Increased diversity in our educational institutions as a result of modern globalisation has led to many different racial and linguistic backgrounds integrating together in schools. The impact on the British education system has thus seen a rise in the influx of children from different ethnic backgrounds. Despite the implementation of various policies to ensure that every child, regardless of ethnicity, social class and gender, has the access to the best education, the debate around inequality in education has still focused on the evidence of the underachievement of particular racial groups in our education system. The debate is a very complex one, and it requires looking at how each three variables interlink, since any one alone cannot account for the variation. This paper will attempt to discuss them, whilst critically analysing why and how they play such a critical role on an individual child’s educational attainment, and whether or not it should concern us as practitioners.
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The underperformance of certain ethnic minority children, in particular black African-Caribbean pupils, is well documented in the Swann Report (1985), which highlighted how this group of children perform consistently worse compared to their counterparts. The report also recognised that teacher racism, low expectations and stereotyping contribute to poorer performance. Indeed, pupils themselves in the report cited that there tended to be an emphasis on physical ability rather than academic, and thus felt stereotyped that they were only any good for their sports abilities. Institutional racism can play a vital role in the breakdown of rapport between teacher and pupil, which would almost certainly affect their educational attainment. Wright (1992) found in his observational research that children of African-Caribbean heritage saw their typical schooling experience as one of high teacher expectation for poor behaviour, high incidences of teacher disproval, criticism and control. Similarly, Gillborn (1990) supports these findings, by highlighting how children in his study felt they were singled out for criticism, even though several pupils of different ethnic origins were engaged in the same behaviour. White students at the school confirmed these observations on unfair and frequent criticism. Thus, discrimination may influence how a child is treated within the educational institution and therefore may impede their learning opportunities within the classroom. Indeed, Sewell (1997) sought to focus on the interactions between teachers and African-Caribbean pupils with particular regard to the constructs of black masculinity and the tensions around their heritage. He found that the teachers in the survey displayed more control and criticism of these compared to other ethnic groups. Moreover, general staff views were negative. There was a high teacher expectation for challenges to teacher authority and inappropriate behaviour. Sewell (1997) concluded that there was a failure to deliver an inclusive curriculum, and to tackle institutional racism. This evidence clearly shows how a child’s ethnic background can contribute to a negative learning environment which can affect their chances of performing well at school. Furthermore, Rutter et al (1999) extends this view by arguing that the notion of ‘resistance’ is responsible for their underachievement; he argues that since the education system is dominated by white, middle-class male teachers, some black boys resist their efforts, and do not want to be taught by them, this negative perception creates the divide between the teacher and the pupil. Equally, as the report stated, some institutional racism on behalf of the teacher may also occur that can limit the crucial teacher-pupil rapport being built and consequent opportunities for learning. Additionally Moore et al (2001) continues to discuss how African-Caribbean males respond with aggression, and reject the education system primarily due to the domination of white pupils. This adverse view, results in children trying to make an attempt to gain status and recognition through other means, for example through anti-social behaviour. Similar to the African-Caribbean males, those of Indian origin also revert to exhibit their anger, however rather than rejecting the educational system they use it to its advantage and proceed on to succeed. (Moore et al 2001).
