once environmental factors were taken account of. Furthermore we now find that students in all ethnic minority groups are more likely than white students to enrol on undergraduate degree courses which hardly suggests that members of  ethnic minority groups are on average genetically less intelligent than white people.

Activity1. Re-read the information on Intelligence, IQ tests and their limitations . To what extent do you accept or reject the conclusions of IQ theory in relation to the educational achievements of different ethnic groups? Give reasons for your answer.

Ethnicity , Social Class and Material Circumstances

Ethnicity , Poverty and Class

Although members of ethnic minorities are found throughout the UK class structure, Afro-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin students are especially likely to be found in the lower sections of the working class and to experience poverty. Social theorists working with a relative definition of poverty usually define poverty to exist where individuals are receiving an income below 60% of the median income in the UK as a whole and relative poverty in the UK can be shown to be widespread. Relative Poverty is also measured both before and after housing costs .

Click here for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on UK Poverty in 2018. Scroll to Page 18 for information on Ethnicity and Poverty. ***** This information should be sufficient for purposes of this essay but other sources are also available.

Click here for recent data [2013] on the distribution of different ethnic groups within the UK class structure on the basis of the NS SEC classification. Useful on relationships between ethnicity and social class

Click here , open the full report and scroll down to pages 27-28  for information on long term trends in relationships between ethnicity and poverty . It will be useful for you to summarise the main findings

Click here and scroll down to page 4 for a diagram illustrating relationships between relative poverty [measured after Housing costs =AHC] and ethnicity between 2011/12  and 2016/17. It will  be useful for you to summarise  the findings shown in the diagram.

Click here  for a report from the EHRC [2016] "Healing a Divided Britain.

You may also click here for a recent [2020] ONS article on relationships between ethnicity, child poverty and educational attainment. The article contains detailed statistics and an interactive map

When ethnic minority students do underachieve in education this may be explained partly by social class disadvantages and partly by educational disadvantages related specifically to their ethnicity.

It follows that because ethnic minority members are disproportionately likely to experience poverty they are in effect experiencing class disadvantages which are also made more likely because they are more likely than white people to be located in the lower sections of the working class partly because of the effects of racial discrimination. Ethnic minority students from poor backgrounds  may have poorer diet causing lack of energy , concentration difficulties and illness leading to absence from school. They may be forced to miss school to look after sick siblings if their parents cannot afford to take time off work ; they may not have a quiet comfortable study room; they may be forced to take part-time jobs which reduces the time available for study; their parents may be unable to afford books, computers, expensive school trips and private tuition. Poorer students are more likely to live in deprived areas and to attend relatively ineffective State schools which gain relatively poor examination results and moving to more affluent areas with more effective State schools or the choice of successful but expensive Private schools  will not be possible for them. Also the possible financial sacrifices associated with higher education may be especially alarming and this  may prevent talented ethnic minority children from poor families from entering Higher Education.

BAME families may be more likely to experience poverty and deprivation for a variety of reasons but it is also the case that BAME pupils eligible for Free School Meals outperform White British Pupils eligible for Free School Meals so that although poverty may well inhibit the educational attainment of many BAME pupils they appear to be able to offset the effects of poverty more effectively than White British pupils although this does not mean that the adverse effects of poverty are insignificant for many BAME pupils. Were it not for their poverty they might do even better.

Click here for an article[2015] from the Institute for Fiscal Studies on Ethnicity, Class and University entrance which indicates that students from all ethnic minority  students are more likely than white students to go to university and that students from the lowest socio-economic status  in all ethnic minority groups  are proportionately much more likely than White students from the lowest socio-economic status to go to university.

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 . New link added January 2017  .


Ethnicity and Subculture: Language, Family Life  and Youth Culture

Before commencing the analysis of the possible cultural influences on ethnic minority educational achievement I hope the students will forgive a brief digression  on the relative educational underachievement of white working class pupils which is perhaps relevant to the explanation of ethnic educational achievement. You may recall that  that several sociologists attempted in the 1960s and 1970s to explain the relative underachievement of working class pupils at least partly in terms of assumed working class cultural characteristics such as lack of ambition, fatalism and unwillingness to "defer gratification" in order to plan for the future all of which resulted in generally negative attitudes  toward education. In summary: in these theories the relative educational achievement of working class pupils was explained in terms of the cultural deficit, the cultural deprivation or indeed the cultural pathology of working class people themselves. Critics of such theories retorted quickly that they were based upon invalid evidence; that many working class parents were keen for their children to achieve educational success; and that this emphasis on cultural deprivation   deflected attention from the disadvantaged material circumstances and inequitable school process which were more significant contributors to relative working class educational under-achievement.

However  it also came to be argued in theories associated mainly with Pierre Bourdieu that working class pupils might face disadvantages within the education system not because of cultural deprivation but because of the existence of cultural differences which meant that  although the cultures of the upper, middle and working classes may well be different, they are equally valuable  the upper class has the power to establish its culture as the dominant culture in society and to ensure that educational ability is assessed mainly in terms of the possession or non- possession of this dominant culture.  Because possession of the dominant culture is likely to guarantee access to high paid occupations, the dominant culture is referred to as Cultural Capital and it is because the  upper and middle classes  possess much more Cultural Capital than the working class. that they are more successful in the education system.

Bourdieu's theories have been extended to suggest that even many ambitious working class parents who could not remotely be described as culturally deprived might  be unable to translate their ambition into effective practical help, partly because of financial constraints and partly also because they are less able than middle class parents to facilitate educational leisure activities and hobbies for their children, less able to help with homework and less able to establish positive relationships with their children's teachers.  In the following discussion of ethnicity, culture and educational achievement I shall be accepting the above major criticisms of cultural deprivation theory as applied to working class and ethnic minority parents and children while  accepting nevertheless that despite their best efforts some ambitious ethnic minority parents may find it difficult to make optimum use of the British education system . It has been claimed also that ethnic minority students may face further disadvantages specific  to their ethnicity

Family Life

Sociologists have also considered how ethnic minority family life might affect educational attainments. Writing in 1979 Ken Pryce argued that Afro-Caribbean students might to some extent be disadvantaged by their family characteristics and later writers have emphasised the large proportion of single parent families among Afro -Caribbeans. Against this it has also been claimed that Afro-Caribbean single parents are often resilient, receive considerable help from [often female ] wider kin and often take their children's' education very seriously and also that even when Afro-Caribbean fathers do not live in the same household as their partner/ children they continue to participate considerably in the upbriniing of their child/ children. There are several studies [such as Driver and Ballard1981 and Ghazala Bhatti[1999] which suggest that Asian parents [Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi] do see their children's education as very important and both Afro-Caribbean and Asian parents are more successful than white working class parents in encouraging their children to stay on in school after post-compulsory education.  refer back to previously listed studies on Ethnicity and Access to Higher Education.

