Ethnicity and Differential Educational Achievement: In School Processes

In school process which may explain differential educational achievement by ethnicity include:

  • Teacher labelling which can be both positive and negative (high and low expectations depending on the ethnic group)
  • Pupil reactions to teacher labelling and pupil subcultures.
  • Banding and Streaming, with some minority pupils being overrepresented in lower sets.
  • The Ethnocentric Curriculum where what is taught in schools marginalises ethnic minorities.
  • Institutional Racism, where Racism is endemic at the level of policy.

NB some people might regard racist banding and streaming and the ethnocentric curriculum as part of Institutional Racism, it’s just a matter of how you define it!

As a general rule Chinese and Indian students achieve the highest in education, and most ethnic minority groups achieve at a similar level to White children, with the exception of Black Caribbean students and Gypsy-Roma students.

This post provides an overview of the statistics on achievement by ethnicity.

Teacher labelling

Teacher pupil relationships may explain some of the differences in educational achievement by ethnicity, and since it is teachers who have the power in school, teacher labelling is something we need to consider.

There are a number of classic research studies which have found evidence of teacher labelling of ethnic minorities based on ethnic stereotypes…

Cecile Wright: labelling in primary schools

Cecile Wright (1992) Found that teachers perceived ethnic minority children differently from white children. Asian children were seen as a problem that could be ignored, receiving the least attention and often being excluded from classroom discussion and rarely asked to answer questions.

Teachers assumed their command of the English language was poor but they were highly disciplined and well motivated. African Caribbean children were expected to behave badly and received considerable attention, nearly always negative. They were seen as aggressive and disruptive. They were often singled out for criticism even in action ignored in other children.

David Gilborn: African-Caribbean children as a threat

David Gilborn (1990) Found that while vast majority of teachers tried to treat all students fairly, they tended to see African-Caribbean children as a threat when no threat was intended and reacted accordingly with measures of control. Despite the fact that teachers rejected racism their ethnocentric perceptions meant that their actions were racist in consequence.

African-Caribbean children experienced more conflict in relationships with pupils, were more subjected to the schools detention system and were denied any legitimate voice of complaint.

Tony Sewell: Teachers threatened by Black masculinities

Tony Sewell (1996)– Black Masculinities and schooling He was primarily interested in the experiences of black boys in education and he found that some black students were disciplined excessively by teachers who felt threatened by these students’ masculinity, sexuality and physical prowess because they had been socialised into racist attitudes. He also found that the boys in the study found that their culture received little or no positive recognition in the school.

NB: Tony Sewell ultimately holds black boys themselves responsible for their underachievement: it is their negative attitudes to schools that are mostly to blame in his opinion, but he does at least recognise that negative teacher labelling doesn’t help!

Chinese students may well be disadvantaged by teachers labelling them as hyper-achievers (3).

Either they are perceived by teachers as valuing education, spurred on by pushy parents, which puts added pressure on them to perform, or teachers think they work too hard, meaning they are unlikely to be pushed while some of them may need just that. Either way the ‘hyper-achiever’ label given to Chinese students may not benefit them!

Connolly: Stereotyping of Asian students

Connolly (1998) found that teachers generally had (stereotypical) high expectations that South Asian British boys would perform well in school and if they were deviant they interpreted this behaviour as immature rather than deliberately disruptive. They were thus not punished to the extent that Black British boys were.

Connolly also found that while Asian girls were generally successful in the education system, teachers tended to overlook them in class discussions because they held stereotypical assumptions about them being passive and reluctant to discuss issues relating to family life and gender roles specifically.

Do teachers label ethnic minorities today?

Many of the above research studies are now 30 years old and focus on labelling of black-boys. There is much less evidence that teachers negatively label black boys today. Moreover black African boys to better than white boys in school and black Caribbean boys have been closing the gap, so it’s unlikely that teacher labelling can play a role in explaining differential educational achievement.

PREVENT policy and labelling

Since 2015 PREVENT policy has required teachers to monitor extremist behaviour in schools to prevent students becoming terrorists. There is some evidence that teachers have labelled the behaviour of Muslim children as indicating they are being radicalised into extremist views.

