Educational Attainment in BME Communities

I was granted a debate in Parliament earlier this week to speak about educational attainment in BME communities.  You can read my speech below and the entire debate here.

I am grateful to have been awarded this debate on educational attainment in black and minority ethnic communities, which was triggered by a couple of things that have happened to me recently.

First, I have been holding a series of round-table meetings in my constituency to help to define my priorities and constituency strategy, and the differential attainment levels of our young people were a particular concern. For example, the proportion of young black people achieving more than five A* to C GCSEs in 2011, including English and maths, was 38.5%, compared with 47.5% for young Asian people and 69% for young white people. Although there has been significant improvement in those disparities since 2008, they remain of grave concern.

Secondly, I was horrified to hear—as I am sure many others were—the recent statistical release from the Office of National Statistics, which revealed that, nationally, 55.5% of economically active black men aged between 16 and 24 years are unemployed, and that this rate has doubled since 2008. For young black people, the unemployment rate is 44.4%; similarly, 27.6% of Asian young people are unemployed, rising from 22.8% in 2008. Breaking that down, 33.6% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people are unemployed, and 24.2% of Indian young people, which compares with 20% of white British young people. Those national trends are reflected in my constituency, too.

I have called the debate to examine educational attainment in BME communities, but it is important to note at the outset that although educational attainment influences employment, people with equivalent qualifications to those of different ethnicities experience different levels of employment. For example, young Indian people, who are the second highest performing group educationally, are more likely to be unemployed than their white peers. Similarly, Chinese graduates can expect to earn 25% less than their white counterparts. Thirty-six years on from the Race Relations Act 1976 and 12 years after the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, that is indefensible. We cannot wait for another 30 or 40 years to ensure that we deal with such questions.

What are the specific issues in equalities and educational attainment? From the evidence, gaps in achievement can begin in the early years. For example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission triennial review states that the proportion of pupils achieving a good level of development in the early years foundation stage varies between different ethnic groups. Pupils from Irish, Indian, white British and mixed white and Asian backgrounds achieved more than the national average for a good level of development in 2009, but pupils from black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups did not perform so well. In all ethnic groups, girls outperformed boys significantly.

The 2008 research undertaken by the Learning and Skills Network and the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities indicated that poor experiences at primary school often began a gradual but cumulative process of disengagement, which became entrenched in secondary school and resulted in lower achievement and lower engagement in post-16 participation in education or training. I was particularly struck by the following statement from the report, on education:

“Engagement is not a simple choice for all young people. Young people can feel disengaged from learning for various reasons, and this can be mild or severe…For some young people, this is a process that they feel powerless to stop.”

At GCSE level, although national attainment by ethnicity has improved since 2006-07, and the achievement gap between some ethnic groups and the national average has disappeared, there are still some gaps. For example, 52.6% of Pakistani and 48.6% of black Caribbean heritage pupils achieve five or more A* to C grades at GCSE compared with the national level of 58%. That is a massive improvement since 2006, when the rates were 35% and 34%, respectively. During the same period, Bangladeshi pupils improved from 40% to 59.7%, and black African students from 40% to 57.9%. Chinese and Indian students have performed consistently above national levels; currently, 78.5% of Chinese students and 74.4% of Indian students achieve five or more GCSEs. Travellers, Gypsies and Roma people are still the lowest achieving groups, with 17.5% of Irish Travellers and 10.8% of those from Gypsy or Roma backgrounds achieving five or more GCSEs including maths and English. Those inequalities are even more pronounced when looking at those who gain the English baccalaureate.

The data available on A-level attainment is limited to the number of A-levels, rather than subject or grade. Based on the number, the gaps in attainment are reduced or disappear, and the proportion of BME students in higher education has increased significantly from 13% in 1994-95 to 23% in 2008-09, broadly reflecting their presence in the youth population. In spite of that, however, 44% of all black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian graduates attended post-1992 universities. Shockingly, in 2009, only one black Caribbean student was admitted for study at Oxford university. So although BME participation in higher education is increasing, there are restrictions. Attainment also reflects earlier patterns, with 66.4% of white students receiving a first- or second-class honours degree compared with 48.1% of BME students overall and only 37.7% of black students. Drop-out rates were also notably higher for black British and Asian heritage students.

I want to touch briefly on training opportunities for young people, specifically apprenticeships. Data from the Black Training and Enterprise Group has shown that, again, there is under-representation of BME young people in apprenticeships: in 2009-10, only 7% of apprenticeships were taken up by young people from BME backgrounds, although the BME population represents 14% of the working population as a whole. Provisional data for 2011-12 indicates that 9.2% of those beginning apprenticeships are from BME backgrounds, although 16% of 16 to 24-year-olds are from ethnic minority groups. The data are worse for completed apprenticeships.

As policy makers advocating a fairer society, such data and the issues that they reflect should be one of the reasons why we get up in the morning—they should drive us to do more, to do better. Educational attainment is not only a key indicator for the jobs we will do and the incomes we will earn but, as the recent health inequalities review undertaken by Professor Sir Michael Marmot showed, a predictor for how long and how healthily we will live. Our education, good or bad, affects our whole lives. We must ensure that policy—education, employment, welfare and economic—strives to reduce the inequalities that still exist.

For those people less motivated by social justice arguments, it is important to note that reducing educational inequalities is associated with higher national standards of educational performance, as evidenced by Wilkinson and Pickett in “The Spirit Level” of 2009, and that enhances economic productivity, not to mention tax revenue. Furthermore, all politicians are concerned about the low turnout at elections—again, people with higher educational attainment are more likely to participate in voting.

So what causes those educational inequalities and what can be done about them? The reasons for inequalities in attainment are many and varied, often interacting with one another in a complex way. Evidence indicates, however, that key determinants are the education system, family background and poverty. Although schools of poorer quality were associated with poorer educational outcomes for all pupils, the 2007 report by the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion on understanding low achievement calculated that the major determinant was living in poverty. That effect is compounded for BME young people—more BME children are likely to go to poor-quality schools.

The particular school characteristics associated with quality and achievement include head teacher leadership, school processes and school ethos, but many of those characteristics are not measured. School resources are also associated with school quality, in particular when pupil-teacher ratios are included, although the extent to which extra resources can add value has been contested—for example, by Hanushek. The composition of the student body is another important factor: the poorer the socio-economic mix of students, the poorer the school quality and attainment levels. In addition, a neighbourhood effect was also identified, suggesting that although household income is a key determinant in educational attainment, it is also influenced by wider socio-economic factors. A poor-quality neighbourhood, not providing a particularly salubrious educational environment, is associated with lower educational attainment levels.

Another key determinant of educational attainment, both at school and later, in higher education, is family background. All children do better if their parents are well educated, and if education is valued. However, an evidence review published in April by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that parental involvement is the most important characteristic, showing a strong causal relationship with attainment levels. Parenting style and expectations are also important, but less strongly so. The effects of both household and neighbourhood poverty on children’s educational attainment are obvious, and have been mentioned. However, analysis by Wilkinson and Pickett, comparing international data on educational achievement from the programme for international student assessment, shows that countries with high levels of income inequality also have lower scores for maths and literacy. Fairer societies do better on a range of measures, and educational attainment is one of them.

Skip to content