Ethnicity and Educational Performance in the United Kingdom: Racism, Ethnicity, and Variability in Achievement

by David Gillborn
Ethnicity and Educational Performance in the United Kingdom: Racism, Ethnicity, and Variability in Achievement
David Gillborn
Anthropology & Education Quarterly
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Ethnicity and Educational Performance in the United i<ingdom: Racism, Ethnicity, and Variability in Achievement


University of London, Institute of Education

This article examines recent research on the variability of educational perfor- mance in Britain. The composition of Britain's minority population is reviewed, followedby a discussion of differences in attainment. The bulk of the article explores some of the social processes that lie behind the statistics, especially concerning teacher racism and student adaptations. The possibilities for im- provement at theschool level are considered briefly within thecontext of national reforms that prioritize market principles and marginalize equality concerns.

Although Britain has never been a homogeneous nation, it was only in the late 1950s and early 1960s that educationalists began seriously to consider the importance of ethnic diversity. This coincided with a period of increased immigration control that sought to end large-scale migra- tion from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. The dominant conception of minority students was as a problem: a threat to standards and order. Although political rhetoric has changed, and community and practitioner pressure has won certain victories, students of color con- tinue to occupy a marginal place in the British educational system. In this article I review the most important recent data on the educational experiences and achievements of minority students. My main focus is on the attainments of students during the years of compulsory schooling (ages 5-16). Limits of space preclude an exhaustive account, but an up-to-date review of additional areas (such as postcompulsory and higher education) is available elsewhere (Gillborn and Gipps 1996).

Ethnic Minorities in the United Kingdom

In the most recent census, just over 3 million people (5.5 percent of the total British population) were classified as of ethnic minority back- ground. Interestingly, regardless of their own ethnic origin, U.K. residents consistently overestimate the relative size of the ethnic minority population. White people overestimate most; more than half of them double the actual figure, and a third of them guess at four times the true level (Amin et al, 1991:4).

The census categories are relatively crude and, for many official purposes, they are even further amalgamated so that almost 80 percent

Anthropology 6Education Quarterly 28(3):375-393. Copyright O 1997, American Anthropological Association.


of the minority population is subsumed under just two broad headings: first, South Asian or Asian (including those of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi ethnic origin), accounting for almost 50 percent of the minority population; and second, black or African Caribbean (including those categorized as black African and black Caribbean), who account for almost 30 percent of the minority population (1.6 percent of the total population). In Britain, therefore, public discussion of ethnicity adopts a simplistic position that equates "ethnic minority" with "colorminority": the Irish are not widely counted as an ethnic minority although they share a distinctive cultural and economic profile that is highly visible in certain areas (Hickman 1993). The official focus on black and Asian people belies the situation in some school districts where other minority groups (including Chinese, Turkish, Greek, and Italian) have a signifi- cant presence. Similarly, Gypsy and other traveling communities are often ignored in official discussions (OFSTED 1996). To date, U.K. educational research mirrors the dominant official concern with the largest groups.

Race and color are not mentioned in U.K. immigration law; neverthe- less, the rules have been constructed to restrict access for people from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, while granting entry and additional privileges to white applicants from Europe and beyond (Lay- ton-Henry 1992). As the law presently stands, children born in Britain to non-British citizens do not automatically qualify for citizenship. Britain maintains a staunchly minimalist position on immigration that includes new restrictions on asylum-seekers and stands outside certain moves by the European Union to ease movement between member states.

Britain's ethnic minority population has a relatively young profile in comparison with the white population. Residentially, the minority population tends to be concentrated in urban industrial centers, espe- cially in London, the Midlands, and the northwest of England; London alone accounts for around three-fifths of the country's AfricanCaribbean population (Rumymede Trust 19941416). People of ethnic minority background are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts (19 percent in the fall of 1994, compared with 8 percent of whites). This general pattern is repeated throughout the different age bands. However, there is considerable variation among different minority groups. More than half (51 percent) of young black men (ages 16-24) are unemployed, compared with 33 percent of Ban- gladeshi, 30 percent of Indian, and 18 percent of white men (Runnymede Trust 1995:7). The pattern is not a simple one, therefore; minority com- munities experience different levels of economic success and display a range of social class profiles. The educational experiences and perfor- mance of minority students are no less varied.