Further evidence of ethnic minority parental interest in their children's education is shown by telephone poll data reported in the recent 2005 DfES study which reported that on the basis of a telephone survey of approx 1500 ethnic minority parents or carers that they were more likely than a representative sample of the whole UK population to feel very involved in their children's education and more likely to see parents as mainly responsible for their children's education. In addition 82% of ethnic minority parents/carers  were  likely to attend parents evenings at every opportunity and 40% stated that they were always confident helping children with homework although the figures were a little lower in the case of Pakistanis[36%], Bangladeshis[34%] and those for whom English was not their first language[34%]. We may note also that in some cases where ethnic minority students have been relatively unsuccessful in education their parents have shown themselves ready to organise special weekend schools in an attempt to raise their achievements again pointing to very high levels of parental interest.

Recent UK data on ethnic differences in family composition can be found here

Given the size of the White population in the UK it is clear that the vast majority of lone parent families are white. However in percentage terms it is true that lone parenthood is most likely in black families but there is no necessary reason why lone parents, whatever their ethnicity should prove to be less effective parents although they may in some cases be more likely to experience poverty which may impose considerable financial constraints on them and their children.

Click here for a TV discussion and here for a recent Guardian article of the issues around the roles of black fathers.

Click here an article on Black  Families by Tracey Reynolds responding to an article by Tony Sewell

It is also the case that considerable proportions of BAME individuals are employed in middle class and skilled working class occupations but that and their experiences of middle class BAME  children have been given less attention than the experiences of poor BAME children. A recent study suggests that middle class Black parents feet that they and their children are likely to face discrimination within the UK education system despite their middle class You may like to discuss these statistics in more detail with your teachers.

Click here for an audio discussion [50 minutes[ and here for a review of The Colour of Class  by   N.Rollock , D. Gilborn, C. Vincent and S. Ball


It has been argued that ethnic minority students may face a range of cultural disadvantages which undermine their educational prospects .Firstly they may be disadvantaged because in some Asian households English is not the first Language and some Afro Caribbean origin people may speak and write in Creole or Patois which are non- standard English dialects , the use of which may inhibit their understanding of more formal English. However there is considerable dispute as to the importance of language : and several studies such as those of Driver and Ballard[1981] and the Swann Report [1985] suggested that initial language difficulties had mostly been overcome by the age of 16 while the Policy Studies Institute Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities (Modood et al1997)  suggested that it was mainly older ethnic minority people who often did have significant language difficulties.

Recent  research published by the DfES in 2005  suggested that although language difficulties may affect some ethnic minority pupils quite significantly in the early stages of their education, the adverse effects of language disadvantage declines significantly by the age of 15-16 and . indeed in 2016=17 o that students for whom English is a second language  on average performed slightly better at GCSE level than other students for whom English is a first language.

Important addition March 2018

Click here for DFE statistics relating to 2016/17 GCSE results  For data on on students for whom English is or is not their first language scroll down to pp28-29  of  the statistical first release. Further information can be found in the accompanying Characteristics National Tables where Table CH1 is especially useful. New link added March 2018.

Very importantly  the latest DfE data for English state schools [for the 2016/17 GCSE examinations]  indicate that pupils whose first language is other than English actually performed better than students whose first language  is English.Thus in terms of Attainment 8 the average points scores for students whose first language was English was 46.3 whereas for students whose first language was other than English the average score was 46.8 while  20.8% of students for whom English was a first language compared  with 24.2 % of students whose first language was other than English passed  EBacc subjects at Grades A* C with Mathematics  and English at grades 9-5 . It might also be argued that if students for whom English was not their first language had not had some language difficulties in the early years of their schooling their results may have been even better. Also click here for a BBC item which illustrates clearly that at GCSE pupils whose first language is other than English outperform pupils whose first language is English.


The issue of language has also be linked with the issue of so-called negative self-images among ethnic minority students. It has been suggested that if West Indian origin students consistently speak and write in Creole and this is consistently graded as incorrect by teachers, this could result in these students generating a negative self image which would restrict their overall progress although of course  this is not the only process which could generate negative self-images.. Attempts have been made to assess the self-image of ethnic minority students using so -called "doll studies" where students are shown black and white dolls and asked which they prefer and the relative preference of ethnic minority children for white dolls is taken as evidence suggesting that some ethnic minority students do indeed have a "negative self-image". However, and not surprisingly, several critics have warned against drawing too clear conclusions from these studies : many ethnic minority children clearly have very positive self-images  which are encouraged by ethnic minority parents.

Youth Culture

There has been a veritable parade since the end of the Second World War of mainly White youth subcultures differentiated according to their tastes in fashion and music but also, to some extent, according to the attitudes and values of their members. Discussion of the appearance, behaviour and attitudes of successive waves of Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers, Hippies, Punks and Goths has often pre-occupied certain sections of the mass media and that section of the Sociology profession specialising in the analysis of "youth subcultures." Furthermore, sociologists specialising in educational  issues have explained the  relative educational underachievement of white working class boys not necessarily in terms of their subcultural styles, but at least partly in terms of the development of an anti-school pupil subculture which is thought to arise partly out of the general condition of working class life   but also as a response to processes such as streaming, banding and setting operative in the schools themselves.

More recently, while relatively little attention has been given to the youth subcultures which may among  Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani pupils, it has been argued that certain aspects of youth subculture operative among Afro-Caribbean boys may help to explain their relative educational under -achievement. Perhaps the best known study of Afro- Caribbean youth subculture in the UK has been provided by Tony Sewell in "Black Masculinities and Schooling" [1997], which is based upon an investigation of Afro-Caribbean boys in a boys only 11-16 comprehensive school. Sewell distinguishes between four main responses among Afro-Caribbean boy to education which  he terms conformity, innovation, retreatism and rebellion.

Thus 41% of the Afro-Caribbean pupils in the sample are described as "Conformists" who accept school rules and regulations and are ambitious for educational success; 35% are "Innovators" who are also ambitious for educational success but they are critical of school rules and regulations and distance themselves from both teachers and conformist teachers because they wish to be educationally successful but on their own terms; there are a small proportion [6%] of "Retreatists" [often pupils who have been defined as educationally subnormal]   who aim simply to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble  but unfortunately are nevertheless unlikely to be successful; and finally Sewell describes 18% of the pupils as "Rebels" who identify closely with Black Macho street culture as portrayed especially in certain sections of the mass media and music industries, lack ambition and are likely to behave in confrontational ways which teachers believe   reduce the prospects for effective class teaching and may represent a blatant challenge to teacher authority.

