How does Educational Achievement Vary by Ethnicity?

a look at how GCSE, A-level and degree results vary by ethnic group in England and Wales.

Last Updated on May 15, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Educational achievement varies considerably by ethnicity and level of achievement.

At GCSE White, Black-African and Pakistani children have similar rates of achievement, Chinese and Indian students ‘overachieve’ and there is slight underachievement for Pakistani and Black Caribbean students.

Black and Asian students are more likely to stay on in Further Education than White students, but Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black African and Caribbean students are much less likely to get 3 A grades at A-level compared to White students, while Chinese and Indian students are more likely.

White students are more likely to get first class degrees than even Chinese and Indian students.

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).

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.

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 Traveller 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.

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.

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.

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!).

(*) 30% does seem rather high, 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.

Ethnicity and Differential Achievement: Key Questions

Based on the above statistics the following questions stand out…

  1. At GCSE why do Chinese and Indian Students have such high achievement
  2. At CGSE why do Gyspy/ Roma and Traveller children have such low achievement?
  3. Why ethnic minority FSM children do better than white FSM children?
  4. Why are ethnic minorities more likely to stay on in Further Education?
  5. Why do so few Ethnic Minority students get 3 As at A-level compared to white kids?
  6. Why are white kids more likely to get first class degrees than ethnic minorities?

Signposting and related posts

This material serves as an introduction to differential educational achievement by ethnicity which is part of the education module within A-level sociology.

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