Primary and secondary education and the 'ethnic penalty'

Matt Ford
Friday, 19 September 2014

In my last piece I talked about poverty and ethnicity. Here I focus on primary and secondary education. But why is education important?

Education is important in understanding ethnic disadvantage because of the relationship it has with poverty. Levels of education are related to employment prospects, which are related to risk of poverty, which in turn is related to childhood educational disadvantage.

The positive effects of education on employment and poverty work in two ways. People with higher levels of education are more likely to be employed and so are protected against out-of-work poverty. People with higher levels of education are aslo likely to earn more and so are protected against in-work poverty.

Academic qualifications generally offer the greatest returns in terms of future earning potential and employment opportunities, and the higher level the qualification the greater the relative advantage.


Primary and secondary education for different ethnic groups

Experiences and outcomes in education differ significantly between ethnic groups. In primary school, White British and mixed ethnicity children consistently do as well as expected in literacy and numeracy according to their demographic characteristics, e.g. gender and household income. Indian pupils actually exceed their expected levels of attainment in both Key Stage 1 and 2. The numeracy scores of Pakistani children deteriorate as they reach the end of primary school, and both numeracy and literacy scores decrease for Bangladeshi pupils. Black African children show improvements in numeracy during primary school, but their literacy scores decline.  Black Caribbean pupils consistently achieve worse numeracy scores than expected between Key Stage 1 and 2, and their literacy scores decline.

At secondary school, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black African children all achieve better GCSE results than white children with similar demographic characteristics. In fact, as the adjacent graph shows, the proportion of Indian and Bangladeshi pupils achieving 5 GCSEs grade A* - C including English and Maths is greater than for White British pupils, and higher than the national average. The percentage of Black African pupils achieving these grades is almost exactly the same as for White British pupils. The proportion of Pakistani and Black Caribbean pupils who achieve these grades is lower than for White British children, but they have improved significantly since 2006/07. Earlier research found that only 59% of Black Caribbean boys in the top 50% of attainment at Key Stage 2 were still there at Key Stage 4, compared to 87.5% of Indians, 78.9% of Pakistanis, 76.4% of Bangladeshis and 76% of White British pupils. 

There is evidence to suggest that the educational disadvantage experienced by Black Caribbean students could be related to the expectations and perceptions of teachers. The proportion of Black Caribbean pupils placed into lower tier maths and science exams at age 14 is disproportionately high. No other ethnic group is deterred from higher level exams to the extent that Black Caribbean children are, and this trend doesn’t seem to be related to previous attainment or any other possible confounding variables like social class or gender. This ethnic penalty is likely to be the result of teachers stereotyping Black Caribbean pupils as more disruptive and therefore of lower academic ability. Research has found that teachers are twice as likely to perceive Black Caribbean boys as behaviourally problematic compared to White British boys.

Evidence on school exclusions seems to substantiate this explanation. As the adjacent graph shows, Black Caribbean, and White and Black Caribbean pupils have significantly higher rates of exclusions than other ethnic groups. Exclusions have a huge impact on attainment, whereby people who are excluded from school are four times more likely to leave with no academic qualifications. In turn, this significantly decreases opportunities for higher education and employment. The Department for Education and Skills report from 2006, Getting it, Getting it Right, also found that black pupils were punished more severely, more often, and for less serious transgressions than white pupils.


Nevertheless, black and minority ethnic children have made considerable progress in terms of attainment at school. As we shall see, however, people from black and minority ethnic groups still face substantial disadvantages in post-16 education and employment.

To read more about the ethnic penalty click here. If you would like to discuss the reasons behind the criminalisation of young black men please come to our event on Wednesday 28 January.