Ethnicity and Education Seminar


The Wales Centre for Equity in Education is developing a strand of work around ethnicity and education, exploring the educational experiences of Black Minority Ethnic groups in Wales and the possible factors influencing their aspirations and attainment. As part of this work we were delighted that Professor Simon Burgess, a leading researcher in the economics of education at the University of Bristol, spoke at our seminar about his research on the implications ethnicity has for educational achievement in England. The seminar provided delegates with a platform to express and exchange ideas surrounding the education of pupils from different ethnic backgrounds and facilitated our thinking as to how findings from England can be useful for improving education in Wales. 

Simon provided us with an intriguing statistical insight into the ethnic composition of schools in London and the relation to high attainment, popularly known in the field of education as ‘the London effect’. His findings suggested that as a result of London having a high population of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds, who are claimed to have ‘greater ambition, aspiration and work harder in school’, London achieves a higher average GCSE score than the rest of the country. In simple terms ‘London has a higher fraction of high-scoring pupils’, as stated by Simon in his report Understanding the success of London’s schools.

It was argued that an integral factor to this success was immigration. Children of recent immigrants were claimed to have greater hopes and expectations of education and more likely to be engaged with their school work. The aspiration-attainment causation was explored with reference to children’s views on what they wanted and parent’s views on what they wanted their child to do, by the end of key stage 4. It was found that parents of ethnic minority pupils had very high aspirations for their children compared to parents of White pupils. 75% of White parents and 93% of Ethnic Minority parents wanted and expected their children to stay on in education.

It was found that despite ethnic minority groups beginning secondary school at a lower level than White British pupils, they eventually caught up with them and in many cases overtook them and so on average White pupils were found to make the slowest progress through secondary school. For most ethnic minority groups, this gain relative to White students was noted to be pervasive, happening in almost all schools.

Another interesting finding was that poverty seems to have less of an effect on Ethnic Minority pupils than it does for White pupils living in London. Some of the poorest neighbourhoods consist of just as many high performing ethnic minority pupils as the richest neighbourhoods and again this comes down to the ethnic composition, whereby White British pupils make up 34% of pupils in London. In this sense, White pupils living in poor areas face greater disadvantages than ethnic minority pupils living in poor areas.

The seminar provoked many interesting thoughts and questions in relation to the attainment of different ethnic groups. A fascinating question was raised as to why this ‘London effect’ does not seem to be happening in Cardiff. Cardiff is home to the highest ethnic minority population in Wales followed by Swansea and Newport. If the ethnic composition of London is a central factor to the success of its schools, why is it that schools and pupils in these highly ethnic minority populated cities in Wales are not doing as well? We could argue that the children of migrants in these cities have the same high aspirations and ambitions as those in London, so why is it that the majority of ethnic minority groups continue to consist of the lowest performing groups in Wales?

Discussions at the seminar generated ideas for potential future work on this topic to be developed by the Special Interest Group for Ethnicity and Education set up by WCEE. What happens next for Wales and its priority areas in terms of ethnicity and attainment were felt to be the following:

The needs of EAL/Refugee/New Migrant pupils - There is a need for research around the needs and barriers faced by these pupils and how this may influence their aspirations and ambitions of education. Also, to what extent are teachers trained and confident in dealing with and meeting the specific cultural, behavioural and learning needs of these pupils?

Urban/Rural Differences – It is generally understood that close-knit communities and social networks provide advantages in terms of support and engagement. We tend to find this ‘sense of community’ to be the case in Urban areas for Black Minority Ethnic groups. However, when it comes to attainment in education we find that these groups living in urban areas are not doing so well despite this sense of community and belonging. So what could be said about those BME groups living in rural areas where it could be argued they have a lack of community/networks? To what extent does community engagement and ethnic identity play a role in shaping the aspirations and performance of BME pupils living in rural areas?

Simon Burgess’s findings help us point to the great hope placed in the education system by ethnic minority groups and their engagement with learning. What this seminar has taught us is that the success of London schools lies fundamentally with pupil and parent aspirations. The important questions now are, how can the aspirations of pupils be maintained? And how can we help raise the attainment of ethnic minority groups in Wales?

Author: Henna Nisa, Policy and Research Assistant.