It is important to note that only 18% of these boys are classified as rebels in comparison with the  76% who are keen for educational success although admittedly 35% of the pupils pursue success in a way that some teachers might regard as "unorthodox" . In relation to the "Rebels" it is possible that in some cases these boys youthful self-confidence may provoke negative over-reactions by teachers who may have misinterpreted their behaviour as confrontational and threatening.  Also if these boys do show anger within the school environment, such anger may be understandable given their experiences of racism and blocked opportunities in the wider society and of what they perceive to be discriminatory setting procedures and excessive rates of school exclusion relative to boys in other ethnic groups [especially white boys] who can be just as disruptive but are less likely to be excluded.

Tony Sewell's study has been criticised in some quarters for its alleged excessive emphasis on rebellious youth subculture as an explanation of relative educational achievement among Afro-Caribbean origin boys . However although he does indeed focus on the rebelliousness of some Afro-Caribbean origin boys Tony Sewell does also describe the teacher racism [sometimes unintended] and generally poor teaching which the pupils receive in many but not all classes as well as the extent to which teacher-pupil confrontations arise partly as a result of rebellious pupil behaviour but also partly as a result of teachers' misinterpretation of this behaviour. Other analysts do, however focus more than Tony Sewell on the impact of poverty and/or of school organisation and less than Tony Sewell on aspects of Afro-Caribbean youth culture.

Click here  for a recent article by  Tony Sewell and click here for a profile of Tony Sewell.


Ethnicity and Culture: A Conclusion

It is true that lone parenthood is more likely in Black Caribbean and White families than in Asian and Chinese families ; it is true that pupils whose first language is English are more likely to succeed than pupils whose first language is not English; and it is true that the incidence of teenage rebellion may be higher among Afro-Caribbean [and White] boys than among Asian and Chinese boys all of which implies that subcultural factors have some influence on patterns of educational underachievement.

However the evidence suggests that the overwhelming  majority of ethnic minority parents and their children value educational achievement and that ethnic minority cultures in general should certainly not be described as "deprived". However some ethnic minority parents may lack the cultural capital to use the education system to their best advantage [as suggested in relation to working class parents in the theories of Bourdieu] and may face additional difficulties as a result of poverty and some aspects of school organisation which work to their disadvantage.


Ethnicity and School Organisation

Click here and here for BBC articles on Racism in Schools

Click here for an article on Racism in Schools by Prof. Kalwant Bhopal

It is argued also that some ethnic minority students may be disadvantaged because of the nature of the  UK education system itself  and in particular as a result of the school curriculum and because they may be subjected to negative labelling processes again partly as a result of their social class background and partly as a result of their ethnicity.Bernard Coard was one of the first critics to argue that the UK education system was in several respects racist and his views have been supported in several fairly recent detailed studies by, for example,   E. Brittan, Cecile Wright  and Heidi Mirza. D. Gilborn and D Youdell have argued that the combination of testing, setting and tiered GCSE examinations operate to the disadvantage especially of black pupils.

Other writers such as S. Sharpe and M .O' Donnell have argued more positively that  that schools are more likely nowadays to have possibly effective equal opportunities policies which reduce the extent of discrimination against ethnic minority pupils but David Gilborn in is short critique of education policy under New Labour has argued that many of the criticisms of British education over the last 30 years have still not been addressed. even by 2005 . Further controversy ensured when a DfES Report asserted that the relatively high rate of school exclusion of Afro-Caribbean boys could be explained partly but not entirely by "institutionalised racism" operating in the schools themselves, a view quickly rejected by spokespersons for the education profession.

One of the first people to focus on the role of the British education system in the generation of West Indian underachievement was Bernard Coard. In his study How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system: the scandal of the Black child in schools in Britain [1971] he argued that the British education system made Black children feel inferior in several ways:

  1. They are told that their accent and language are inferior.
  2. White is associated with good and black with bad.
  3. White culture is celebrated while Black culture is ignored.
  4. Pupil racism is widespread.
  5. Black pupils are adversely affected by labelling, streaming and self-fulfilling prophecies .

It has been claimed that Bernard Coard did not support these criticisms of the  UK education system with detailed empirical data but he did nevertheless succeed in articulating very powerfully the concerns of the Black community and other writers have provided strong support for  his general conclusions in their much more detailed studies. The continuing importance the work of Bernard Coard has recently been illustrated by the re-publication , updating and further discussion of his work in Tell It Like It Is: How our schools fail Black children {edited by Brian Richardson  2005] . Also this recent article from a practising teacher may generate some discussion

Curricular Issues

It could be that the UK curriculum concentrates excessively on British culture and that as a result ethnic minority cultures are undervalued, a claim that has been made especially since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 .It is very doubtful whether ethnic minority cultures are fully or adequately reflected in UK schools, [although there must be considerable variation, with a fuller reflection of such cultures in areas with a high proportion of ethnic minority members. where there may be Black Studies courses and GCSE courses in ethnic minority languages].

In broad terms, it seems fair to say that school English Literature courses concentrate on white writers writing about white society. School History courses may contain modules on the British Empire and Commonwealth but these are unlikely to be taught in such a way as to focus on ethnic minority cultures. In Geography, various approaches may be adopted: it may be suggested , for example, that some of the problems of the Third World can be partly explained by the exploitative tendencies of the so-called Advanced countries although alternatively  it may be implied that ethnic groups in the Third World are unlikely to make progress without the civilising influence and economic resources of Advanced countries which would have the effect of undermining ethnic minority cultures.

Various aspects of ethic minority cultures  are considered in  GCSE R.E. courses, in Personal Social and Health Education and in Citizenship courses. Also in some schools, in some areas, much greater prominence is given to such issues: there are Black Studies courses and GCSE courses in ethnic minority languages and  a recent OFSTED Report has provided excellent examples of good educational practice in relation to ethnic cultures and policies to improve ethnic educational achievement. However it nevertheless remains highly likely that in general insufficient attention is given to ethnic minority issues and concerns within the British school curriculum.

Click here for a Guardian  article: Britain has a complex racial history...

Click here for an article from The Conversation on the continuing neglect of Black History

Click here for an article by Paula Akpan from The Independent on  the schools' neglect of Black history in the UK and usefulness of social media for researching UK Black history


The Quasi-Marketisation of State Education.

