The issue of differences between the ethnic minority groups and educational achievement has been something which has been explored by educationalists and sociologists alike for a number of years; as it should have been because in a multi-cultural society where the education system promises to deliver ‘equality of opportunity’ we need to challenge why some ethnic groups perform so much better than others.

In this essay, I will be exploring some of the possible explanations for the differences in achievement and will be demonstrating that it is a complex issue which involves more than just ethnicity. Evidence from official statistics demonstrates that the ethnic group who perform best and achieve the highest grades at GCSE are the Chinese group with approximately 83% achieving 5 A*-C. Indian pupils also do well, achieving approximately 74% compared to 60% of white British pupils. However, there are certain ethnic groups such as Afro-Caribbean and Pakistani children which are clearly underachieving.

Although these statistics are very useful, as Drew identifies this kind of data comes from small sample sizes from local authorities and they do not take into account the influence of social class and we know that social class is a very important factor in determining educational achievement due to material and cultural deprivation. The statistics do not necessarily tell us the true picture; there is some evidence to suggest that schools sometimes do not allow ethnic minority students to sit certain exams, for example English GCSE. This is known as barring.

Another problem with using these statistics is that these statistics give us a snapshot of what the students achieved when they left school at 16. Many ethnic minority students then go on to study in later life and add to their qualifications. Nonetheless it is still important for us to understand why there are such differences in achievement within the school system. One explanation of the ethnic underachievement in the Black Afro-Caribbean groups is put forward by Eysenck who claims that Black people have generally inherited lower levels of intelligence and therefore they are restricted by their IQ.

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Hernstein found that on average, Black Americans scored 16 points lower than white Americans in an IQ test. However, we have to challenge the validity of an IQ test in measuring intelligence. This theory does not consider the role of the environmental factors and I would argue that this is short-sighted. It is much more realistic to consider that something like the language barrier is causing some ethnic minority group children to underachieve in school.

Bernstein explored the problem of linguistic deprivation in children of working class backgrounds and demonstrated that there is a cultural and linguistic disadvantage if you have a restricted speech code in the school environment. This is certainly the case for ethnic minority groups who may not speak English as their first language at home. The fact that a good grasp of English is required in order to access every area of the curriculum as well as the assessment demonstrates why this would be a problem.

Mac an Ghaill identified this problem. Cultural factors are also important too. Amongst Pakistani girls the expectation is often that they will become mothers and wives as fulfil a traditional family role; this is partly due to the religious influence of their Muslim background. This may mean that for Pakistani girls there is not the same emphasis and importance given to education and we know that parental expectations play a large part in explaining educational achievement.

West Indians are also held to have a family life which doesn’t encourage achievement at school but we have to treat generalisations like this with caution. The claim made here that it is the ethnocentric curriculum which accounts for ethnic minority underachievement was made by Cecile Wright who claimed that the UK curriculum was not only entirely focussed on the history and geography of Britain and delivered through an English medium but it also tended to use racial stereotypes which was leading some children from ethnic minority groups to be disengaged.

Literature often describes black people in negative terms and white people to be ‘fine’ and ‘fair’. Although I do accept that there is still a cultural influence in the curriculum I think we have to acknowledge that since the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988 there has been a much more balanced curriculum and things like the English language anthology are beginning to embrace multi-cultural poetry for example.

It is interesting to consider the gender differences within the ethnic sub-groups because as Fuller identified, Black West Indian girls had a very different way of challenging the ethnocentric system they were in. They did not fully conform and they challenged the teachers’ authority but yet they were pro-education and they worked very hard to achieve highly.

Teachers expectations were unimportant to them which seems to contradict some of the other research which indicates that labelling and teacher expectations could be a contributing factor as to why so many ethnic minority students underachieve. Coard called this institutionalised racism and argues that running through schools there were racist attitudes and stereotypes amongst students, staff and the school systems itself which are all working against the possible achievement of ethnic minority groups.

Coard thought that black children might therefore develop an inferiority complex and would result in a self-fulfilling prophecy with many children forming anti-school subcultures. This would certainly seem to be a more powerful influence than the argument of an ethnocentric curriculum because the curriculum is only one aspect of the school experience and as Rosenthal and Jacobson showed us, the self-fulfilling prophecy can be very powerful.

Gilbourn found that many teachers’ felt that black students opposed their authority and disciplined them accordingly. Could this be an example of institutionalised racism? This could also explain the higher levels of exclusion from schools amongst the black ethnic group which would certainly explain underachievement. One final factor to consider is the lack of role models in schools for ethnic minority students.

McCreith found that even when there are teachers in schools from ethnic minority groups, they are less likely to be in positions of power and therefore students are not provided with messages from people who have achieved academic success. I would argue that we cannot blame the ethnocentric curriculum alone for the underachievement of some ethnic groups but should instead look at a whole range of factors, as outlined above and should consider the fact that gender and social class are also extremely influential factors in determining academic success.


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