Ethnicity and Education – The Role of Cultural Factors

Cultural factors include parental attitudes, peer-group pressure, language barriers and student aspirations.

Cultural Factors are mostly part of a students’ home background and cultural differences between ethnic groups go some way to explaining different levels of educational achievement by ethnicity.

Cultural factors which may explain why Chinese and Indian children do well in school and why Black Caribbean Children and White children do not do so well include:

  • Parental control and expectation, and the value parents place on education.
  • Single parent families, and the absence of a male role model (for boys)
  • Peer group pressure and an anti-school ‘street’ culture
  • Language barriers
  • Student aspirations to go on to higher education.

The post below explores the above cultural factors and then goes on to evaluate the importance of such factors in relation to in-school factors and structural racism in society.

Parental Control and Expectation

Indian and Chinese families have higher levels of Parental control and expectation.

Strand’s (2007)’s analysis of data from the 2004 Longitudinal Study of Young People found that Indian students are the ethnic group most likely to complete homework five evenings a week and the group where parents are most likely to say they always know where their child is when they are out.

Francis and Archer (2007) found that a high value is placed on education by Chinese parents, coupled with a strong cultural tradition of respect for one’s elders. High educational aspiration transmits from parents to children, and students derive positive self-esteem from constructing themselves as good students.

(Although in a later 2010 paper (1), Francis warned against the stereotype that all Chinese parents are pushy, most middle class white parents are also pushy!))

Basit (2013) researched British Asian families focussing on British Indians and British Pakistanis (both Hindus and Muslims). She studied three generations within the families, using focus groups to collect data from the children and in-depth interviews with the parents and grandparents.

She found that all generations placed a high value on education and the grandparents especially saw free state education as a ‘blessing’ because they did not have such opportunities in their countries of origin. Grandparents and parents thus put special effort into ensuring the children had the resources to study at school. Even the relatively poor children had access to computers at home and their own quiet, independent study spaces.

Grandparents and parents alike viewed education as a form of capital that would transform the lives of the younger generation, opening up opportunities for them, so they were happy to provide them the resources to make the most of these educational opportunities.

There were actually two generations of aspiration being passed down to the children: from the grandparents who had helped their children succeed in education and then from the parents themselves!

Single Parent Households

The New Right argues that the high proportion of lone parents fail to ‘provide a home environment conducive to learning’. There have also been concerns about the development of ‘gangsta’ culture with the absence of positive Black male role models at home as well as in schools (Abbott, 2002).

Historically Caribbean households did have the highest proportion of lone parent households, but according to recent government data on ethnicity and family-structure this is no longer the case.

20.7% of Black African households are lone parent with dependent children, compared to only 16.6% of Black Caribbean households. However Black African children do better at GCSEs than Black Caribbean children. (48% compared to 30% get 5 GCSES grades A*-C including English and Maths, so the difference is massive).

The only thing that might explain the difference in relation to family structure is if Black Caribbean Single Parent Households have more children, which might skew the results if this is a causal factor (but I doubt it!).

The 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.

However Sewell as been criticised for blaming Black Caribbean children for their own failure, rather than taking into account possible racism within the education system itself, more on that when we look at the role of in-school factors.

Acting white and acting black

Fordham and Ogbu (1986) further argue that part of an anti-school black masculinity was what they called ‘acting black’ and ‘acting white’. 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.

Language barriers

Crozier (2004) found that Pakistani and Bangladeshi parents ‘kept their distance’ from their children’s schools because they trusted the professionals to do their jobs; they lacked confidence in use of English and there were no translators.

Educational Aspirations

White children have lower educational aspirations than most ethnic minorities.

Research by Connor et al (2004) found that year 13 students from all ethnic minority groups had stronger aspirations to go onto higher education than white children, with the aspiration being strongest for Black African children.

Professor Simon Burgess and Dr Deborah Wilson (2008) found that among Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Black African families, over 90 per cent of parents want their child to stay on at school at age 16, compared with 77 per cent of white families – which correlates with lower numbers at university.

The Immigrant Paradigm

Ogbu (1978), summarised in Strand (2021) (see ‘2’ below) developed the theory that first generation immigrants are enthusiastic about education, seeing it as a real opportunity to help their children progress in a new country, whereas this enthusiasm wheres off for second and especially third generations.

This can go some some way to explaining why Black-Africans overachieve compared to whites while Black-Caribbeans underachieve.

Data from the 2011 census shows that 66.7% of Black Africans are ‘optimistic’ first wave immigrants, while only 39.8% of Black-Caribbeans are first wave immigrants.

Part of the theory is that Black Caribbean families have become assimilated into mainly poor working class neighbourhoods and so their children have adopted the same lack of enthusiasm that White working class children have for education, thus a combination of social class and ethnic background is at work here to explain the low educational achievement of Black Caribbean students.

South Asian women go to university despite cultural pressures

Bagguley and Hussain (2007) found that aspirations to higher education for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women were often complicated by cultural pressures. Many had to negotiate decisions around marriage and the expectations of their parents.

Many Muslim students consequently studied at a local university in order to placate their parents’ concerns about morality, being in the company of men and their family honour or ‘izzat’. In contrast, Indian students currently at university appeared to have had the option of leaving home. Indian women often spoke of a natural progression into higher education that was assumed by both their parents and their schools

How important are cultural factors in educational achievement?

While there are statistical correlations between factors such as parental control and pupil aspirations and educational achievement by ethnicity, it is important to remember that these are just overall averages and that there are variations within each ethnic group.

In other words, be careful not to fall into the stereotype trap of thinking that all Chinese parents or all white children are the same. There are some Chinese parents who don’t value education and some white children (even working class ones) who have high educational aspirations.

There are variations in educational achievement by gender within ethnic groups, for example the cultural barriers to achievement SE Asian women are greater than for boys, and the cultural barriers for AC boys are greater than for AC girls.

Cultural barriers can’t explain all of the variation in educational achievement by ethnicity. Social class and material deprivation also play a role.

In-school factors generally play less of a role in explaining educational differences but where black boys are concerned there is evidence that racist banding and streaming policies may play a role in explaining their relative underachievement, which happens in school and is not to do with cultural background.


This post has primarily been written for students studying the education module as part of A-level sociology.

Related posts on the topic of ethnicity and education include:

Material Deprivation and Ethnicity 

In school factors and institutional racism

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

(2) GOV.UK (2021) Ethnic, socio-economic and sex inequalities in educational achievement at age 16, by Professor Steve Strand.