It has also been argued the State policies involving the quasi-marketisation of education introduced by Conservative governments [1979-97] and extended by Labour and Coalition and Conservative Governments thereafter  have actually benefited middle parents and their children disproportionately since it is these middle class parents who are much more likely to be able to use their cultural, economic and social capital to secure entry  to over subscribed effective state schools  thereby indirectly reducing the educational opportunities of more disadvantaged pupils. Insofar as ethnic minority families are disproportionately likely to be working class and to experience varying degrees of racial prejudice they may find it especially difficult to secure entry for their children to effective schools although it is also the case that  schools may be especially keen to attract Chinese pupils from all social classes since even Chinese pupils eligible for free school meals are highly likely to gain good examination results while  Indian students also are more successful than white British students . Bangladeshi students in recent years have overtaken White British students in GCSE attainment and the attainment gap  between White British students and Pakistani students has narrowed appreciably in recent years The attainment gap between White British and Black  Caribbean students has also narrowed but remains more substantial.

These issues are described in great detail in a study by S. Gerwirtz, S. Ball and R. Bowe entitled Markets, Choice and Equity in Education [1995] and you should consult your textbooks to familiarise yourselves with the details of this  very useful study which is relevant to several aspects of the Sociology of Education.

Individual and Institutional Racism?

Click here for Guardian coverage of Professor Steve Strand's 2008 research on the significance of institutional racism. This item also contains a very useful short audio report.  April 2012

There are also claims that ethnic minority students may experience racism in schools because some teachers are either consciously or unconsciously racist and/or because aspects of school organisation are institutionally racist although others [such as Sue Sharpe and Mike O'Donnell have claimed that most schools have effective anti-discrimination policies in place and that  ethnic minority students are less likely to encounter racism in schools than in other areas of society . The following definition of Institutional Racism helps to focus attention on these issues

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin which can be seen or detected in processes; attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people." From the Macpherson report

It is difficult to assess the true extent to which teachers hold racist views and, if they do, the extent to which such views are carried over into classroom practice. However the effects of schools themselves on the educational achievements of ethnic minority members has been researched in several relatively small scale studies which [although they may not be entirely representative]  do point to the existence of some conscious and considerable unconscious racism but suggest also that it is difficult to generalise about students' actual responses to negative labelling .

Thus in Cecile Wright's research in primary schools [1992] it is suggested that teachers often failed to involve Asian pupils sufficiently in class discussion because of an inaccurate assumption that these students had poor language skills and that they also undervalued Asian culture in some respects. However, teachers also had higher expectations of Asian origin than of Afro-Caribbean origin pupils.

Heidi Mirza's 1992 study of black and white secondary school pupils aged 15-19 suggested that although there was evidence of teacher racism and negative labelling this did not undermine  the self-esteem of the pupils. There were also many white teachers who genuinely wanted to help their black students but this help was sometimes misguided and the students actually received more effective help from black teachers. In some cases although the pupils were keen to do well, Mirza believed that they were held back because of poor relationships even with well meaning white teachers.

Heidi Mirza :Young, Female and Black [1992] Some additional detail

Heidi Mirza's study is located in two South London Comprehensive schools: one a coeducational Catholic School  and the other a single sex Church of England school It focuses especially on 62 black girls aged 13-19 and as will be seen the religious dimensions of these schools had important implications for the conclusions of the study. Among the key conclusions are the following.

  • There was no evidence that the young black women ion the study had negative self-images as a result of being black. So much for doll studies!
  • There was also no evidence that the activities of teachers undermined the  the self -esteem of the black students.
  • However it was highly likely that the activities of the teachers did undermine  the black students' educational prospects in various ways as will be indicated below
  • Heidi Mirza argues that the teachers in the study could reasonably be classified into 5 groups: "the overt racists[33%" "the Christians" [ note the religious character of the school];" the crusaders[2%]"; "the liberal chauvinists[25%]]" and the black teachers [4 teachers in total]. By implication about 40% of the teachers were Christians or unclassifiable.
  • Heidi Mirza gives several examples of grossly racist attitudes and behaviour among teachers in the study. In the words of one History teacher "African history is so boring...the discussion of slavery is monotonous in school teaching...it has no bearing on anything."
  • The "Christians" are presented as  an essentially well -meaning group who believed that broadly speaking the schools treated all pupils equally irrespective of their ethnicity so that the specifically anti-racist policies supported by the then ILEA were actually likely to promote ethnic tensions where none previously existed. Heidi Mirza suggests that this meant that the real incidence of racism within the schools remained unaddressed with negative consequences for the prospects of ethnic minority pupils.
  • The "liberal chauvinists" are presented as believing that they had the best interests of the black pupils at heart but as in reality making inaccurate assumptions about the attitudes and values of the black community. In particular these teachers often argued that black pupils, encouraged by their parents, actually had unrealistic, over-ambitious expectations which it was the teachers' duty to curtail in order to prevent subsequent disappointment. Clearly this apparently well meaning approach was likely to undermine ambitions which were both high and realistic.
  • There were a small number of "crusaders" who believed that school practices were infused with racism and that the anti-racist policies of the then ILEA  should be strongly supported. These teachers were generally unpopular with the other teachers and unfortunately their anti-racist teaching initiatives were often seen by the black pupils as unrealistic and impractical.
  • Finally there were a small number of black teachers who did not support radical initiatives but aimed to help black pupils as much as they could in practical ways within the existing school environments . The black pupils felt that these black teachers were supportive but not positively biased toward black rather than white pupils.Heidi Mrza concludes "On the whole the black teachers were more in tune with the needs of their black female pupils offering a more postive solution to the education of the black child.".


Mac An Ghaill[1992] investigated the experiences of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin students in Further Education. All of the students were conscious of racism in UK society generally but disagreed about the extent of racism in the education system. Students did not necessarily allow racism and negative labelling to affect them adversely. Instead they adopted various survival strategies to improve their prospects: "survival through accommodation, making friendships with helpful teachers and keeping out of trouble."

There are claims that setting and streaming may operate to the disadvantage of ethnic minority students. They may be allocated unfairly to lower streams and respond by behaving in such a way that their progress is restricted. Self-fulfilling prophecies may operate with regard to some ethnic minority students as well as with regard to white working class students. Some ethnic minority students are unfairly labelled as failures and their own responses to these labels may actually help to ensure that they do fail.

In a significant study of two London Comprehensive schools, Gilbourn and Youdell[2000] argued that ethnic minority students were disadvantaged in several respects. There were few cases of open teacher racism and many teachers were committed to helping ethnic minority students but the authors argued that the relative failure of Afro-Caribbean students  could be explained by the facts that when all students were tested on entry to the schools , black students were more likely to be consigned  to lower sets and to remain there for the rest of their school careers, which among other things meant that they were most likely to be entered for lower tier GCSE examinations. Then , due to a system of educational triage, teachers concentrated their attention firstly on borderline cases who might gain 5 A*-C GCSEs, secondly on high achievers and only minimally on students [who were often black] who  were considered unlikely to gain A*-C passes. Negative teacher expectations therefore had affected the achievement of black students.