The Educational Performance of Minority Students

Although most minority students were born in Britain (more than 80 percent), for many their first language is not English. A study of multi- ethnic secondary schools (serving students ages 11-16) in the early 1980s found that "the great majority of South Asian children (85 percent) were bilingual to some degree" (Smith and Tomlinson 1989:92). In some areas, schools report that more than 80 identifiably distinct languages are spoken (Linguistic Minorities Project 1985). This diversity has fueled continuing controversies about the nature and extent of English lan- guage instruction that can be supported by the state. At present, some additional funds are available to support basic English language instruc- tion in schools with significant minority populations. However, these resources are being scaled down to such a point that some teachers complain that they have to arbitrarily decide which students receive support (Bagley 1992; Gillborn 1995). These issues are especially impor- tant for Bangladeshi children, whose communities are more recently established and tend to lack the extensive support networks established by (and for) other Asian communities. Young Bangladeshis have tended historically to perform significantly below the level of their white coun- terparts (Tomlinson 1992). In Britain, national government policy on the education of ethnic minority students has emphasized linguistic issues above all else-reflecting an assumption that language presents the major barrier to participation and success. Even a brief consideration of available statistics, however, reveals that the situation is considerably more complex.

Race, Class, and Gender

During their final year of compulsory schooling, students undergo a series of examinations that are designed and assessed by autonomous Examination Boards. The most common is the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), which is available for a wide range of separate subjects. It is not unusual for students to sit for GCSE examina- tions in seven or more subjects. Their results often act as the first filter when applying for jobs or places in higher education.' Achievement on GCSE examinations is widely seen as the most important indicator of educational performance.

Ethnic origin has emerged as one of the most important variables when considering educational performance at age 16: it is not, however, the only factor that deserves attention. Historically, the most consistent and clear pattern of educational performance is related to students' social class background. There is a strong direct relationship between social class and educational performance, such that the higher the social class, the higher the average level of achievement. The pattern for achievement by gender is less pronounced; typically (at age 16) girls achieve somewhat higher results than boys, although this pattern is reversed in postcompulsory education.

Figure 1 shows the achievements of students in 1985 taking account of class, gender, and ethnic origin: the examination score is calculated by assigning a number value to each grade achieved. Although somewhat

14 3 -    
Blackboys .. . . . . .    

Exam score

Figure 1 1985 average exam scores in England and Wales by ethnic origin, gender, and social class. Adapted from Drew and Gray 1990:114.

old, the data remain significant because they are based on a nationally representative sample: all other British educational statistics on ethnicity relate to smaller Local Education Authorities (LEAS). There is a strong association between social class and achievement; whatever the stu- dents' gender and ethnic background, those from higher social class backgrounds achieved higher average results than their counterparts from less economically advantaged households. On average, African Caribbean students (of both sexes) achieved below the level attained by the other groups. Although young black women from working-class backgrounds achieved higher than their male peers, the data suggest that the common understanding that black girls outperform boys may be an oversimplification, relating only to working-class students. At this point we simply have too little data to reach a firm conclusion.

In contrast to their black peers, Asian students generally achieved as well as, or better than, whites of the same social class and gender. Although the data can be criticized for aggregating all South Asian students into a single category, they are nevertheless useful in providing a general picture of attainments in the mid-1980s. However, the inter- vening years have seen a program of educational reform unparalleled in postwar Britain: these reforms have had an important impact on minor- ity students.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, successive Conservative ad- ministrations sought to introduce market principles into British educa- tion. Reforms included establishing new types of school (outside LEA control and funded directly by central government); encouraging greater choice for parents about where they would prefer their children to be educated; changing funding arrangements to make school survival de- pendent on attracting sufficient numbers of students; and providing more information to "consumers" (parents) in the shape of nationally published performance tables that detail examination results by school and district. At the same time, a statutory National Curriculum was introduced to effectively define the content and structure of the majority of compulsory schooling.

The school performance tables are seen by teachers as especially worrying. The data (collected centrally) are published in national news- papers and, in many cases, local papers reproduce them in a best-worst league order, reflecting the proportion of students who achieved at least five higher-grade GCSE passes. No allowance is made for social class and other background variables. The combined effect of these reforms has been to heighten pressure on schools; in particular, many have made a special priority of raising GCSE attainment at all costs. This has sparked a return to the use of selection (creating separate teaching groups based on "ability"), a practice that tends to disadvantage minority students who are often overrepresented in lower groups (even when their test results suggest a higher placing might be more appropriate) (Hallamand Toutounji 1996).

