Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Professor David Gillborn and Dr Simon Warren (EB01)



  1.  In 2001 we were invited, by the Birmingham Race Action Partnership (BRAP), working in collaboration with Birmingham LEA, to review race equality and educational provision in Birmingham. The final report will be published shortly. In this brief memorandum, we will outline some of our principal findings and reflect on their importance for Birmingham and beyond.


  2.  An understanding of diversity and educational attainment in Birmingham is of widespread interest for several reasons:

  a.  Birmingham is one of the largest education authorities in the country. The sheer number of minority ethnic students in the city means that many of our statistical findings are more soundly based than has been possible in other area-based studies.

  b.  Demographically, Birmingham is suggestive of where the national pupil population is heading in the future. Around 43 per cent of Birmingham's school students are of minority ethnic heritage. It is estimated that by 2008 there will be no ethnic majority in the city's schools.

  c.  The LEA has one of the very best statistical units. The amount of information that is gathered, and the detail in which it can be analysed, mean that we can explore issues in Birmingham that remain hidden elsewhere.

  3.  The LEA has developed a strong national reputation for taking seriously both the need to "raise standards" and to increase "equal opportunities". If progress is to be made nationally, there are probably important lessons to be learned from the city's experiences.


  4.  Since the mid-1990s, standards of GCSE attainment at 16 have risen faster in Birmingham than for the country as a whole: between 1993 and 2001, nationally the proportion attaining five higher grade passes rose by 8.8 percentage points but in Birmingham the improvement has been 14 percentage points. However, students have not all shared equally in these improvements: see table 1.

The gender gap

  5.  At age 16, girls in Birmingham are achieving better results than boys in each ethnic group and the gender gap is increasing within each ethnic group.

Ethnic inequalities

  6.  For both sexes, African Caribbean children are the least likely to attain five higher grade GCSE passes and Indian pupils are the most successful.




1998 %

1999 %

2000 %

2001 %

Improvement 1998-2001 %

African Caribbean boys






African Caribbean girls






Bangladeshi boys






Bangladeshi girls






Indian boys






Indian girls






Pakistani boys






Pakistani girls






White boys






White girls







  7.  Boys in different ethnic groups have experienced different rates of improvement. Indian and Pakistani boys have improved most. Bangladeshi and African Caribbean boys experienced a fall in their attainments between 1999 and 2001. Consequently, inequalities of achievement have grown between white boys and their peers of Bangladeshi and African Caribbean backgrounds.

  8.  There is a general pattern of improvement for girls in each of the main ethnic groups. However, differences in the rates of girls' improvement, mean that Indian girls are now further ahead of other groups, while African Caribbean girls remain as far behind their white peers as they were in 1998.


  9.  Educational statistics make it possible to examine how different groups of children perform, relative to others, as they move through the school system from age 5 to 16. The quality of statistics in Birmingham mean that we can look at these questions in greater detail than has been possible in any previous research.

  10.  The data show that despite entering the school system with assessments that are generally in advance of the LEA average, Black pupils experience a dramatic decline in their performance relative to other groups. In other words, pupils in other ethnic groups draw more benefit (make greater progress) during their time in school. This pattern is true for African Caribbean children of both sexes and is visible in both the curriculum areas for which data are available (English/literacy and maths/numeracy).

  11.  Figure 1 (overleaf) shows the differences in attainment (in English and mathematics) between African Caribbean pupils and their white classmates. Data are available for each of the key stages in compulsory education. In this case, the scores show the proportion of pupils reaching recognised benchmarks at each stage: i.e. a score of 11 or more in the baseline assessments; level 2 or above at Key Stage (KS) 1; level 4 at KS2; level 5 at KS3; and a higher grade GCSE pass (A*-C) at the end of KS4. If African Caribbean and White pupils were equally likely to attain these scores, the values would be situated along the horizontal axis (which can be thought of as a line of equity). The further a value above (or below) that line, the greater the proportion of White (or African Caribbean) pupils attaining the relevant benchmark. For example, 41.8 per cent of white boys attained a higher grade GCSE in maths, in 2001, compared with 16.6 per cent of African Caribbean boys: consequently, the value for "Boys (maths)" lies 25.2 percentage points above the axis.