More recent research by Professor Steve Strand supports this conclusion. Professor Strand's article is entitled The White British-Black Caribbean  Achievement Gap: Tests , Tiers and Teacher Expectations and was published in the British Educational Research Journal[ Feb 2012] Here is a brief summary of the conclusions taken from the BERJ website. NEW information added July 2014

A recent analysis of the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE) indicates a White British–Black Caribbean achievement gap at age 14 which cannot be accounted for by socio-economic variables or a wide range of contextual factors. This article uses the LSYPE to analyse patterns of entry to the different tiers of national mathematics and science tests at age 14. Each tier gives access to a limited range of outcomes with the highest test outcomes achievable only if students are entered by their teachers to the higher tiers. The results indicate that Black Caribbean students are systematically under-represented in entry to the higher tiers relative to their White British peers. This gap persists after controls for prior attainment, socio-economic variables and a wide range of pupil, family, school and neighbourhood factors. Differential entry to test tiers provides a window on teacher expectation effects which may contribute to the achievement gap.

It is perhaps well known that it is Chinese girls who achieve the best examination results at GCSE Level and one might expect there fore that it would be Chinese girls who are most likely to benefit from the effects of positive labelling in schools . However  in a recent[2008]  detailed academic study Louise Archer suggests  that this is not the case and that "the normalised "ideal pupil" emerges as the dominant male, White, middle class Western subject. " Although Advanced Level Sociology students need not familiarise themselves with the details of this highly technical article they may scroll down to page 12 of the article [which is p101 of the journal] 101 and a table illustrating this conclusion  which may provoke some class discussion.

Click here for some more recent research on ethnicity and setting

School Exclusions

 Click here for recent BBC coverage of school exclusions and here for a recent DfE item [ Table 8 in the National Tables provides detailed data on ethnicity and school exclusion in 2015-16]

Click here and here for data on ethnicity and school exclusions and here for a Guardian article on exclusion rates, ethnicity and gender

It has been noted also that Afro-Caribbean boys are especially likely to be excluded from school and whereas it has been argued by some sociologists and from within the teaching profession itself that such exclusions derive primarily from youth subcultural factors promoting disruptive pupil behaviour other sociologists have argued that many schools themselves must take part of the blame for this relatively high rate of school exclusion. These arguments were summarised in  a recent Government Report  as follows.

The report suggests that  there are factors external to the schools themselves which help to explain the disproportionate misbehaviour of Afro-Caribbean boys.

  1. They may have developed rebellious attitudes towards white  British society as a result of its long history of racism and the current patterns of inequality and inequality of opportunity which they believe to be indicative of continuing racial prejudice and racial discrimination within contemporary British society.
  2. There may be certain factors within Afro-Caribbean  youth culture which encourage Afro-Caribbean boys to adopt aggressive, confrontational attitudes as a means of confirming their masculinity and getting "respect" which in turn are likely to draw them into conflict with teachers aiming to establish classroom discipline as a means of teaching effectively.
  3. This aggressive, "macho" variation of masculinity to which  Afro-Caribbean teenage boys aspire is very heavily influenced by mainstream mass media presentations of black masculinity and is more likely to be adopted given the relative absence of black fathers from black single parent households.
  4. The fact that Afro-Caribbean boys are more likely to be excluded for violent conduct than are other excluded pupils strengthens the conclusion that it is external factors which are mainly responsible for their exclusion.

However  the Report emphasises under the heading of Factors internal to the schools that the schools themselves may be partly responsible for the ethnic differences in  rates of permanent school exclusion. Again in summary:

  1. Afro-Caribbean boys may be treated unfairly throughout their school careers as suggested, for example, in the studies mentioned above such that the actual incident leading to exclusion may itself arise from long term discriminatory procedures operative in the schools themselves.
  2. Schools and teachers are themselves heavily influenced by media stereotypes of young black men as potentially confrontational and violent and may therefore respond to Afro-Caribbean misdemeanours in ways which themselves increase the possibility of confrontation.
  3. It is claimed that the assumed presence of a subculture of aggressive, macho masculinity among Afro-Caribbean boys is largely a myth and that insofar as  a specifically  Afro-Caribbean youth subculture does exist schools should be able to integrate it positively into everyday school activity without recourse to confrontation and exclusion.
  4. It is argued that the fact that Afro-Caribbean boys are more likely to be excluded for violent behaviour arises partly as a result of the acceptance  by teachers of inaccurate stereotypes of Afro-Caribbeans which makes it more likely that given  actions are more likely to be defined as violent when undertaken by Afro-Caribbean pupils than when undertaken by pupils of other ethnic groups.
  5. A range of white youth subcultures also exists. For example, in the report it is pointed out that Goths, by contrast, are perceived as "strange" but not threatening and that Goth -type behaviour is therefore less likely to result in confrontations with teachers. However other white pupils  certainly can be very disruptive and this would tend  to support the view that the higher rate of school exclusion of Afro-Caribbean pupils is to be explained at least partly by discriminatory treatment within the schools themselves.
  • Click here for important research on ethnicity and school exclusions by Professor David Gillborn and colleagues [2018]


Ethnic Educational Achievement and School Organisation: Ongoing Controversies

We have now seen that several theorists have raised criticisms of processes operative in the schools themselves as factors contributing to the educational under- achievement of some ethnic minority pupils and especially to the under-achievement of Afro-Caribbean boys . However in  Uncertain Masculinities: Youth, Ethnicity and Class[2000] Sue Sharpe and Mike O'Donnell have argued on the basis of a study of 4 London Secondary schools that earlier studies pointing to the existence and adverse consequences of negative labelling may now be rather outdated as head teachers and  classroom teachers have increasingly devised and implemented schools equal opportunities policies which have reduced significantly the likelihood of discrimination against pupils. Yet  in April 2005 several educationalists writing in The Guardian submitted "Letters to the PM" assessing the effectiveness or otherwise of Labour's Education Policies between 1997-2005. In his contribution Professor David Gilborn focussed on  Ethnicity and Education and suggested that most of the criticisms made over the last 30 years of the UK education system's approach to the education of ethnic minority groups were still valid , that the increased use of setting in recent years was if anything making matters worse for many ethnic minority pupils and that many schools were still failing to implement equal opportunities policies effectively.    Click here for  Professor David Gilborn's 2005 letter to the Guardian

Educational Attainment and the White Working Class [Addition April 2016] However notice that it may be more accurate to refer to white working class pupils within the working class than to THE white working class. Click here for a recent Guardian article by Zoe Williams   discussing this point. New link added August 2018

Recent data on ethnicity and educational attainment at GCSE level suggest that in recent years the rate of improvement in White British students' pass rates has been slower than for those oin other ethnic groups  and there has been particular concern about the low levels of attainment of White British students [boys and girls] eligible for free school meals. This latter trend has translated into concerns about the relatively low attainment levels of working class students  as a whole although free school meal eligibility is  a far from perfect measure of membership of the working class as a whole.

