Socialist Worker

It takes a nation of millions (and a particular type of education system) to hold us back

In an exclusive extract from the new book, Tell It Like It Is, David Gillborn looks at how many black pupils are prevented from gaining the best grades.

Issue No. 1972

Every child should be able to fulfil their potential at school (Pic: Jess Hurd/

Every child should be able to fulfil their potential at school (Pic: Jess Hurd/

The dominant examination at the end of compulsory schooling in England is the GCSE, the General Certificate of Secondary Education. In most subjects, GCSE examinations are now “tiered” — that means that instead of sitting a single common examination paper the entrants are separated into different papers, depending on their teachers’ assessment of their chances of success.

The most frequently used approach is the two-tier model. Here, pupils in the “Higher” tier can be awarded grades A* to D. Those in the lower “Foundation” tier can only be awarded grades C to G.

In this way, before a young person has answered a single question, the exam system has effectively placed a ceiling and floor on their attainments.

In most cases a pupil entered in the Higher tier who fails to earn a grade D will fall through the tier floor and be “ungraded”.

Similarly, pupils placed in the Foundation tier know that the highest grades (A*, A and B) are literally beyond them — this can rule out the possibility of further studies at A level in the subjects concerned. Additionally, the risk of Higher tier pupils falling through the grade-floor, and being “ungraded”, prompts many teachers to play safe by entering greater numbers for the lower tier.

In this way some teachers are treating the Higher tier in a very selective manner so that only those viewed as “the most able” are permitted entry.

The system in mathematics is even worse — here, a three-tier model applies. Pupils in the Higher tier can be awarded grades A* to C, those in the middle “Intermediate” tier can win grades B to E, those in the Foundation tier can only attain grades D to G.

That means that before pupils even enter the examination room those in the Foundation tier cannot attain the all-important grade C — commonly accepted as a minimum cut off by many selectors in education and job markets. Perhaps not surprisingly, schools do not always inform pupils of the full consequences of the system, especially those unfortunate enough to be in the lower tier.

Tiers and tears

Some indication of the devastating effects of such approaches can be gained from the fact that, in two London schools that we studied closely over a two-year period, black pupils were under-represented in Higher tiers and over-represented in Foundation tiers.

Two-thirds of the black pupils were entered for maths in the Foundation tier. That means that two in every three black pupils could not possibly achieve a ‘C’ grade, simply because of the exam that their teachers had entered them for.

The decision is solely in the hands of teachers — parents and pupils have no say. At the London Schools and the Black Child conference [in 2002] a succession of parents, grandparents and other carers spoke from the stage and bore witness to the catastrophic effects of this system.

It was the first time that many had understood how it could be that intelligent, apparently hard working sons and daughters had managed to fail their maths exam despite always completing their homework and frequently receiving personal tuition outside the school system. Some wept in frustration and anger.

How is ability determined?

The inequality of attainment that black pupils experience (or “underachievement” as some prefer) is a regular topic for commentators and selected “experts” in the media.

The plethora of opinions that regularly parade as informed insight could lead readers to imagine that there is a lack of research evidence on the matter. In fact there is a great deal of research, and much of it has consistently pointed to a similar range of problems, over several decades and in several different education systems.

A consistent finding, in both the US and Britain, is that where education systems use some form of internal differentiation (through tracking, setting, banding, streaming), black pupils are usually over-represented in the lowest status groups.

These groups typically receive poorer resources and are often taught by less experienced (and/or less successful) teachers. Of course, these lower ranked groups are not overtly determined on the basis of ethnic origin — they are usually presented as a reflection of the pupils’ capabilities, that is, their “ability’’.

But — as Bernard Coard pointed out with such power in the 1970s — we should be incredibly cautious and critical whenever we are told that certain pupils (disproportionately black pupils) are less able, less well developed, or whatever is the preferred phrase of the moment to describe those pupils who have been deemed to be outside the chosen ranks of those destined to succeed.

We need this caution because, despite the facade of value-neutral standardised testing and teachers’ “professional” judgement, in school the word “ability” is very often another word for what teachers think/assume children can do. Let me illustrate with a simple example.

During our research, Deborah Youdell spoke with a head of department about pupils’ reactions when they were told their teachers’ predictions for their future exam performance:

“I found that quite strange, that the kids had their estimated grades, because they then came back at you and gave you earache — you know, would challenge you in the corridor, and so you were under threat. You know, ‘Why have you only given me that grade,’ you know?

“Because kids, you know, have different perceptions of themselves, they have no understanding, you know, and some of them live in cloud cuckoo land.

“I mean we’ve got, we had a whole period where we had Afro-Caribbean kids running around with gold-rimmed glasses on with plain glass in them because they thought it made them look more intelligent, you know, they really had highly inflated opinions of themselves as far as academic achievement, and this is fact. I mean there were a whole group of kids that put on glasses and wandered round the corridors with gold rimmed glasses on because they really felt that they were sort of A/B...”

This quotation is especially illuminating because the teacher could have interpreted the situation in a way that shattered common stereotypes.

For example, in many quarters a preferred explanation for the lower average black attainment levels (especially among boys) is that they are somehow afraid to be seen to work hard, that academic effort is uncool.

Clearly, elements of this view are at play in all urban centres, among working class pupils in particular, and among all ethnic groups. But the idea that this view is somehow a defining characteristic of black youth culture ignores both the history of black community commitment to education and the evidence in front of our eyes.

Hunger and commitment

If black youth are so anti-education, how come they stay in full-time education more than their white counterparts?

Similarly, the teacher quoted above is blind to the evidence in front of him. He describes black pupils who are confident in their abilities, and he even speculates that they change their appearance so as to “look more intelligent”.

And yet this same teacher does not recognise the hunger and commitment before him. He sees only the stereotype — black young people that embody unrealistic expectations and engender a sense of fear, “challenge you in the corridor”… “you were under threat”… “they really had highly inflated opinions of themselves”.

Of course, schools assess pupils all the time, both informally (as above) and formally, including the use of so called “cognitive abilities tests” — essentially IQ tests by a less discredited name.

And yet, amid all this testing, one simple fact is vitally important: there is no measure of potential — every test is a measure of learned competencies.

Even leading researchers in intelligence testing (a field with an appallingly racist track record) now agree that tests cannot measure innate potential.

The racist outcomes that result from supposedly neutral (colour-blind) selection inside schools suggest a wider lesson. Although policy reforms might be conceived (and presented) in colour-blind terms, their effects are frequently anything but blind to “race”.

Supposedly colour-blind policies often have racist effects.

David Gillborn teaches at the Institute of Education in London, and is the founding editor of the journal Race, Ethnicity and Education

Tell It Like It Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children
is published by Bookmarks and Trentham.
Available for £6.99 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.
Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.