  12.  Figure 1 dramatically highlights several key issues. First, the scale of inequalities in attainment worsens considerably in secondary schools. Second, although the inequalities are worse for African Caribbean boys, there are clear and significant inequalities for Black girls also. Finally, for both sexes, the scale of inequalities is greatest in maths. This is a subject with a long history of academic selection and previous research suggests that such approaches may institutionalise inequality for some students, for example, by restricting them to GCSE papers for which the highest possible grade is a D.

FIGURE 1: Differences in attainment (baseline to GCSE) for African Caribbean & White Students, Birmingham 2001 EXCLUSIONS FROM SCHOOL

  13.  Recent years have seen a fall in the number of exclusions nationally and this has also been achieved in Birmingham. Nevertheless, it remains the case that certain minority ethnic groups are more likely to be excluded and the Birmingham data raise new concerns in this area.

  a.  African Caribbean students are permanently excluded more than twice as often as predicted by their numbers in the Birmingham population. Mixed race (dual heritage) children are over-represented by a factor of 4 in the latest figures: this is the highest rate of over-representation and appears to be worsening each year.

  b.  The over-representation of African Caribbean and mixed race students is common to boys and girls in both primary and secondary schools.

  c.  African Caribbean and mixed race students are also over-represented in shorter (fixed term) exclusions. The pattern is repeated for both sexes in primary and secondary schools.


  14.  Parents' relationship with the education service can be characterised as one of "high investment—low trust". Parents share the city's emphasis on the importance of education but they do not have confidence in the education service's ability to deliver equal opportunities for their sons and daughters. Parents complained that teachers have low expectations of their children which under-estimate their academic potential but exaggerate a potential for causing trouble. They are concerned that racism is not being challenged in schools. In some cases this can lead to worsening problems and a situation where both parents and students see the school as taking the side of white racist pupils.

Box 1: A Pakistani Mother's Story

Her son was facing a great deal of racism at his mainly-white secondary school.

The mother and father wrote a letter regarding this to the chair of Governors, because:

  "If we thought the school was dealing with the problem we wouldn't have approached the   Governors in the first place".

The chair of Governors wrote back saying the parents should take the matter up with the Headteacher instead.

The situation for the boy became even more serious after the events of 11 September 2001. The boys' frustration with the lack of a positive response from the school led him to become increasingly aggressive in his own defence. The school's response to this was to issue an `unofficial' exclusion. Since the boy was about to sit his GCSEs the parents did not have the option of withdrawing him from the school. Instead they had to challenge the school's actions.


  15.  Minority ethnic parents invest a good deal (of time and money) in additional resources to support their children's learning: this is seen individually, through the use of private tutors, and communally, through the provision of supplementary schools. Birmingham education strategy documents present supplementary schools as part of a joint educational project. But for many parents, especially those of African Caribbean ethnic heritage, the supplementary school system is a sign of the failure of mainstream education and their communities' unwillingness to accept that failure.

  16.  Parents' views were not universally negative. For example, they expressed support for mentoring programmes, especially where the mentor is seen as operating outside the low expectations and stereotypes that can characterise teachers' views. Nevertheless, it is a matter of concern that even articulate and confident parents feel distant from the structures of influence in education. This is especially worrying in view of the emphasis on "partnership" in the policy texts.


  17.  We spoke with students from a range of different ethnic backgrounds and included those seen by their schools as "high achievers" and some who were seen as being "at risk" of educational failure and/or exclusion. Despite the diversity of student backgrounds and attainment, there was broad agreement on the importance of educational success, especially as a gateway to further and higher education and/or the job market.