Nevertheless it has been argued that the relatively low pass rates of White British pupils eligible for free school meals  might be explicable in terms  of some disadvantageous White working class cultural factors  or in term sof limitations of cultural, social and economic capital of some White working class families. Thus some White working class students are said to underachieve because they and their families are in some respects lacking in "aspiration" or because they lack the cultural, social and economic capital necessary to translate their aspirations into effective strategies to improve their educational attainment levels. Also very importantly some sociologists have argued that in any case the concept of "aspiration" requires further analysis in that if many working class students aspire  to traditional working class jobs located within their own working class communities rather than to usually relatively short range upward social mobility into  not necessarily fulfilling routine lower middle class jobs this should not be defined simply as a "lack of aspiration".

return to some further information on some sociological investigations of these issues which were considered earlier in the document.

It should be remembered that theories based around the alleged cultural deprivation of working class students and their families have a long history in Sociology and that they have been subjected to several significant criticisms. Further information on these theories can be found here and more detailed information can be found here.

Also Click here for a thought provoking article by Garth Stahl on the nature of white working class aspiration and click here for an article by Prof. Tony Sewell and  click here for further comments from Garth Stahl... The differing emphases of these articles may generate useful discussion..

Click here for a recent report on access of white working class students to HE



The concept of "Race" and notions of racial superiority and inferiority have been rejected widely as scientifically invalid. Sociologists have accepted the conclusions and, having also noted the limitations of IQ theories have concentrated their attention on the sociological explanation of ethnic differences in educational achievement distinguishing between three main types of theory:

  • theories emphasising variations in the patterns of material advantage and material disadvantage experienced by different ethnic groups;
  • theories emphasising variations in cultural attitudes and values among different ethnic groups;
  • theories emphasising organisational processes and pupil-teacher interactions in the schools themselves which may operate to the relative advantage of some ethnic group pupils and to the disadvantage of others.

It was suggested in the 1960s and 1970s that white working class relative educational underachievement could to some extent be explained in terms of the so-called "cultural deprivation" of many white working class families and similar general arguments have been applied also to some ethnic minority families. Furthermore it has been suggested that some ethnic minority pupils might face additional culture disadvantages because English was not their first language, because of the high incidence of lone parenthood among Afro-Caribbean families and because of problems associated with the rebellious youth culture among some Afro-Caribbean origin boys.

However the severe general limitations of these theories based upon cultural deprivation were soon recognised as it came to be argued that most parents from all social classes and ethnic backgrounds were ambitious for their children and specifically that ethnic minority pupils for whom English was a second language overcame language difficulties by the time they were 15-16, that lone parents often provided a supportive environment for their children; that rebellious Afro-Caribbean youth culture applied only to a minority of Afro-Caribbean origin pupils and that  such rebellion might often arise from perceptions of social injustice in general and unfair school processes in particular; and that in any case all ethnic cultures could be shown to promote educational achievement in several respects. Nevertheless it could still be recognised that poverty could promote pessimism, depression and possible despair which could in some cases lead to the kind of fatalism and lack of ambition emphasised in theories of cultural deprivation.

Many  sociologists have come to argue that ethnic minority underachievement where it exists may be explained in terms of theories emphasing actual financial disadvantage, negative responses to financial disadvantage, the difficulties which some ethnic minority parents may experience in translating their ambitions for their children into meaningful practical assistance, and the ongoing adverse  effects of school organisational processes which continue to disadvantage some ethnic minority pupils but not others.

In recent years as there have been increasing concerns about the relatively slow rates of educational improvement of White British students and particularly of White British students eligible for free school meals it has been widely argued that some White British working class students and their families may be lacking in aspiration relative to their Ethnic Minority peers. A recent DfE Report did quote some studies which were supportive of this view but also concluded that it was in reality difficult to distinguish between the importance of actual differences in aspirations and limitations of  levels of cultural , social and economic capital differences which may limit the capacities of White British working class parents to translate their positive aspirations for their children into meaningful help. Even the most detailed academic reports on this topic point to the need for further research.

Issues for Further Study

  • It is very important to analyse the possible interconnections between the internal factors and external factors affecting ethnic  differences in educational achievement.
  • It is widely believed nowadays that external factors are far more important than internal factors as influences on social class differences in educational achievement. Discuss with your teachers whether this is also likely to be the case in relation to ethnic differences in educational achievement


Once you have discussed these issues at length with your teachers you may be able to arrive at fuller conclusions!

Recent additional links

Click here for Why is my curriculum white ? [You tube]

Click here and here for recent contributions to debates around ethnicity and attainment from Tony Sewell and David Gillborn respectively and click here for a profile of Tony Sewell and here for a recent video lecture by Professor David Gillborn.

Click here  for information on Ethnicity and the UK Class Structure

Click here for information from the NAS/UWT on the EMAG and its aftermath.  This is quite useful on specific education policies affecting ethnic minority students.  May 2017

Click here for a detailed article by Louise Archer. This is a technical  article but it does have an interesting, accessible  chart on teacher' perceptions of the "ideal pupil" 

Click here for The Educational Strategies of the Black Middle Classes and here for a useful summary and here for a Guardian article [Prof. C. Vincent, Dr. N Rollock, Prof. Stephen Ball, Prof. David Gillborn]  May 2017

Click here for "Why are black children missing from the grammar school debate?" May 2017

Click here for paper from JRF

Click here for new Social Mobility Commission Report ; Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility  and here for a fairly detailed press release from the Commission

Click here for Guardian Coverage of new Social Mobility Commission Report

Click here for BBC coverage of new Social Mobility Commission Report

This report provides detailed information on the extent and causes of gender and ethnic inequalities in educational attainment.

The following links provide information on Ethnicity, Advanced Level attainment and access to Higher Education.

