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Ethnicity and education in England: how Lammy has distracted us - Shailen Popat

In October, former Education Minister, David Lammy MP shared that nearly one in three Oxford colleges failed to admit an ethnically Black British A-level student in 2015.  The data shows that 10 out of 32 Oxford colleges did not award a place to a black British pupil with A-levels in 2015.  Similar data released by Cambridge revealed that six colleges failed to admit any black British A-level students in the same year.  The figures showed that just 1.5% of all offers from the two universities to UK A-level students went to black British candidates.  Lammy called into question the universities’ claims to national standing and said, ‘This is social apartheid and it is utterly unrepresentative of life in modern Britain’.

On the surface, the data does seem to support Lammy’s claim as a Black student applying to Oxford is half as likely to get in as a white student. Not only are not enough black students applying, but those who do are far less likely to get in.   However, this is neither due to social apartheid nor is it unrepresentative of modern Britain.  Apartheid is a conscious policy of separation whereas the concerted attempts by Oxbridge at both a college and university level to improve access and opportunities for all ethnic and social groups reflect the national consensus on the promotion of equality of opportunity.  And modern Britain is a highly unequal and uneven society and differences in educational attainment remain highly correlated with social class differences.  The more important question that Lammy is distracting us from is why only 4.7% of ethnic Black pupils attain 3 A*-A grades at A Level compared with 10.8 of ethnic White pupils.  Other minority groups such as Irish (15.1%) and Indian (13.7%) and Chinese (23.9%) perform considerably better.

A Level Results by Ethnic Group 2015/16


 Ethnicity

 Percentage of students achieving 3 A*-A grades or better at A level

 Percentage of students achieving grades AAB or better at A level

White

10.8%

19.0%

   white British

10.7%

19.0%

   Irish

15.1%

25.4%

   traveller of Irish heritage

0.0%

0.0%

   Gypsy / Roma

0.0%

5.9%

   any other white background

10.9%

19.9%

 

 

 

Mixed

11.1%

19.3%

   white and black Caribbean

6.9%

13.5%

   white and black African

8.6%

15.7%

   white and Asian

14.2%

24.3%

   any other mixed background

12.1%

20.3%

 



Asian

10.1%

17.5%

   Indian

13.7%

22.3%

   Pakistani

6.7%

12.8%

   Bangladeshi

6.2%

12.8%

   any other Asian background

11.8%

19.6%

 

 

 

Chinese

23.9%

35.1%

 

 

 

Black

4.7%

10.2%

   black Caribbean

3.2%

9.0%

   black African

5.2%

10.6%

   any other black background

4.6%

9.3%

 

 

 

any other ethnic group

11.1%

17.9%

unclassified

25.0%

37.6%

All pupils

13.2%

22.1%


Empirical evidence at the national level has also shown that ethnic Black students lag far behind the average achievement of the majority of their peers and the DfE School Census suggested that the gap in performance is widening and many Black African children in England’s schools are not sharing the higher educational standards achieved by other ethnic groups over the last decade with less than 50% of black pupils achieving 5 or more GCSEs at grade A* to C including English and Maths.  Within the education literature eight main factors have emerged which have been identified as perpetuating low attainment and disengagement from learning by ethnic black pupils: stereotyping; teachers’ low expectations; exclusions; headteachers poor leadership on equality issues; a lack of adequate support from schools to Black parents; institutional racism; the failure of the national curriculum to reflect the needs of a diverse; and the lack of knowledge and awareness of teachers and decision makers about the culturally diverse nature of the ethnic minorities communities.

Many of these were confirmed in a 2013 report by Lambeth Council in which they had looked at the problem in terms of why some pupils in their borough from African backgrounds were achieving higher attainment than other Black groups.  The study identified a number of good practices that contribute to their success, including the high educational aspiration of African parents and pupils; inspirational leadership in school and teachers with high expectations for all students; diversity in the school workforce which includes teachers from African backgrounds; strong parental support; and a diverse curriculum that reflects the community in which the school is situated.  What all of this data tells us is that the issue that Lammy is attempting to address is far more complex and complicated than simply looking at Oxbridge College admissions.  By placing the problem at the door of Oxbridge colleges, Lammy is diverting our attention from the causal factors for low numbers of ethnic Black pupils at elite universities which begin much earlier in a student’s life.

Much of the high attainment among ethnic Indians and Chinese is linked with high parental expectations which are inherited from the high expectations in the native country.  These ethnic groups place a great deal of parental pressure on pupils to become doctors, engineers and lawyers, and these parents are often heavily involved in supporting schools.  This in-turn raises expectations within teachers who teach ethnic Asian pupils, whereas, Black pupils, particularly ethnic Caribbean boys, are assumed to be less academic and often associated with disruptive behaviour.   Black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white students, nearly twice as likely to be expelled and even black pre-schoolers are 3.6 times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions.  

In the US, the Yale Child Study Center looked at implicit biases which take the form of subtle, sometimes subconscious stereotypes held by teachers which had been shown to result in lower expectations and rates of gifted program referrals for ethnic Black students. Yale’s study revealed these biases are directed at much younger children than previously thought, and are present in both black and white teachers.  
Researchers showed 135 educators videos of children in a classroom setting. Each video had a black boy and girl, and a white boy and girl and teachers were asked to detect challenging behaviour.  No such behaviour existed in any of the videos yet 42% of the teachers identified the black boy as displaying it.  This closely mirrored the independent results of an eye-tracking technology used by the research team, which noted that preschool teachers show a tendency to more closely observe black students, and especially boys, when challenging behaviours are expected.  Such subconscious factors require many years of unravelling.  Rather than look at Oxbridge, let’s have a national conversation on our perceptions and expectations of ethnic Black students because without it we will continue to disadvantage black students.

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