Between 1988 and 1996, the proportion of students leaving compul- sory schooling with at least five higher grade passes increased from 30 percent to almost 45 percent-around half as many again in an eight-year period. This is a significant improvement, but there is evidence that young people of minority ethnic backgrounds have not shared equally in the gains.

While students in each ethnic group have enjoyed relatively more educational success in recent years, the greatest improvements have usually been made by the ethnic groups that already fared best in each local authority, meaning that the gaps between groups have grown (Gillborn and Gipps 1996). This has particularly struck African Carib- bean students, who have fallen even further behind the average achieve- ments of their white and Asian peers. Where data allow for more sensitive ethnic categories, Indian students appear to achieve as well as their white counterparts in many areas, possibly reflecting the larger proportion of middle-class households in this group.2 Young Pakistani and Bangladeshi people, by contrast, achieve average results generally below the level of white students. The exception to this pattern is in London, where Pakistani and Bangladeshi students often achieve higher average results than their white classmates: here, once again, the differ- ences may be a reflection of class background, since the white population of London is known to be markedly skewed toward the working class.

The School Experiences of African Caribbean Students

Although qualitative research has been established in the U.K. for some time, it is only recently that ethnic diversity has become a major focus. Qualitative studies add a vital dimension to work onethnicity and school achievement; previously, researchers often adopted deficit ap- proaches, looking for shortcomings in minority children, their families, and their communities (see Troyna and Carrington 1990). By examining the significance of race and ethnicity in the daily lives of schools, ethnog- raphers have begun to build a more detailed and contextual under- standing of how racism can operate within school settings.

The interaction between white teachers and African Caribbean stu- dents was central to some of the first qualitative research on ethnicity in British schools and remains a major concern. Additionally, ethnogra- phers have charted some of the ways young black people respond to their school experiences. Both questions have a direct bearing on school performance.

Black students are frequently portrayed as conflicting with the behav- ioral requirements of mainstream schools. Historically they are more likely to be moved into separate schools and units for those deemed to have special emotional, learning, and behavioral problems (Cooper et al. 1991; Tomlinson 1981). Also, they are more often subject to "perma- nent exclusion" (expulsion) from school. This is the single most serious sanction available to school principals; less than one in three students ever returns to full-time mainstream education following a permanent exclusion. Recent data suggest that black students are between four and six times more likely to be excluded than their white peers (Gillborn and Gipps 1996). Although older boys (ages 14 to 15) are most likely to be excluded, in comparison with peers of the same age and gender, African Caribbean girls are also excluded in disproportionate numbers. Ethnog- raphies of multiethnic schools suggest that statistics like these may be the tip of an iceberg; even where they share the same classroom as other students, teachers' beliefs and actions can be such that AfricanCaribbean young people do not enjoy equal opportunities to succeed.

Qualitative research frequently points to a relatively high level of tension, even conflict, between white teachers and African Caribbean students. This finding recurs in ethnographies from the late 1970s through to the 1990s. Cecile Wright's work in two comprehensive schools during the 1980s, where white teachers blamed black youth for a perceived decline in school standards of achievement and behavior, was especially important in demonstrating the degree to which teacher- student relations could deteriorate (Wright 1986). Subsequent research by Mairtin Mac an Ghaill(1988) in a boys' school and further education college (teaching postcompulsory-age students) confirmed Wright's ac- count of deeply felt conflict between white teachers and black students. Additionally, Mac an Ghaill's more thorough attention to the range of teacher perspectives revealed that even well-intention4 "liberal" teach- ers often displayed negative and patronizing views of black students as disadvantaged by broken homes and pathological family structures.

Mac an Ghaill also noted that despite their shared position as "ethnic minorities," African Caribbean and Asian students were subject to dif- ferent stereotypes. "Asian male students [tend] to be seen by the teachers as technically of 'high ability' and socially conformist" while African Caribbeans are "seen as having 'low ability' and potential discipline problems" (Mac an Ghaill 1988:64). This leads to a situation where the same action, say, borrowing equipment from a friend, may be legitimate for Asians but labeled as disruptive for African Caribbeans (Mac an Ghaill1988:66).

