If minority ethnic people do better at school, why are they paid less in work?

20th Jun 2013

Despite their success in education, people from minority ethnic groups are still disadvantaged in the labour market, says Helen Barnard.

The Ofsted report ‘Access and Achievement’, is a very useful and timely picture of which children are doing well or badly in our school system. Most of the trends in it are not new. In particular, the finding that poor, white children are less likely to do well than any other ethnic group (except Travellers and Gypsies) has been the case for many years.

In 2011 we published a review of poverty, ethnicity and education, which looked at the evidence of how children from different ethnic groups do from pre-school through to university. The first key point is that poverty is a much bigger driver of attainment than ethnicity (or gender, location etc.) The second is that, for a given level of poverty, white British students do less well than those from other ethnic groups. However, it is also important to look at how children’s attainment changes over their school career.

The research shows that Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi pupils all start school with lower attainment than equivalent white pupils, but make much faster progress. This means that by the age of 16 they get better grades than their white British peers. The opposite is true for Black Caribbean children, especially boys. There is a very striking decline in their performance between key stage 2 and 4. This means that children who were doing well until then are not fulfilling their potential.

Likewise, the paper shows that white British pupils from poor backgrounds make the least progress over the course of secondary school. However, as a whole, children from white Traveller backgrounds achieve the least, with one in five getting no GCSEs or equivalents at 16.

The final point, however, may be the most important. For all their success in education, people from minority ethnic groups are still disadvantaged in the labour market. They are less likely to be employed and many are more likely to be lower paid than white British people with the same qualifications. As is the case for women, success in education is only the first step: tackling the barriers to better work is the next battleground.

The other focus of the report is where these poorer, low-achieving pupils are. It shows that there has been an increase in the numbers outside big cities. Again, this issue is not new. For years it has been clear that a very large proportion of low-income children are in schools that do not have particularly high concentrations of them. This is what makes it crucial that we do not focus simply on the attainment gaps between schools, but ensure that every school tackles its own attainment gaps.