For example in one case a Muslim child was referred to authorities because he asked how to make a bomb in a physics class, whereas the same treatment didn’t happen to white children. If a child is passed onto authorities for invasive questioning about radicalisation it could have a negative impact on their attitude towards school.

Also PREVENT doesn’t specify that Muslim children should be targeted (rather than say White extremists) but it is Muslims who make up the majority of referrals under PREVENT, suggesting racist labelling is occurring.

However, statistically this kind of labelling probably doesn’t affect the achievement of Muslim students who are mainly of Pakistanis and Bangladeshi origin, as overall the achievement of both these groups has been improving.

Pupil Subcultures

Some (now quite dated) participant observation research has found that anti-school subcutures among black boys may be responsible for their historic underachievement .

Some of the research below sees the emergence of subcultures as a response to teacher labelling and so the two factors: teacher labelling and collective pupil responses may work together.

Tony Sewell: A culture of anti-school black masculinity

Tony Sewell (1997) observes that Black Caribbean boys may experience considerable pressure by their peers to adopt the norms of an ‘urban’ or ‘street’ subculture. More importance is given to unruly behaviour with teachers and antagonistic behaviour with other students than to high achievement or effort to succeed, particularly at secondary school.

According to Sewell, among many black boys, academic success is associated with femininity and success may mark them out for bullying from their peers whereas academic failure is seen as a badge of honour.

Fordham and Ogbu (1986) further argue that notions of ‘acting White’ or ‘acting Black’ become identified in opposition to one another. Hence because acting White includes doing well at school, acting Black necessarily implies not doing well in school.

Mac an Ghail: Young, Gifted and Black

Mac an Ghail (1998) Young, Gifted and Black – Mac an Ghail was a teacher in two inner city colleges. He looked at three subcultures – the Asian Warriors, the African- Caribbean Rasta Heads and the Black Sisters. He used mainly participant observation both in the school and through befriending the students and socialising with them outside of the school.

What he found was that the African Caribbean community experienced the world in very different ways to white people – namely because of institutional racism in the college and he argued that any anti-school attitudes were reactions against this racism. He mainly blamed the school rather than the students for this.

Mirza: Black Girls’ Responses to Teacher Labelling

Mirza (992) found that teachers had stereotypically low expectations of black girls and thus didn’t push them too hard in lessons and entered them for lower tier exams.

The black girls Mirza studied did value education and wanted to work hard and do well, but they responded negatively to their teacher’s negative labelling by outwardly appearing to not care about school and care more about appearance.

This ultimately meant they were less likely to ask for help in lessons, less likely to get it and thus this reaction harmed their achievement.

Banding and Streaming

The organisation of teacher learning at the level of school may disadvantaged some ethnic minority groups.

Steve Strand (2012) Used data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE) and found that African Caribbean pupils did worse than their white peers in education even when we control for socio-economic disadvantage and cultural factors in the family.

Strand suggested that the higher exclusion rates of Black Caribbean students could explain some of the difference, as could the fact that they were more likely to have SEN statements, but this still didn’t explain all of the difference.

He noted that Black Caribbean students were less likely to be put into higher sets/ bands/ streams than their white peers and less likely to be entered for higher tier exams, and it is teachers who make decisions about banding and streaming and so ultimately teacher labelling is to blame here.

The Ethnocentric Curriculum

The ethnocentric curriculum is where the range and content of subjects taught in schools as part of the formal curriculum are biased towards the majority ethnic group and marginalise minority ethnic groups. In the case of the curriculum in English schools an ethnocentric curriculum would have a focus on White British culture and less of a focus on Black and Asian cultures.

Historically the Swann Report (1985) criticised the curriculum for being ethnocentric. Historical examples of the ethnocentric curriculum include:

  • British history being taught from the European point of view, possibly even putting a postive spin on colonialism.
    • White European languages such as French being taught as the main language subjects rather than Asian or African languages.
    • Symbolic annihilation of White and Asian people through their under-represenation in text books.
    • Assemblies having a Christian focus, as well as the school holidays (Easter and Christmas)

However, the above examples are historic and you need to ask yourself whether the curriculum today is actually ethnocentric. A much higher proportion of pupils today are Black and Asian and schools have made progress towards making their curriculums more multicultural.