Guardian article on above report

Socio-economic, ethnic and gender differences in HE participation {Detailed IFS Report for BIS] 2015

Ethnicity and Participation in Higher Education [IFS Observation from above Report NEW November 2015

Data Appendix for the years to 2015 when GCSE Attainment was measured primarily in terms of the percentages of students attaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades. Advanced Level Sociology students can disregard this appendix


  • We must distinguish the achievements of   several ethnic groups [which may be further divided into sub-groupings and mixed ethnicity groupings] in different generations and at varying levels such as Key Stage 1 and 2 and 3 Levels, GCSE Level, Advanced Level, Degree Level and Post-Graduate Level. We should also ideally investigate ethnic educational achievements on the wide variety of professional courses which are currently available.
  1. We find that in relation to GCSE Level patterns of ethnic educational achievement at age 16 do not provide a complete picture because of ethnic differences in the willingness to remain in education for at least one more year to re-take GCSE examinations so that ethnic patterns of educational achievement are slightly different depending upon whether we choose to compare the educational achievements of 16 year olds or 17 year olds.
  2. Our conclusions will vary also depending upon which comparisons we choose to make. We may, for example, focus on percentages of pupils gaining 5 or more GCSE A*-C pass grades or on percentages of pupils gaining, say 5 or more A*-G GCSE pass grades and on 5 or more GCSE passes including or excluding English and Mathematics or, most recently,  on percentages of pupils achieving A*-C grades in all GCSE EBacc subjects  .
  3. It has been argued that because many   schools focus primarily on increasing the proportions of their  gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE passes attention is  distracted  from the particular educational difficulties experienced by low achieving students.
  4. It is vital to note that the educational achievements of all ethnic groups students vary also according to gender and according to economic circumstances which may be assessed approximately by pupils' eligibility or ineligibility for free school meals.
  5. Most  comparisons of ethnic educational achievement are made on the basis of national education statistics but it is important to note that there are some very significant local variations in ethnic educational achievements .There is evidence also from some small scale surveys that Pakistani and Bangladeshi-origin students are likely to be more successful especially in areas where they are highly concentrated and there are more ethnic minority teachers.
  6. National statistics on the educational achievements of ethnic minority students are usually presented in terms of very broad ethnic categories and I have followed this procedure here. However it is vital to note also that small sub-groupings within these broad ethnic categories face particular difficulties as is indicated in research by Jill Rutter.

Here I shall be describing only the national statistical trends in the GCSE performance of 16 year-olds as measured by the proportions of pupils gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE passes including English and Mathematics . I believe that this limited  description of the multiplicity of  relevant trends will provide an adequate basis for a discussion of some of the factors which help to explain ethnic differences in   educational achievement.


Data Source One: Recent Trends 1989-2004

The following information is extracted   from the Youth Cohort Study of 16 Year olds published in Feb 2005 and amended in June 2006. It illustrates trends in educational achievement at GCSE level [as measured by attainment of 5 or more GCSE grades A*-C in Year 11] between 1989 and 2004 according to the  ethnicity of the students estimated on the basis of   samples which range between  24922 and 13,698.

The above   data indicate that the attainments of all ethnic groups listed have improved since between 1989 and 2004 but that significant ethnic inequalities in educational achievement remain.


Data Source Two

Ethnicity, Gender and Percentages  of Pupils Gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Pass Grades  including English and Mathematics 2007/08 and 2014/15 . [These data have been extracted from the above mentioned DFE sources.]

[BFSM and GFSM refer to the percentages of Boys and Girls respectively eligible for Free School Meals.  BNFSM/UC  and GNFSM/UC refer to Boys and Girls respectively either ineligible for Free School Meals of as unclassified eligible of ineligible. We shall refer to these categories later in the document but for the time being I shall refer only  to the final 6 highlighted Columns of the table ]


As is well known girls outperform boys nationally at GCSE level and it is the case also that girls outperform boys in every ethnic group as is indicated by the red and blue column data in the above table  for  2007/8- 2014/15.

Let us note the following  in relation to data sources two and three :

  1. Comparing data sources 3 and 4 it  is clear that the educational attainments of both White British and Black and Minority Ethnic Groups have improved.
  2. Chinese and girls and boys achieve the best pass rates at GCSE level.
  3. 3 There are significant variations in educational attainment among the ethnic subsections of the Asian and Black ethnic categories.
  4. Asian pupils as a composite grouping  outperform White British pupils.
  5. Within the Asian category Indian pupils are especially successful.
  6. The rate of improvement in educational achievement has been greatest for Bangladeshi and Pakistani pupils in recent years.
  7. Bangladeshi pupils and Black African pupils now achieve better results than White British pupils
  8. The attainment gaps between White British pupils and Pakistani pupils, between White British and Black pupils and between White British  and Black-Caribbean pupils  have all narrowed
  9. There remain  especial concerns around the relative underachievement of Black boys in general and Black Caribbean boys in particular. However we may note also that the attainment gaps between Black and Black Caribbean boys and White British boys has narrowed in recent years.
  • We may also note the following additional general points
  • Ethnic minority pupils are more likely than white pupils to retake GCSE examinations thereby improving their relative educational attainments between the ages of 16 and 17.
  • The educational achievements of ethnic minority students have certainly improved over time with the result that young members of ethnic minority groups are more likely to be well qualified than are older members of these groups.
  • We should note that ethnic minority students are more likely than white students to enrol on degree level courses.
  • However, they are currently less likely to enrol at "high status" Universities and also less likely to gain First Class and Upper Second Class degrees.
  • Addition July 2014:  click here for an LSE paper on Black and Minority Ethnic Access to Higher Education and  click here for Guardian coverage of this LSE research.

 Data Source Three: School Exclusions

Click here and here for data on ethnicity and school exclusions and here for a Guardian article on exclusion rates,  ethnicity and gender


1 Using Data Source Two  in which 3 ethnic groups are females most successful at GCSE level and in which 3 ethnic groups are female students least successful at GCSE level?

2 Using Data Source Two in which three ethnic groups are males most successful at GCSE level and in which 3 ethnic groups are males least successful at GCSE level.?

3. Using Data Source Two why might it be rather dangerous to generalise about the overall performance of ethnic minority students at GCSE level?

4. Using Data Source Two why might it be dangerous to generalise about the overall performance of Asian students at GCSE Level?

5. Source Three indicates that the educational attainments of all ethnic groups have improved between 1989 and 2004. Why , in your opinion , have examination results improved?

6. Source Four highlights the relative underachievement of Black boys in general and of Black Caribbean boys in particular. State two possible reasons for these findings.

7. Why are Afro-Caribbean boys relatively more  likely to be excluded from school? Give two possible reasons.

Data Source Four: Differences in Economic Circumstances : Ethnicity and Poverty in the UK

Although members of ethnic minorities are found throughout the UK class structure, Afro-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin students are especially likely to be found in the lower sections of the working class and to experience poverty. Social theorists analysing poverty distinguish between absolute and relative concepts of  of poverty and on the basis of the most widely used official definition  relative poverty is said to occur when individuals receive incomes lower than 60% of the median income . However data are also collected for individuals receiving below 50% and 70% of median income and it is noted also that there are significant differences in the extent of relative poverty depending upon whether it is measured before or after housing costs

Most recent data on ethnicity and Poverty can be found in the annual DWP publications entitled Households Below Average Income, the most recent version of which was published on July 1st 2014 and contains data on relationships between poverty and ethnicity for 2012/13. It is estimated that in 2012/13  15% [before Housing costs] and 21%[After housing costs] of the UK population were living in relative poverty. The ethnic differences in the incidence of poverty remain in 2012/13 : thus taking the 60% of median income after housing costs definition the ethnic variation in the incidence of poverty was as follows : White 19%; Mixed Ethnicity 38%; Asian/ Asian British 39%; Indian 25%; Pakistani 48%; Bangladeshi 56%; Chinese 46%; Any Other Asian 42%; Black/African/ Caribbean/ Black British 39% Any other ethnic group 40%.