In my study of City Road Comprehensive, a multiethnic school in the English Midlands, I observed similar behavior by teachers. Black stu- dents were disproportionately controlled and criticized, not because they broke school rules any more frequently, but because teachers per- ceived them as a threat (Gillborn 1990). And yet City Road teachers, unlike those studied by Wright and Mac an Ghaill, did not speak about the school in terms that suggested black students were responsible for any fall in standards. Indeed, during two years of fieldwork I discovered that the majority of teachers were highly committed to the goal of equality of opportunity. Some younger teachers had deliberately chosen the school because they wanted to teach in the inner city. Nevertheless, classroom observations, interviews with students (of all ethnic back- grounds), and an analysis of school punishment records confirmed that, as a group, black students (of both sexes) were disproportionately criti- cized by white teachers. Despite the teachers' genuine concern to work with all students, teacher-student interaction was fraught with conflict and suspicion for African Caribbeans.

Ethnographic data on teachers' beliefs about working in an inner-city school, plus an analysis of interactions where black students were pun- ished for displays of their ethnicity-their sense of difference and racial identity-revealed that teachers frequently operated according to a myth concerning a black challenge to authority. Teachers believed that African Caribbean students, as a group, presented a greater threat to classroom order and their personal safety. They expected trouble from black students, sometimes perceived a threat where none was intended, and reacted quickly (as they saw it) to prevent further challenges. Consequently, well-intentioned and committed teachers came to re-create familiar patterns of control and conflict with African Caribbean students. Although the myth of a black challenge was rarely stated explicitly, its consequences were felt lesson by lesson, day by day. A frequent recipient of teachers' reprimands, for example, was Paul Dixon, a black student who was widely seen as wasting his high ability through adopting "the wrong attitude." On one occasion I watched as Paul and his close friend Arif Aslam (a young man of Pakistani background) arrived together seven minutes late for a class. They went directly to the teacher and apologized for the delay, explaining that they had been talking with a senior member of the staff. Almost half an hour into the lesson, and, like the rest of the class, Paul and Arif were holding a low-level conversation as they worked. The teacher looked up from the student he was withand shouted across the room, "Paul. Look, you come in late, now you have the audacity to waste not only your time but his [Arif's] as well." The fact that the students had arrived together and were sharing a conversa- tion was lost; furthermore, the teacher's statement explicitly constructed the black student as a time-waster and bad influence, while his Asian friend was placed in the role of blameless victim.

In analyzing the teachers' beliefs about black students in City Road, I described their perspective as a myth because it relied on (and recon- structed) a distorted view of the world-a fiction. Yet like all persistent myths, it drew strength from both the past and the present. The view of black people as physically powerful and prone to violence was, of course, a key feature of the thinking that supported and excused the slave trade: modern versions of this stereotype are endlessly re-created (with varying subtlety) in the popular media and beyond.

Within the school, the myth of a black challenge was handed down (sometimes overtly, often tacitly) from one generation to another as part of the craft knowledge of white teachers, and re-created through the (mis)interpretation of contemporary events. When criticized, for exam- ple, many students with family origins in the Caribbean turn their eyes away from a teacher's gaze; it has been argued that this is a cultural trait signifying respect (Driver 1979). Yet white teachers frequently see the action as a rejection of their authority, leading to further conflict. One of Paul's teachers, for example, placed the following interpretation on the action:

I think he's got it in for white. . . . When you're talking to him he's going. . . [the teacher looks away, feigning an apparent lack of interest], you know, you can see him thinking, "What right have you got-a white--to tell me off."

It is especially significant that this teacher sees the rejection of his authority as a racial issue: it is not about age, or experience, or knowl- edge. In the teacher's mind the key issue is race: he feels the threat as "a white." This view of black students was generalized onto the entire group:

[Several teachers are discussing a local news item about the disproportionate expulsion of African Caribbean students. Kathy notes,] "I've never been assaulted by a white kid. I've been thrown against a wall by a pupil and it was a black kid. I've been called a 'fucking slag' but I've only ever been hit by a black kid."

