Gilborn and Youdell – Rationing Education

This study demonstrates how marketisation polices and racialised banding and streaming disadvantage black students in education.

Gilborn and Youdell (2000, 2001) studied two London Comprehensive schools (which they called Taylor and Clough) over two years, focussing on Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16) and GCSE results.

They used a mixed methods approach using classroom observation, interviews and the analysis of secondary documents.

Black students underachieving compared to white students

Gilborn and Youdell noted that in both schools, white students where achieving twice as many good passes (A-C) as white students.

Differential educational achievement by ethnicity was even starker when they compared those achieving a grade C or above in Maths, English and Science Subjects. In Clough school, 18% of white students achieved this, but only 4% of black students. In Taylor school, 37% of students managed it, but 0% of black students!!!

GCSE Tiers and and Educational Triage

Gilborn and Youdell believe that the introduction of tiers at GCSE was the main underlying reason for the ethnic differences in achievement outlined above.

Different GCSE tiers meant that students sat different papers based on their perceived ability – higher ability students got harder papers, which would allow them the opportunity to achieve an A, while lower ability students sat an easier exam paper, where the maximum grade they could achieve was a C.

14-16 education in both schools was organised through banding and streaming: students were put in the top bands if teachers believed they had the ability to sit the higher tier, more difficult exam paper, but restricted to the lower bands if it was thought their maximum potential was a C grade.

Gilborn and Youdell further argued that the schools operate a ‘triage’ system based on the perceived ability of the students.

Triage is a military-medical term which describes how medical treatment for wounded soldiers is rationed:

  1. Those who need urgent treatment to survive are prioritized
  2. Those with less urgent, non life threatening needs are dealt with later
  3. Hopeless cases are left to die

Educational Triage works along similar lines, with schools rationing education based on the perceived chances of a student gaining five good (A-C) GCSEs.

  1. Borderline students who could get 5 good GCSEs but need help to do so are prioritized.
  2. More able students who will probably get 5 good GCSEs anyway are dealt with as necessary
  3. Hopeless cases are written off.

Racialised Expectations

Gilborn and Youdell believed that teachers were not intentionally racist, in fact most of them were committed to equality of opportunity.

However, they also found that teachers tended to have lower expectations of black students compared to white students, which resulted in them being put in the lower sets, and written off as having no hope of ever achieving five good GCSE grades.

In Clough School for example, 29% of white students but 38% of black students where written off into the lower sets.

One of the reasons for lower expectations was because teachers often believed black students had a harder home life with higher poverty levels and high rates of absent fathers, making studying at home difficult, hence they often judged that black students would be less able to cope with the higher levels of work demanded of being put into higher tiers.

Gilborn and Youdell also found that teachers expected to have more discipline problems with black students and that ‘control and punishment’ should be given a higher priority than ‘academic concerns’.

When interviewed the black students themselves felt discriminated against tended to believe that their entry into low sets and lower tiered papers was not warranted based on their academic performance.

However, if black students questioned their low predicted grades or why they were in a lower set this would be seen as a challenge or a threat to authority rather than a legitimate councern.

Conclusions/ evaluations and relevance to A-level sociology

This is a useful study to show how the macro (marketisation policy) and micro (teacher labelling ) aspects of education work together to disadvantage black students.

However, given the current trends in educational achievement, with black Caribbean students catching up with white students, I wonder how relevant this is today.

I also have to wonder how representative these schools were. To have no black students in one of those schools achieving a grade C in English, Maths or Science, that has to be extremely rare?

Adapted from Harlambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

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