Data Sources  Five, Six and Seven : Differences in Economic Circumstances: : Ethnicity, Gender, Free School Meal Eligibility  [FSM]]

Data Source Five

Click here for Select Committee Report: The Forgotten; how white working class pupils have been let down[2021] and click here  and here for Guardian and BBC coverage of the report.


 Data Source Six

Meanwhile, however, I have retained my own table of statistics which  have been extracted from previous DFE SFR data but concentrate now on the significance of Free School Meal Eligibility .

Attainment of 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades Including English and Mathematics in recent Years : Ethnicity, Gender and Free School Meal Eligibility [2007/08- 2014/15. Data collated from various DCFS/DFE publications. ] .[BFSM and GFSM refer to the percentages of Boys and Girls respectively eligible for Free School Meals.  BNFSM/UC  and GNFSM/UC refer to Boys and Girls respectively either ineligible for Free School Meals of as unclassified eligible of ineligible.]

This table may be rather difficult to read . Click here for some graphics on Ethnicity, Free School Meal Eligibility ,Gender and Attainment  at GCSE Level in 2014/15. The data are extracted from the above 2014/15 DFE Report. [Please note that Chart 3 is blank the data in Sheet 3 appear in Chart 4!!] .

Students [ and website writers!] may find it difficult to summarise the above data . Superb graphical presentations of trends in relationships  between ethnicity, gender and free school meal eligibility , and GCSE attainment [measured by attainment of 5or more GCSE A*-C grades including English and Mathematics can be found if you  click here for a detailed paper by Professor Steve Strand {Ethnicity, deprivation and educational achievement at age 16 in England ;trends over time } and scroll to pages 40-47. This won't take long and will be worth your time.

In relation to the above table [and the previous linked source] note the following points.

  1. Boys and girls  in every ethnic group are less likely to be successful in GCSE examinations if they are eligible for free school meals.
  2. However the  effects of free school meal eligibility vary considerably between different ethnic groups .
  3. Note that White and White British boys and girls who are eligible for Free School Meals attainment poorer results than boys and girls eligible for Free School Meals in any other ethic group. The gaps in attainment for white pupils eligible and ineligible for free school meals are greater than for any other ethnic group and this has generated considerable concern as to the prospects of white working class students. This topic will be considered in more detail presently.
  4. Furthermore consider  the results of Bangladeshi, Chinese, White British Indian ,and Black Caribbean pupils .
    • For Bangladeshi pupils the difference  in results between those pupils eligible and ineligible for free school meals is small.
    • For  Chinese pupils  the difference in results between those pupils eligible and ineligible for free school meals is again small.
    • Contrastingly, the differences in results between White pupils eligible and ineligible for free school meals are  much greater.
    • Indian and Black Caribbean students occupy  intermediate positions.

Sociologists have suggested three main types of explanation for the above relationships between ethnicity, free school meal eligibility and educational achievement.

  • It is suggested that eligibility for free school meals is an imperfect measure of the relative economic  deprivation suffered by pupils of different ethnic groups and that more accurate measures of economic deprivation would show that economic deprivation is a more important explanatory factor than the free school meals data suggest.[ As mentioned, several methods may be used to measure levels of economic deprivation but the comparison of these methods is technically complex and I shall not consider this point any further here. ]
  • It is suggested that the differential educational achievements of different ethnic groups may be explained partly by a range of cultural factors operative for some ethnic groups  so that some ethnic groups are more successful than others in overcoming the effects of material deprivation. It is widely believed  Indian and Chinese families are especially likely to value education highly and that these cultural attitudes enable poor Indian and Chinese students to offset more effectively the effects of poverty.
  • Note that on the basis of the above data the NFSM-FSM discrepancy is smaller in all ethnic minority groups than it is among white students.
  • Others have is suggested that the cultural differences between ethnic groups have been much overstated and that  instead a range of processes internal to the schools themselves may operate to the relative disadvantage of some ethnic groups rather than others. Thus for example poor Afro-Caribbean students and also poor white students may be more likely than poor Chinese and Indian students to experience negative labelling in schools.

[ N.B. Important as the above data are it is important to remember that in every ethnic group pupils eligible for free school meals make up a much smaller percentage than pupils ineligible for free school meals so that although White and White British boys and girls eligible for free school meals  are less likely than pupils eligible for FSM  in any other ethnic group to achieve 5 or more A*-C  GCSE grades this is not the case when we compare  all pupils eligible and ineligible  in all ethnic groups  as has been indicated in data source 5 above.  There can be a danger that a focus [especially perhaps in certain sections of the mass media,] on the limited attainment of White and White British pupils eligible for free school meals distracts attention from the educational disadvantages affecting members of other ethnic groups whether they are eligible for free school meals or not , a point emphasised by Professor David Gilborn in his study "Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy 2008.] This point of clarification has been added on April 5th 2012 after I finished reading Professor Gilborn's book! Highly recommended for students requiring more detailed information on this issues considered here. 

Nevertheless many  sociologists do  regularly use eligibility for free school meals as a general indicator of economic deprivation  and you may  Click here for Guardian coverage of Professor Ramesh Kapadia's  2010 research indicating that poverty [as measured by free school meal eligibility is especially likely to depress the GCSE results of white pupils.April 2012.  [Here , however, we must remember that  some ethnic minority groups [most notably Bangladeshis and Pakistanis ] are especially likely to experience poverty so that even if fairly large percentages  Bangladeshi and Pakistani pupils succeed in overcoming the potentially adverse effects of poverty on their educational attainment this nevertheless means that many are unable to do so.


Activity : Relationships between Ethnicity, Economic Deprivation   and Educational Achievement

4. The data in Source 7  indicate that the NFSM-FSM difference in examination results is relatively small for  Bangladeshi and Chinese pupils . Can you state two possible reasons why this might be the case?

5. The data in Source 7  indicate that the NFSM-FSM difference in examination results is large for  White pupils. Can you state two possible reasons why this might be the case?

6. Further reading: click here for a Guardian report of recent research on interconnected social class and ethnicity disadvantages and their effects on 3 year olds


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