Last Updated on January 26, 2023 by Karl Thompson
An essay on ethnicity and education written for the A Level Sociology paper 1 exam, AQA focus.
You might like to review these revision notes on in-school factors and educational achievement by ethnicity before reading this essay.
Assess the claim that ‘ethnic difference in educational achievement are primarily the result of school factors’ (30)
There are significant differences in educational achievement by ethnicity. Around 80% of Chinese children achieve 5 or more GCSE grades at A*- C compared to only 55% of Caribbean and about 15% of Gypsy Roma children. The national average is around 65%.
The idea that in-school processes are the main reason for these differences is associated with Interactionism which focuses on processes such as teacher labelling, Institutional racism and pupil subcultures. I will explore how these in-school factors affect pupils differently while evaluating using cultural deprivation and cultural capital theory.
Teacher Labelling and Ethnicity
Two classic studies in Sociology found that teacher labelling based on ethnic stereotypes did occur in British schools 25 years ago.
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. African Caribbean children were expected to behave badly, were seen as aggressive and disruptive, and were more likely to be disciplined for bad behaviour than children from other backgrounds.
David Gilborn (1990) found that teachers 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.
The main problem with both of these studies are based on small scale samples and they are very dated, and they tell us nothing about whether ethnic stereotyping exists today. If anything, teacher bias is less likely given the greater emphasis put on multi-cultural education and the increased awareness of diversity.
Having said this, the rates of African-Caribbean pupils are still 3-4 times higher than the national average, which could be a result of the biases found by Wright and Gilborn, but given lack of recent research, we simply don’t know whether African-Caribbean children are objectively more deviant, or whether they are just perceived to be so by racist teachers.
A further problem with the above is that if teachers are just ignoring Asian pupils, and letting them get on with it, then they can’t really be having much of an impact on their education – and thus it must be home factors which explain why many Asian (Indian and Chinese) students today do better than the white majority.
Institutional Racism in Schools
A second reason for ethnic differences in achievement may be Institutional Racism which is where discrimination against minority groups is built into the organisation of the school – this can happen in various ways: through the ethnocentric curriculum, through banding and streaming and through the hiring of fewer minority teachers.
The ethnocentric curriculum is one which reflects the culture of one dominant group – for example the white majority culture in Britain. The curriculum can be described as Ethnocentric – for example students have to study British history from the European point of view, use out of date textbooks that racially stereotype and some subjects having a narrow, white British focus.
Banding and Streaming has been found to disadvantage both the working classes and some minority groups. Gilborn and Youdell (2007) point out that Black Caribbean children are overrepresented in the lower sets and talk of how those in the lower sets get ‘written off’ because they have no hope of achieving A-Cs.
Crozier (2004) examined the experiences of racism among Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils and found that the experience of racism from both the school system and other pupils led to a feeling of exclusion. The researchers discovered that 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; feeling that assemblies were not relevant.
The problem with the idea of the ethnocentric curriculum is that it cannot explain why so many ethnic groups do better than white children. It may be the case the Pakistani and Bangladeshi children feel marginalised by it, but they have caught up with white children in recent years and so achieve well in spite of ethnocentricity in education.
Moreover, schools in recent years have made huge efforts to be more multicultural – with RE and PSHE lessons and event such as ‘black history month’ doing a lot to raise awareness of diversity, so this has changed significantly.
However, some recent statistics do suggest that institutional racism is rife – black applicants are half as likely to be accepted onto teacher training programmes compared to white applicants (around 20% compared to 40% success rate) – the end result of this was that in 2013, in the whole of the UK only three black people were accepted as trainee-history teachers. Professor Heidi Mirza, herself of African Caribbean origin, says there is evidence of discrimination within our education system today.
Pupil Subcultures and Ethnicity
Another in-school factor is pupil subcultures – as with teacher racism a number of classic studies from 20 years ago have focused mainly on black subcultures:
Tony Sewell (1997) observed 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. 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 (1998) 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 socializing 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.
As with the research on teacher labelling, the research on the relationship between pupil subcultures and educational achievement is somewhat thin today. If anything, today subcultures are probably less important, as there seems to be less resistance to the school today than in previous years.
Evaluation – Home Factors
Most sociologists seem to agree that home background is more important than in-school factors in explaining differences in achievement by ethnicity: As with class and gender, schools only account for s10% of the differences in achievement (according to a recent Analysis podcast), home-factors are much more important. Pupils only spend a minority of their time in-school after all!
Tony Sewell, for example, focuses on the higher rates of single parent households and the influence of gangsta culture on young black boys, which is far more significant than anything which goes on in-school.
Also, where the excellent achievement on Chinese children is concerned, it seems to be the ‘tiger parenting’ style which advantages these pupils compared to others.
Most of the research on in-school factors focuses on African-Caribbean underachievement, which is a narrow focus, there are other differences too – Gypsy Roma for example, and given that the main reason for their underachievement is the low attendance rate, again school is not a significant factor here.
However, in-school factors may play a role in explaining the biggest problem with underachievement today – that of white working class children, who themselves feel excluded from the culture of the school because they feel school does not reflect their culture, but this is more of a matter of social class (and gender) rather than ethnicity.
In conclusion, I would say that in-school factors explain very little of the differences in achievement by ethnicity, most of the difference is accounted for by home factors and schools cannot be expected and should not be expected to close the gap, moreover, I believe that focusing on issues of race within education are a red-herring, the issue of class and differential achievement is far more important, irrespective of ethnic background, and here, as with ethnicity, much of the differences in achievement are down to differences in home background, not differential achievement within schools.
This post has primarily been written for students of A-level Sociology preparing for the education section of paper 1: Education with Theory and Methods.
For further links to ethnicity and education topics, please see my sociology of education page.
For further examples of practice questions please see my Exams, Essays and Short Answer Questions page.
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