Franklin (1998) argues that some institutional factors cause attainment to vary by ethnicity. He argues how school assessments are based on culturally biased tests, which are written primarily in English, leading to poor results and unsuitable intervention and overrepresentation in special educational needs. Although the Framework for the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs in England and Wales (DfEE, 1994) warns against blurring special needs with special educational needs, and the need for assessment tools to be ‘culturally neutral’ for a range of ethnic groups, Franklin argues that it is “bland and general” and not in enough detail. Moreover, Franklin and Franklin (1998) argue that the IQ definition is biased against bilingual children. In their study they found that bilingual children scored lower standardised reading scores on prose tests as opposed to single writing. They concluded that these children were less able to take advantage of the context in the prose test than the predominantly monolingual group on whom it had been standardized. It instead focused on higher order processing skills for example comprehension rather than spelling which is not confounded by higher order processing skills. Indeed, this would affect the educational attainment chances of some of the ethnic minority children such as Bangladeshi. Indeed, children with Bangladeshi origin are the worst performing group of children across all four Key Stages. Strand (2008) highlights how these children tend to fall behind at Key Stage 2 assessments, and then continue to fall behind as the children enter Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4. It is interesting to note that even when accounting for other socio-economic factors, for example the free schools meals proxy for disadvantage that these children still tend to perform worse. Moreover, Strand (2008) also highlights how by the end of Key Stage 4, Chinese and Indian children actually overtake middle-class White children in the attainment league tables. It is therefore clear that there are other factors influencing why these children perform at a disadvantage to their peers, not ethnicity alone. Family factors such as family ethics may attempt to shed light on the reasons why some children are more involved at school than others. For example, the level of parental engagement with the school certainly varies between ethnic and social class group. Crozier (1996) conducted a case study of the experiences of a group of black parents in relation to their children’s schools. Although he found that many had educational knowledge and awareness of the school system, there remained a dissonance between these parents and the school. Indeed, parents are the first educators, and the most effective way of communicating with them as practitioners is to initiate a firm base of trust and openness, especially true for children with English as an additional language, since much more information is required from their parents in order to create fluidity across both the school and home settings. However, since Bangladeshi families face additional barriers presented to their community, since they are not as long established and therefore less fluent, this has a great influence on their children’s education. Furthermore, data from the National Child Development Study (Sacker et al 2002) highlighted how if the social class is high, then educational attainment tends to be high, however the strongest factor was parental engagement. Given that some parents are harder to reach than others; for reasons other than simply language barriers, may attempt to explain why their input into their children’s education is limited. Indeed, Harris and Chrispeels (2006) argue that certain ethnic and social groups are less likely to engage in their child’s education and the school in which they attend.
The Berkow Report (2008) highlighted that children from a low socioeconomic background will have difficulties at school. Given the reality that the UK’s minority ethnic groups as a whole are more likely to be in poverty than the population at large (Craig, 2002); coupled with the fact that they tend to get placed in housing in low socio-economic areas, provides a prediction towards their educational achievement. The impact of attending a disadvantaged school contributes to it also, due to uneven funding and allocation of resources. The Excellence in Cities scheme has helped to reduce low achievement through focusing on poor schools in areas of serious disadvantage. Moreover, the Narrowing the Gap (NFER, 2008) focuses on improving the home learning environment, which is essential for improving children’s behaviour, wellbeing and later educational achievement (Sylva et al, 2004).
Although the difference within social class has been a dominant feature in education, the government has tried to narrow the gap by introducing a number of initiatives from an early age, such as The Every Child Matters (2003) agenda, Sure Start schemes, and The Early Years Foundation Stage. Yet, the gap remains. Moore et al (2001) indicates that high performance in educational attainment is inclined by ones social status in society. He states that those with a lower social status are ‘materially deprived’, with less money to use, therefore are unable to use education to their full advantage. Moreover, the fact that black children attend lower quality schools on average is identified by Fryer and Levitt (2004). They argue that higher levels of free school meals, litter and gang culture makes for a more disadvantaged learning environment, as opposed to middle-class predominantly white schools. They also argue that these children lose ground to white children over the summer period as a consequence of a worse neighbourhood environment. Furthermore Douglas (1971) indicates that the most important factor in a child excelling through education is the parental interest given in a child’s daily life at school. However, ethnicity has strong associations with the incidence of social class and poverty through different household structure, and child-rearing practices. For example, birth rates for Bangladeshi and Pakistani families are higher than the UK white population; therefore larger families need more money. Moreover, there is less individual attention on the child in these families. Barn (2006) explored the views and experiences of parents in key areas for example family support and education. The findings showed that minority ethnic family life is complex. Most parents wished to be involved in their children’s education, regardless of ethnic background and social class. Black and Asian parents in particular placed an enormous importance on the value of education which was less prominent among white. This places a tension on the reality of the educational achievements of such minority groups. The reasons for this are complex. Strand (2008) focuses on socio economic classification on linguistic attainment to try and account for the gap. Through analysing data from the Youth Cohort Longitudinal Study, he highlights how children from high classified groups have a vocabulary 50% more than working class children, and 100% more of those on welfare. Since 50% of all African Caribbean births are to single women (Somerville, 2000) they are more susceptible to material deprivation, thus fewer learning opportunities. Indeed, a high quality home learning environment is essential for raising attainment highlighted through the EPPE project (Sylva, 2004). Clearly, any attempt to understand ethnic differences in the involvement/achievement link must first take into account the influence of socio-economic status. Ethnicity alone does not account.