One example of this is the requirement by OFSTED that schools actively promote cultural diversity, and one visible manifestation of this is Black History Month.

Having said this some relatively recent research by Tikly et al (2006) studied 30 comprehensive schools and found that Asian students felt relatively invisible in the Curriculum.

Institutional Racism

Below is a summary of some of the evidence that suggests schools may be institutionally racist. For a more in-dept look at the issue please see this post: Are Schools Institutionally Racist?

When we step back and take a look at the statistics we find that Black Caribbean students are:

  • two and a half times more likely to be permanently excluded than White children.
  • more like to be identified with behavioural related special needs
  • less likely to be identified as gifted and talented
  • more likely to be put into lower sets.

Taken together these statistics may raise our suspicions about whether schools are institutionally racist, and there have been some sociologists who have argued that they are.

Exclusion Rates by Ethnicity

The permanent exclusion (2) rates for Black Caribbean and mixed White Black/ Caribbean are two and half times higher than for White children. The respective exclusion rates are:

  • 2.5 children per 10 000 Black Caribbean pupils
  • 2.4 children per 10 000 mixed Black Caribbean and White pupils
  • 1 child per 10 000 White pupils.

Gypsy-Roma children have the highest exclusion rates of all minority groups with 3.9 children per 10 000 pupils being permanently excluded, four times as many exclusions compared to White children.

But in order to find out whether these statistics reflect institutional racism we would need to look more at the specific cases to see if there is differential treatment leading up to the exclusions for different ethnic groups.

Racism in Banding and Streaming

Gilborn and Youdell (1999) analysed statistics on banding and streaming by ethnicity. They found that Black-Caribbean students were less likely to be put in higher sets even if they had the ability to be there.

This meant Black-African children were disproportionately represented in lower sets in relation to their ability, which meant they weren’t pushed as hard and were not entered for higher tiered exam papers which ultimately meant lower GCSE results.

Experiences of Racism among pupils

Crozier (2004) found that Pakistani pupils ‘keep to themselves’ in school because they feel excluded by their white peers and marginalized by the school practices. Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils had experienced the following – Anxieties about their safety; Racist abuse was a lived experience of their schooling; Careers advisors at school believed South Asian girls were bound by tradition and it was a waste of time advising them; Not being allowed off during Ramadan; Not feeling that assemblies were relevant.

More recently, surveys conducted by Human Rights Watch found that 60% of Muslim students feel alienated by the way PREVENT polices are implemented in schools. They felt as if they couldn’t freely discuss politics or religion in classes because PREVENT was being interpreted through and Islamophobic lens.

Institutional Racism in University Entry?

Tariq Modood (2005) says – If we look at the best universities Whites are more likely to get an offer than other identical candidates. For example, while a White student has a 75% chance of receiving an invitation to study, a Pakistani candidate, identical in every way, has only a 57% chance of an offer.

This post explores the concept of institutional racism in schools in more depth.

Signposting and related posts

This material is relevant to the Sociology of Education option, usually taught in the first year of A-level Sociology.

In-school factors are usually considered alongside home based cultural factors in explaining differential educational achievement by ethnicity.

Related posts are linked above in this post and via the education page.


(1) The Swann Report (1985) – Education For All.

(2) GOV UK (Accessed January 2023) Permanent Exclusions.

(3) Francis et Al (2010) The Construction of British-Chinese Educational Success

Some material in this post was adapted from Chapman et al (2015) Sociology: AQA A-Level Year 1 and AS.






2 responses to “Ethnicity and Differential Educational Achievement: In School Processes”

  1. […] might like to review these revision notes on in-school factors and educational achievement by ethnicity before reading this […]

  2. […] 2 – Banding and streaming – linked to institutional racism, Steve Strand, Gilborn and Youdell, educational […]

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