Ths statement, by a compassionate and dedicated teacher, shows how any single incident could be taken and used to damn all black students. In this case, the suggestion is that whle many urban students might resort to verbal abuse, only blacks are capable of physical assault.

Successive ethnographies of urban schooling in Britain conclude that African Caribbean students experience school in ways that are different from-more conflict-ridden than-students from other ethnic groups. In addition to studies of secondary schools (Foster 1990; Gillborn 1990; Mac an Ghaill1988; Mirza 1992; Wright 1986), a similar pattern has been documented in the early years and in primary classes (Connolly 1995; Epstein 1993; Troyna and Hatcher 1992; Wright 1992). In all of this, only one researcher has concluded that the teachers' actions were simply legitimate responses to clear differences in the behavior of black students (Foster 1990L3

An important trend in U.K. research on the school experiences of black students, therefore, has been to shift the focus away from teachers' conscious intentions and onto the consequences of their actions. In this way, ethnographers have begun to explore how racism can operate in subtle and more widespread forms than the crude, oftenviolent attitudes that are usually associated with notions such as prejudice and discrimi- nation. This situation affects black students of either sex. However, this is not to say that gender is unimportant. African Caribbean young women experience school differently, in some ways, than their male counterparts. Several qualitative studies (Fuller 1980; Mac an Ghaill 1988,1989; Mirza 1992) have explored the consequences of race-gender stereotypes in detail. Young black women are often subject to stereo- types of loud, boisterous behavior that can lead to opportunities being closed down:

Take Maxine last year, I had her name penciled in for the A band [the highest-ability teaching group]. What happened? It turned out that there were two girls to choose from; one was Maxine, a noisy West Indian girl, and the other, a quiet white girl. Guess who got the vote? Mr. S[a teacher] said Maxine didn't deserve to get the A band. I saw her work recently and she's gone backwards. [A teacher, quoted in Middleton 1983:88]

The greatest inequalities, however, may have their roots in the racialized and sexualized discourses that surround white teachers' views of young black men. As I noted earlier, black males tend to achieve less highly and are more likely to be expelled. BothFuller (1980) and Mac an Ghaill(1988, 1989) argue that different peer and teacher pressures may amplify male resistance in ways that lead to more serious disciplinary responses (such as expulsion). Ethnographies of black male peer groups highlight the dilemmas faced by students wherein the very masculinity that seems to offer them respect among peers (including whites) feeds directly into actions that will fail them in school (Mac an Ghaill 1994; Sewell 1995). These studies are important because they begin to unpack the complex interplay of forces at the school level; black youth are not simply pow- erless victims, and they retain a strong sense of their own identity and agency, yet they can come to play out exactly the roles written for them in white fantasies of black male violence/sexuality: "They are the images that the dominant culture finds easiest to accept, process and take pleasure in" (Gilroy 1993:35).

Although ethnographies of the male student subculture have ad- dressed the role of masculinity in school failure, they are mostly silent on the topic of success. Tony Sewell (1995), for example, comments on the existence of black young men who were "conformists at school," but does not interrogate the notion of conformity nor examine these stu- dents' experiences and perspectives. Existing research on successful black students tends to focus on black girls and young women: this work has established that high academic performance does not necessarily entail rejection of ethnicity nor simple "conformity." In each case, the students adopted an instrumental view of education (as the means to an end) and were highly critical of their schools and teachers. A simple dichotomy between resistance and conformity, therefore, may be too crude (Aggleton and Whitty 1985). Mac an Ghaill uses the notion of "resistance within accommodation" (1988:26-35) to describe the strate- gies of the successful young black and Asian women in his study. There are some parallels between Mac an Ghaill's study of "the black sisters" and my own account of the school career of Paul Dixon (the highest- achieving black male in City Road). In both cases the students adopted strategies that involved great personal sacrifice and a weakening of previously valued friendships. Yet both cases also concern students who retained a sense of themselves as young black people while managing relationships with teachers so as to minimize possible conflict. In Paul's case, however, resistance was achieved through the act of educational success itself; in contrast to the case of Mac an Ghaill's "black sisters," even limited signs of resistance (such as lateness or minor insolence) were absent. There are too few studies, but it seems that academically ambitious black males may have even less room for maneuver with white teachers.