  18.  Students felt that positive relations with schools were vital and made possible by visible investments in them; as evidenced by things like additional classes, high quality resources and pastoral support. A cornerstone of positive relations with the school, and with learning itself, was respectful relations between teacher and student. Being treated as "an adult" was highly prized by students, regardless of their level of attainment (see box 2).

  19.  Students see respect as a two way process. Teachers who quickly resort to disciplinary sanctions, or fail to engage with the students' perspectives, are sometimes seen as unworthy of respect. In contrast, teachers are highly regarded when they show genuine interest in their subject matter and all their students. Unfortunately, many students report teachers whose interests do not extend equally to all their students.


  20.  We examined a wide range of policy documents that identify positive and challenging goals for education in the city (what we call, the intended strategy). However, these conscious goals are not always delivered in practice, where actual behaviour (the realised strategy) seems to be shaped by wider constraints.

Box 2: Student Perspectives

"The ones [teachers] who don't respect you, you don't do the work." (High Achieving Pakistani Girl).

"If something's happened, when you know it's not your fault, and the teacher's saying it was, you raise your voice because of what happened. They say you must treat the teacher with courtesy and respect, but if the teacher can't do that to you, what's the point of having the rules?" ("At Risk" African Caribbean Boy).

"The teacher in History, straight to your work, straight in to start work. But in Maths, you just keep on, keep on, keep on, just going round the bush, not starting the lesson. Like, when people just messing around [the teacher] just leaves them to do what they want and just teaches the ones he wants to teach." ("At Risk" African Caribbean Boy).


  21.  In order to support school based improvement, a key role for the LEA is the identification, support and sharing of "good practice" and building effective partnerships. The LEA achievement strategy is aimed at supporting school-based processes based on a school improvement and effectiveness model. This approach has received considerable support and school effectiveness principles have been widely disseminated across the authority.

  22.  The content and direction of equality strategies in Birmingham tends to be shaped by national strategies, such as Excellence in Cities (EiC) and the National Literacy and Numeracy strategies. In relation to equal opportunities, the LEA has identified the Excellence in Cities programme as the main vehicle through which the closing of the attainment gap and increased inclusion is to be achieved. In Birmingham, Excellence in Cities contains clear race equality indicators that set important and ambitious targets. For example, EiC Partnership targets include the aim to double the rate of improvement of boys from African Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic backgrounds. These ambitious approaches include requiring schools to set differential improvement targets, which (if realised) would close the existing "equality gap" between pupils from different ethnic groups.


  23.  In practice, Birmingham's improvement strategy is delivered by a multiplicity of discrete initiatives, many of them determined by national government. In this context it is unclear how a clear focus on race equality is maintained when Birmingham's achievement strategy is dispersed across such a wide range of initiatives. Although Excellence in Cities includes a range of race equality indicators, for example, these are not evenly spread across the different strands of activity. Some strands have no explicit race equality indicators at all. The complexity of the delivery mechanisms, and the dispersal of responsibility between so many different people and agencies, is highly problematic. It means that it is difficult to ensure that race equality features prominently in all schools' concerns and informs the way they deliver the range of improvement strategies. In practice, an "implementation gap" has emerged.

  24.  Birmingham LEA has demonstrated its leadership capacity by making the "Processes of Successful Schools and School Improvement" the common language of improvement in the city's schools. The LEA, and in particular CEO Tim Brighouse, have been proactive in driving these principles as the basis for improving the quality of education. Similar leadership needs to be provided to ensure that the race equality agenda becomes as embedded in the common-sense practice of teachers on a daily basis. Because of its size and ethnic diversity, Birmingham is often seen as a model for how others should respond to these issues: if the city is to live up to this promise, the LEA needs to be more proactive in driving and widening understanding of the race equality agenda.

Professor David Gillborn and Dr Simon Warren

September 2002


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Prepared 31 October 2002