How does Educational Achievement Vary by Ethnicity?

The Department for Education makes it very easy to access statistics on educational achievement. Below I summarise some of the recent trends in educational achievement in England and Wales by ethnicity and offer some commentary on what I think needs explaining, and some thoughts on the limitations of these statistics.

The latest data available are for the 2021 exam results (this post updated January 2023).

Does Ethnicity Affect Educational Achievement?

Average attainment 8 Score by Ethnic group 2021

Attainment 8 scores measure how far pupils have progressed in their eight major government approved GCSE subjects over five years of secondary schooling compared to the average progress of all pupils.

Basically the higher the attainment 8 score the more a pupil has progressed compared the average pupil.

As you can see from the results below there is considerable variation in progress by GCSE by ethnicity.

In the 2021 exam year the average score for all ethnic groups together was 50.9/90. It’s no surprise to find this is very close to the ‘White British group as White British children still make up the vast majority of school children.

To my mind the headline figures from the above statistics are as follows

  • White, Pakistani and Black African children have results very close to the national average of 50.9. All of these figures are quite close together and so nothing really needs explaining for these broad groups.
  • Chinese children achieve 19% higher than the national average
  • Indian children 11% higher
  • Bangladeshi children achieved 5% higher.
  • Black Caribbean children underachieve by about 6% points
  • Irish Traveler and Gypsy Roma children have the worst underachievement levels with 30% (18% in 2018) and 22% respectively.

So what needs explaining from the above is why Chinese and Indian children do so well, and why Black Caribbean children underachieve, and why Irish traveler and Gypsy Roma children do so badly.

In terms of impact of research it’s probably worth focusing on Chinese, Indian and Black Caribbean children because there are many more of these than of the last two ethnic groups.

A final point to note about these statistics is that it doesn’t seem useful to lump together ‘Black’ and Asian’ students because there are SIGNIFICANT differences in the achievement rates within these groups.

Educational Achievement (attainment 8) by Free School Meals and Ethnicity

Free School Meals pupils represent approximately the poorest sixth of pupils by household income.

If we just focus on the achievement of pupils in receipt of free school meals (FSM pupils) we find that:

  • White pupils have the lowest achievement rates with a score of just 36.1
  • Black and Asian FSM pupils have broadly similar attainment 8 scores with scores of 44 and 48 respectively
  • Chinese FSM pupils have the highest attainment 8 scores, with a score of 68.5, which is very close to non FSM pupil scores.

We can see from the above that poverty has a negative impact on the educational attainment of pupils from all ethnic backgrounds but that it has more of an impact on some ethnic groups than others.

The two main questions arising from the above statistics are:

  • Why does poverty not affect poor Chinese children children as much as children from other ethnic backgrounds (the FSM and non FSM results are very similar for Chinese children.
  • Why are poor white kids impacted the most? The difference between FSM and non-FSM achievement is largest for white children.

Statistics on Participation in Further Education

This demonstrates a long standing trend – that ethnic minorities (Black and Asian) students are more likely to carry on into further education compared to white students. This should mean that you’ll see a higher proportion of white kids starting work based apprenticeships.

NB – making comparisons to the overall population is a bit misleading as the age profile for ethnic minorities tends to be younger.

Students achieving at least 3 As at A-level

The overall average is 12.9%.

These are quite interesting.

  • Huge ‘over-achievement’ by Chinese kids – 22.5%
  • Indian kids do slightly better than average at 15%
  • Signficant underachievement for Pakistani and Bangladeshi kids – around 7%
  • Terrible underachievement for Black African and Caribbean kids at 5.6% and 3.5% respectively.
  • The source notes that the Irish Traveler population is only 7 people, so one can’t generalize, still, at least it busts a few stereotypes!

These stats show something of an exaggeration of what we saw at GCSE.

I put these stats in the ‘interesting but not that useful’ category – I’d rather see the percentages for high grades or A-C grades to make these a bit more representative.

Degree results by ethnicity

Surprisingly, we see white students gaining significant ground on ethnic minority students with 30.9% of white students gaining a first class degree (*).

Black students in comparison come crashing down to just 14% of first class degrees.

These kind of differences – from similar GCSE results for Black and White students to such different A-level and degree results need further investigation.

(1)The education statistics above form part of the government’s Ethnicity Facts and Figures series, you can check out a wider range of statistical evidence on ethnicity and life chances by clicking here. (As always, remember to be critical of the limitations of these statistics!).

(*) WTF – 30% – sorry kids, but a lot of those first class degrees are probably down to grade inflation, which in turn is probably down to the fact that students are now paying £30 K for yer for their degrees.






Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.