Socialist Worker

Pushed to the very bottom

Issue No. 1722

Race in education

Pushed to the very bottom

THE TORIES and New Labour united last week to praise the "contribution" made by Chris Woodhead, who has left his job as boss of the privatised schools inspectorate.

The government, however, did issue some criticism of the hated Ofsted head, keen as it is to get teachers' votes at the next general election. One of the disasters Woodhead left behind him is the way in which the education system continues to discriminate against black school students.

A report on educational disadvantage, by researchers David Gillborn and Heidi Safia Mirza, was published last month and makes shocking reading.

The report shows that Afro-Caribbean children enter school with high hopes. But their experience of school knocks their expectations out of them, pushing them down to the bottom of exam achievement.

As the report put it, "The inequalities of attainment for African-Caribbean children become progressively greater as they move through the school system. "Such differences become more pronounced between the end of primary school and the end of secondary education."

The report is based on statistics provided by local education authorities in England and Wales. These vary enormously in the level of detail they provide, but some issues are clear.

For starters, the research scotches the racist myth that black children, from Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other "non-white" ethnic groups, are somehow less clever than their white classmates.

It found that each ethnic group came top in at least one local education authority in the proportion of students getting five A to C grades at GCSE. Yet across England and Wales as a whole children from Afro-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families still leave school with fewer qualifications than their white classmates.

The report showed that Afro-Caribbean students in one authority scored 20 percent above average at age five, the highest scoring ethnic group. Yet by the time they were 16 they were 21 percent below average, the lowest group.

This discrimination is nationwide. The proportion of white pupils gaining five or more higher GCSE passes in 1997 was 44 percent. The figure for Afro-Caribbean students was 28 percent, for Pakistanis 28 percent and for Bangladeshis 32 percent.

This gap has increased during the last 12 years, under New Labour as well as the Tories. Yet this government talks of "educational underachievement" of black students as if they were responsible for it themselves.

The real cause of black children's plight is the institutionalised racism they face in the education system. This does not mean that all teachers are racist. Unlike the police, teachers have a proud record of anti-racist activity over the last 25 years.

But, of course, racist stereotyping does exist among teachers. This is magnified by the way in which Tory and New Labour market mechanisms and competition in the schools system have encouraged discrimination.

Setting and streaming are now the norm in secondary schools, and are spreading to primaries. Black pupils are more likely to be put in bottom sets. That reinforces the idea, even among the students themselves, that they are "underachievers".

Studies show that, no matter how well they then do, black school students are likely to stay in the bottom sets, becoming demoralised as a result. The report shows how failings in the education system are not only stunting the achievement of black school students but working class kids in general.

The gap between children from working class and middle class families has widened into a gulf. Figures show that in 1997 children from the poshest families in state schools were three times more likely to get top GCSE grades than children from the most disadvantaged families.

It is the structure of education, and of society, that pushes down black and working class children at secondary school. The overall picture is clear. The class and ethnic divide in education is sharper than ever.

Yet despite this scandal only about a quarter of education authorities in a survey last year had a clear strategy for raising the attainment of ethnic minorities.

New Labour is paying lip service to overcoming racism and "social exclusion". But it is pressing further with policies which widen inequality in all areas of life-above all in education.

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Sat 11 Nov 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1722
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