Ross and Ryan (1990) have documented that children can pick up and absorb racist values from early as three years old. They argue that positive self esteem is directly related to attainment, so it is vital that we are concerned as practitioners to raise their self esteem from an early age and promote inclusion of all racial backgrounds, regardless of their social class and gender. If a child feels they are worthless their self esteem decreased which affects their academic attainment (Purkey, 1970).
It is clear to see that the Government recognises the disadvantages of children from particular ethnic backgrounds, through looking at the specific projects launched to help certain ethnic minority children, for example the Excellence in Cities scheme, and the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant (EMAG). Moreover, the launch of the Aiming High: DfES National pilot project to Raise Levels of Attainment for African-Caribbean pupils was launched in 2003 with the aim of maximising levels of achievement. Such focus leads one to respond that indeed, educational attainment is affected by ethnicity, and therefore, as discussed, social class.
The issue of gender also throws a complex light onto academic performance. On the whole, females tend to perform better than males academically, yet for Black African-Caribbean’s, both male and female fall behind, compared to any other ethnic group (Strand, 2008).This therefore, seems to suggest that this particular ethnic group is underperforming for another reason, such as the reasons given above. The issues surrounding gender performance and achievement are complex, affecting different sub-groups of boys and girls in different ways, often reflecting the influence of class and ethnicity. The traditional criterion for monitoring the school system has been the proportion of students securing five or more A* to C grades in public examinations at 16-plus. Since the late 1980’s this figure has been rising steadily, however the ‘gap’ in the performance of boys and girls appears to have been widening parallel to this. The National Pupil Database (2002) highlighted how girls performed better across all groups, however there are many complex reasons as to why this is. Firstly, there are scientific explanations for example
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whilst children are young, numerous changes take place, each child begins to develop physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually at their own pace, they begin to acquire the understanding of the environments they are exposed to whilst their ability to communicate with their peers strengthens. Scientific evidence states the physical structure of the brain may be the reason as to why both sexes have a variance in attainment. The development of language within boys comes at a slower pace than that of girls, as girls acquire language rapidly, and at an earlier stage. Girls also focus for lengthier periods of time when in conversation and are able to concentrate more in the classroom. Therefore the structure of the brain shows advantage to the girls (Watkins, 1991). Furthermore, Haralambos et al 1997 states that research over the past 30 years shows a consistency of trends whereby girls at the age of 16 left school after acquiring better grades than boys. Government statistics indicate that the variance in attainment achievement between boys and girls start from an early age. Data from the 2007 examinations in England, from Key Stage One and Key Stage Three examinations show that girls achieved higher marks then boys. However in the mathematics papers taken at key stage 2, showed that boys outperformed girls by 2%.In comparison to the papers taken by Key Stage 3 the differences amongst the sexes was higher.
It has also been argued that the curriculum has become ‘feminised’ whereby it works in favour to the females, whilst disadvantaging the boys (Mac and Ghaill, 1994). They argue that there has been a crisis of masculinity, because of the decline in traditional manual jobs. This has led, to an identity crisis, and made it easier for some males to question the need for qualifications when the jobs they would have traditionally gone into no longer exist.
Unmistakably the issue around boys underachieving within education in comparison to girls is a major cause for concern. Perhaps the specific focus on some of the ethnic minority groups have shifted the concern away from the white population, with the result being that white working-class boys are now underperforming consistently through the education system. The statistics presented are undeniable, particularly whilst it is becoming an increasing trend for boys to take the opportunity of turning away from formal education at a young age. Thus being the reason why parents and practitioners need to be able to recognise the changes in a child from earlier on so that there is support available for the child to be able to make the right decisions.
The variance amongst children can be immense, as mentioned above; each child is individual and develops at their own pace. Although these differences can be vast, it is up to teaching professionals and parents to be aware of this and to be able to recognise it, particularly when each child approaches the learning process in different ways.
In conclusion, it is clear to see that not any one variable of social class, ethnicity and gender stand alone as a cause behind a child’s educational attainment; rather they interlink in quite a complex way. It should concern us, since we, the practitioners who are helping to shape their futures, need to understand that all three interlink to produce each unique child, which is at the very heart of the Every Child Matters agenda.
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