The School Experiences of South Asian Students

Like their African Caribbean peers, South Asian young people often experience school as a racist institution: nevertheless, the stereotypes they face, and the consequences of their interaction with teachers and peers, can differ markedly from those of their black counterparts.

Qualitative research reveals widespread patronizing and racist stereo- types that operate to close down educational opportunities for young Asian people. Teachers frequently assume Asian communities to be excessively authoritarian, emphasizing narrow, restrictive expectations for their children, who are thought to be raised in families dominated (sometimes violently) by the rule of the father. Such views can lead teachers to lower their expectations, especially for young Asian women, because they expect their lives to be restricted by overly protective families, the specter of early marriage, and the demands of home. Such perspectives surface even in the most routine interactions:

The teacher was distributing letters to the class to take home to parents to elicit their permission [for a forthcoming school trip]. The teacher commented to the Asian girls in the class. "I suppose we'll have problems with you girls. Is it worth me giving you a letter, because your parents don't allow you to be away from home overnight?" [Wright1992:18]

This is a complex area, where reliable data on parents' true feelings are scarce. For example, interviews with 55 young Muslim women, predominantly of Pakistani background, indicated that around one- third of the parents were unequivocally opposed to their daughters pursuing higher education (Brah and Shaw 1992:43). Research on Pun- jabi Sikhs in Britain, however, shows that extended education for young women is actively encouraged by parents, and is supported by cornmu- nity norms that place a premium on women's education (Bhachu 1985). Teacher stereotypes concerning a lack of support for the education of young Asian women are, therefore, exaggerations at best and at worst diametrically opposite to the true situation (depending on specific cul- tural and local factors) (Gibson and Bhachu 1988).

I have noted that whereas African Caribbean students are often per- ceived as loud, aggressive, and academically poor, young men of South Asian background tend to be seen differently, as of higher ability and generally better behavior. This is carried to further extremes in teachers' views of young Asian women. Here a stereotype of passivity, of the docile Asian girl, "has often meant that the girls are systematically forgotten or ignored when it comes to demands on the teachers' time" (Brah and Minhas 1985:19). In some classrooms young Asian women are, in effect, invisible.

In the eyes of their white peers, however, Asiangirls are all too visible. Ethnography has contributed significantly to exposing the almost rou- tine nature of racial violence and harassment inBritish schools, including those with few minority students:

One of the most common interactions we have in the playground, the most common, widely used abuse is "You dirty Paki" or "Fuck off, Paki." [A school district official, quoted in Gillborn 1992:162].*

Findings from qualitative studies can provide a stark contrast to quan- titative approaches. Smith and Tomlinson (1989), for example, found "little indication of overt racism" in their survey of 18 comprehensive schools; yet, a simultaneous ethnographic study of one of the same schools found that "racist attacks (usually, but not always, verbal) were a regular fact of life for most Asian pupils . . . " (Gillborn 1990:78). By including participant-observation and interviews with a range of stu- dents (both victims and aggressors), ethnographers have highlighted the importance of ethnicity within student subcultures and have shown that racist harassment is more than simple namecalling. As a white primary student notes, "If I call someone 'dickhead' it doesn't really hurt them, but if I call someone a 'black bastard,' something like that, that would hurt them" (Troyna and Hatcher 1992:168).

Once again, qualitative research has identified important interconnec- tions between race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. The harassment of Asian girls, for example, frequently embodies a range of complex, some- times contradictory, racist and sexist stereotypes (as at once demure yet licentious, alluring yet ugly):

If I'm with a white boy, say just on the way home from college, they shout in the street, 'What's it like to fuck a Paki?", or if I'm on my own with other girls it's, "Here comes the Paki whore, come and fuck us Paki whores, we've heard you're really horny." Or maybe they'll put it the other way round, saying that I am dirty, that no one could possibly want to go to bed witha Paki. . . . I don't think any white person can possibly identify with what it's like. [quoted in Brah 1992:73]

