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What do we know about race, education and inequality in contemporary Britain?

What do we know about race, education and inequality in contemporary Britain?

Education, schools and the national exam success of children across the country are continuous sources of popular and political interest.

The publication of national GCSE and ‘A’ level results usually prompts much discussion about the extent to which public examinations are becoming easier or more rigorous, and a preoccupation with whether British children are becoming comparatively more (or indeed less) intelligent, as marked by the setting of the ‘national average’ GCSE barometer.

This benchmark is used by Government, individual schools and indeed parents of children ready for secondary transition to determine the performance and hence attractiveness of schools. Coupled with continued political justification for the movement towards increased ‘academisation’ of schools, this creates a discursive climate in which education seems synonymous only with academic success.

Our School Report re-introduces the subject of ‘race’ into this discussion, arguing that schools are – and should be – more than simply institutions that meet national benchmarks but as places where children from diverse backgrounds meet and are educated together, and where they can be seen as central to the production of a successful multi-ethnic Britain.

Taking a snapshot assessment of the current place of race equality within schools, we explore whether these discourses of educational success work to include or exclude children from minority ethnic backgrounds.

We ask whether a system in which the consistently high academic achievements of particular groups of children (where 74.4% of Indian students and 78.5% of Chinese attaining the much vaulted five or more GCSEs, compared to 58% of all students) enables true social mobility when rates of graduate unemployment for some of these students remains higher than average.

We also ask whether a return to a more ‘traditional’ national curriculum, in which specific methods of assessment are regarded as more indicative of rigor, together with the creation of a subject hierarchy via the English Baccalaureate, has exacerbated or removed existing racial inequalities.

What we find in much of this analysis is a repeat of many historical mistakes, noting that 30 years on from the Swann Report many concerns surrounding low educational attainment, high school exclusions and entrenched forms of cultural stereotyping, remain.

As Sally Tomlinson notes in our collection, the work of many teachers working in inner city schools in the 1970s, as well as the comments by Lord Swann in the mid-1980s, highlighted that ‘a curriculum which took no account of the presence of minorities led to a perpetuation of stereotypes and misinformation and fed popular racism’.

It is of little wonder then that the current return to traditionalism, both through the curriculum and the ways in which children are both taught and assessed is now accompanied by a political and popular pre-occupation with ‘values’ considered to be un-British, feeding forms of cultural fear and creating opportunities for greater gaps between pupils to grow.

This year has seen duties imposed on the full range of educational institutions, from nurseries to universities, to identify those perceived to be at risk of extremism.

With schools now re-positioned as inhabiting the frontline on the ‘war on terror’, which clearly places very specific groups of children and young people under surveillance, has education now become a space in which we either judge success by the completion of externally defined benchmarks or the extent to which schools can demonstrate effective tackling of extremism?

We argue that educational success should also be demonstrated by developing young people able to fully participate in a socially and ethnically diverse global society, that all be able to reap the benefits from a broad curriculum that engages rather than shuts down critical thought, and for political recognition that racial inequalities continue to persist within schools and are not reduced simply and solely to the need to raise the attainment of White ‘working class’ boys.

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