The complex interplay of variables such as class, ethnicity, gender, region, and so on is illuminated through a range of ethnographic re- search. Mac an Ghaill (1988, 1989), for example, shows not only that Asian (Pakistani and Indian) males are as capable of resistance as their African Caribbean peers, but also that social class differences influence the form of adaptation. Ethnographic research also points to ways in which Asian students' school experiences may vary according to the ethnic composition of their schools. Although many white teachers hold negative views of Asian communities (as rigidly ordered, static, and patriarchal), the particular manifestations of these views are not always the same. Specifically, where African Caribbean students make up a significant proportion of the school population, teachers' stereotypes can prove relatively positive for Asian students. In contrast to their black peers, Asians are assumed to benefit from family support and a settled home life, which complements the aims of the school. However, where Asians are the dominant ethnic group, there is evidence to suggest that in the absence of black students, the same basic stereotypes are differ- ently articulated-in negative ways. In these cases, Asians' actions may be seen as "sly" rather than studious and the home community viewed as oppressive rather than supportive (Gillborn and Gipps 1996).

Policy and Practice: Racism and Antiracism

Whereas U.S. social and educational policy frequently addresses racial and ethnic issues overtly, this is not the case in Britain. There, with few exceptions, policy has been characterized by an unwillingness to focus directly on such matters. Indeed, issues of racial and ethnic equality have been systematically removed from the agenda during the current re- forms. Although a special group was appointed to report on the role of multicultural education within the National Curriculum, for example, its work was never published (Tomlinson 1991). Education reforms are posited in a deracialized discourse that, while never mentioning race, constructs a particular version of the nation, its heritage, and traditions that excludes any serious engagement with minority issues (Gillborn 1995). Although the 1997 elections marked the end of almost two decades of Conservative administration, there is no sign that the dominant conservative ideas will be replaced; the Labour Party has already dis- missed calls to reverse the reforms as tired dogma overly concerned with structures (Blair 1995:9).

In view of the continuing success of the Thatcherite project, therefore, students of color remain a marginal concern at the national level in Britain. Qualitative research has begun to chart ways in which individual schools have challenged this situation-for example, through the adop- tion of antiracist policies, greater parental and community involvement, and the active participation of students in school policy making and implementation strategies (Gillborn 1995; Siraj-Blatchford 1994). Unfor- tunately, such strategies remain outside the thrust of mainstream reform: in the face of continuing pressure to adopt market principles and re- spond to public accountability via crude performance measures, teach- ers report an increasingly difficult struggle to maintain a concern with social justice and issues of equality of opportunity.


British research highlights the variability of educational performance both across and within minority groups: Asian students perform higher on average than their African Caribbean peers; but each group is inter- nally differentiated, particularly along lines of social class and gender, in ways that are also associated with variations in attainment. One constant, however, is the salience of ethnicity as a crucial factor in students' school lives. Ethnographic research, in particular, points to the importance of racism as a complex, changing, and widespread factor that can work against students of color in many different ways. Such work identifies interconnections between forms of oppression that can cut across each other in unpredictable ways; a combination of race/sex stereotypes, for example, may make educational success especially dif- ficul t for young African Caribbean men. Similarly, although South Asian students suffer disproportionate levels of verbal and physical harass- ment, and can be subject to a range of patronizing stereotypes, under certain conditions those same stereotypes can operate to support posi- tive teacher-student interactions where white teachers view Asians as more settled and studious than their black classmates. In this way, empirical work at the school level provides a further impetus to recent attempts to theorize race and ethnicity as part of a more fluid and complex arena of socially constructed identities and oppressions (Hall 1992; McCarthy 1990; Omi and Winant 1994; Rattansi 1992). Perhaps most important, ethnography demonstrates the need to connect analyses at both the macro- and microlevels. Qualitative studies of student adap- tations and antiracist school change remind us of the agency of individ- ual actors while simultaneously pointing to the powerful constraints that continue to shape wider patterns of success and failure along lines of race and ethnicity.

Minority Status and Educational Performance

Several articles in this issue address John Ogbu's typology of minority status and school adaptation; it will be clear by now that, in their attempts to understand variation in educational performance, researchers in Britain have largely moved away from theories of cultural difference. Such approaches have often fallen into the trap of deficit thinking-viewing minority cultures as somehow lacking the necessary sophistication or motivation to succeed in the "host" society. Ogbu's approach clearly risks this same fault and has not featured significantly in British work in this field. This may seem surprising, since Britain is one of the comparative cases that Ogbu cites as evidence of the heuristic value of the voluntary irnmigrant/involuntary minority typology (Ogbu 1978, 1995). His argument is that while South Asian migrants expect to struggle and work for their advancement in British society, migrants from the Caribbean regard Britain as their "motherland" and therefore approximate involuntary minority status, so far as adaptation and school performance in Britain are concerned. But this stretches the typology beyond credence and usefulness. Such an interpretation does not explain the significant differences in performance between different Asian groups in Britain and risks dangerously oversimplifying the pro- cesses of social exclusion and oppression that are at work. Lack of space prohibits an exhaustive account here, but certain points are worth mak- ing, albeit briefly.

First, in Britain the largest minority populations all appear to fit the category of voluntary minorities. Although African Caribbeans and the various South Asian groups entered Britain on the grounds of citizenship status resulting from colonial relationships, the migrants had (to varying degrees)chosen to move to Britain. The degree to which their migration resulted from "push and "pull" factors has long been debated, and there are many variables to be considered (Watson 1977); nevertheless, it is the case that the majority of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Caribbean migrant families could not be said to view their presence in Britain as "forced on them" by the dominant white population-a crucial defining characteristic of involuntary minority status (Ogbu and Simons n.d.).

Second, Ogbu calls attention to cultural factors by stressing that al- though minorities (both voluntary and involuntary) "experience similar treatments," they "do not necessarily adjust or perform alike in school" (Ogbu and Simons n.d.). As I have shown, however, althoughboth Asian and African Caribbean students face racism in British schools, its nature and extent vary considerably. A young woman of Pakistani origin and a young man of African Caribbean heritage both encounter racism (in the expectations and actions of teachers and peers), but its particular manifestations and consequences are very different. In parts of British academia there is currently debate about whether cultural racism (tar- geted mostly against South Asian groups) is worse than the color racism focused on black groups (see Modood 1996): the debate is increasingly futile and unhelpful-both types of racism are extensive, complex, and highly damaging (Gillborn 1996). We need to pursue this complexity, understand and oppose it-not obliterate it by elevating one form of racism above the other, nor deny the variation by asserting the similarity of "collective problems."

Third, and finally, Ogbu's most recent statement of his theory takes exception (understandably) to the accusation that his work stereotypes certain communities (Ogbu and Simons n.d.). Clearly this is not part of his agenda, yet the very language and symbolism of his analyses re- hearse and repackage (in scientific guise) familiar stereotypes of "hard- working" minorities (notably from Southeast Asia) ready to struggle and "tolerate prejudice" whilst others (especially African Americans) are characterized in terms of an "oppositional" identity ready to blame the majority group for their lack of upward mobility and success. These are dominant stereotypes. Ogbu's typology lends them support because, despite his protestations, its overwhelming focus on "community forces" effectively places the blame/credit for variation in economic and educational success squarely within the minority communities them- selves. Although Ogbu includes the "educational treatment" of minori- ties (in terms of policy and practice) among the factors that inform his research, school-based studies are little in evidence when the typology is interrogated. In Britain, school ethnographies suggest that teacher racism (although not the sole factor at work) is a hugely important variable that remains hidden from other methodologies. As a basis for promoting improvements and reducing inequalities of achievement, British researchers have tended to emphasize the scope for change within the school system. Focusing on schools does not deny the possible influence of community factors, but recognizes the scope for change through educational policy and practice and acknowledges the dangers inherent in theories that place the onus for explanation and change within the minority communities themselves, leaving the mainstream education system exempt from responsibility.

David Gillborn is a reader in the sociology of education at the University of London, Institute of Education.


  1. GCSE examination results are graded as A*, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, or U (unclassified); grades of C and above are considered to be "higher grade" passes. The most common measure of exam success is the number of higher grade passes achieved. Alternatively, an exam score can be calculated by assigning each achieved grade a value and summing all grades to give an individual score. An A* grade is typically assigned 8 points, with 7 for an A, 6 for B, 5 for a C, and so on, until no score is awarded for an ungraded (U) result.


  2. Of all the main ethnic groups, the Indian population has the greatest proportion of middle-class households.


  3. For contrasting discussions of the wider issues raised by Foster's work, see Gillborn 1995, chapter 3 and Hammersley 1995, chapter 4.


  4. The term Paki is a form of racist abuse frequently aimed at South Asian people in Britain regardless of their particular national origins.


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