Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 178-199)




  178. Dr Simon Warren and Professor David Gillborn, we welcome you to our proceedings. I am surprised that you got here in one piece given that you are both academics from London and, having had dinner last night with the three Birmingham universities, they might have felt that they would be wanting to lay in wait and question you. Thank you very much for joining us. You join us at a time when we are at last getting the feel that we have got somewhat under the skin of Birmingham educational provision. There is no doubt that all of would confess that some of the prejudices and conceptions we had are now seen as prejudices and misconceptions now that we have had a chance to dip into a lot of schools and talk to a lot of people at every level—parents, teachers, governors, politicians. We have really immersed ourselves in the education of one city. We have also taken some interesting evidence not only from governors and parents and others but also across the piste, from the African Caribbean community, from the Asian community of different kinds—Bangladesh and Pakistan and so on—but getting the right scope. Some of us went to the primary school that is a play school here on Tuesday morning and of course we were told that even at a primary school like that there are 24 nationalities. Whatever we have done this week certainly is not up to that broadness of scope. We have talked to teachers and heads and others about a whole range of things. This morning, for example, we were with the PRU talking about their policies. We are learning a bit, but now we are asking you for your professional opinion because, as you know, we have started a year-long look at secondary education and we are looking at different parts of that and one is diversity, whether the Government's diversity agenda will deliver good value for taxpayers' money, whether it will deliver higher standards in education in the secondary sector. We are looking at admissions; we are looking at more difficult to teach students and those students who find it more difficult to achieve under the present system, and we are looking at teacher recruitment and retention. Given all that, would either of you like to say anything to start the proceedings or would you like just to respond to questions?

  (Professor Gillborn) It might be useful if we say a few things to refresh your memory about the four or five sides of A4 that we submitted. That is based on a year-long project that we have been doing, looking at race equality across Birmingham. The thing that attracted us to the work was that in many ways Birmingham gives us a lens on some issues that are also broader than just for this one city: the size of the population, some of the demographic trends, and also the quality of the data that Birmingham LEA collects. In many ways the city gives us sight of some trends that are probably in existence much beyond Birmingham but in other LEAs the data just is not there to examine the issues. I am sure lots of people have been telling you about the improvements in standards in Birmingham, particularly since the mid nineties. One of the things we drew attention to in that review was that the overall improvement at GCSE has been more rapid in Birmingham than nationally since the mid nineties. Unfortunately, given the specific focus that we had in that project, that improvement in standards has not been shared equally among the different minority ethnic groups, and in particular African Caribbean students have not shared equally in that. One of the other pieces of evidence which we tried to summarise in as few words as possible in those sheets of A4 was some data that indicates that the inequalities in attainment between different groups actually changes as kids' move through school. We presented a graph looking at the difference in attainment between white students and African Caribbean students at the key stages throughout education. That indicates that the inequalities in attainment actually worsen as the students move through school and are at their greatest as the students are taking their GCSE examinations. That seems to confirm some of the worries that were being expressed to us by different minority ethnic communities, both as the project was set up but also then as the project continued. One of the things that we tried to do was to look at the views of different stakeholders and Simon took care of that particular issue.
  (Dr Warren) One of the things that we feel is quite important to share with you on the policy side is the way that we perceive the tension between national strategies and local strategies. One of the distinctive features of Birmingham is its radical commitment to closing the equality gap. What we found, however, was that this often came into tension with the impulse and drive of national strategies so that increasingly, although the authority have wanted to integrate national initiatives, such as Excellence in Cities, literacy and numeracy strategies, into their own distinctive local improvement strategy, there is very little distinction between the national strategy agenda and the local strategy agenda. We feel that this in part undermines the attempt locally to close the attainment gap. In particular, although there are key equality indicators within strategies such as Excellence in Cities, there is a problem here in terms of the consistency of equality indicators across different strands, for instance, and in fact in some strands there is no explicit reference to race equality at all. The evaluation process is dispersed, although it is a bit tidier now than it was, and there is no clear leverage in the hands of the local authority on the Excellence in Cities partnerships and the schools themselves. Consequently there is an implementation gap and the authority is trying to set out a strategy that contains within it a strong commitment to race equality, but at the level of the schools where the improvement is actually delivered something else goes on quite often and, although the teachers are working very hard and the head teachers are very committed, the thing that really levers them, that puts influence on them, is the national agenda and the spotlight put on schools to demonstrate year on year meeting certain targets. Our fear is that this does not always complement their commitment to closing the attainment gap. Also across the authority there was what was mentioned in a recent Government report—management by initiative. There was a complex delivery mechanism in delivering the race equality strategy dispersed across a whole range of different discrete initiatives, large and small, national and local, with no clear cohesion or co-ordination of that strategy. Our fear is that it gets lost in that. Consequently, although the parents and students we talked to were in accordance with the local authority in terms of the value of education, the value of commitment to education, the value of learning as a gateway to future success and life chances, they often experienced something that was quite divergent from the commitment set out by the authority. For instance, the experience of parents could be characterised as that of high achievement, low trust. A massive amount of personal and community investment in education and the diversity and range of supplementary schools in the city is an indication of that communal investment in education, but it is also an indicator of how those communities feel that the mainstream education service has failed them, that they have personally and collectively got to invest so much in supplementary forms of education.

  179. I am not quite sure what "supplementary" means. Do you mean in the Asian community religious instruction in the evenings or at weekends?
  (Dr Warren) No. We mean Saturday or evening schools that are directly geared towards the mainstream curriculum, so they often involve instruction on mathematics, English, science, and this is what there is in Birmingham and other cities. One of the things that both parents and students reported to us was a consistent experience of being met with low academic expectations of them. Parents would talk to us about how they felt that schools had low academic expectations of their children, and many of the students felt the same, but where there was an exaggeration of minority ethnic students' potential to cause trouble and the presence of minority ethnic students in the exclusions figures is perhaps a test or indicator of that experience. There was also some concern around the way that schools were to slow to respond to white racism, particularly after September 11, despite there being in place quite clear guidance and instructions on how to respond to harassment and to the post-September 11 situation. These are just some of the factors we have found.

Mr Chaytor

  180. On this question of supplementary education, I do not quite see how what you have described is necessarily a consequence of a sense of failure of the system. How is that different from middle class parents employing private tutors to get their kids into Oxford? It does not necessarily imply loss of faith in the system. It is purely a result of the competitive pressures and the desire to encourage your kids to succeed, is it not?
  (Professor Gillborn) It is clearly a reflection of a great investment in education, particularly amongst minority communities. Historically immigrant communities have tended to view education as one of the key ladders towards social betterment but the history of supplementary schools in black communities, particularly in African Caribbean communities, goes back decades.

  181. It is not something new?
  (Professor Gillborn) It is not a thing linked to the post-1988—

  182. You cannot identify it as a result of the failure of the system at the moment?
  (Professor Gillborn) No. If you look at the history of supplementary education it is usually tied to the historic failure of the education system, not just in Birmingham but nationally, in terms of black students, that many supplementary schools began with one person teaching a group of students in their front room and these have gradually built up. I do not know if anyone knows the precise figure but there are hundreds if not thousands of black supplementary schools nationally which provide an important source of extra tuition.

  183. There are hundreds if not thousands of private teachers visiting the homes of parents in Islington every night of the week. What is the difference? Middle class parents will say that this is because they really want to encourage their children to aspire. Why is it black parents saying that it is because they have no faith in the system?
  (Dr Warren) The picture that you have painted there is of a group of middle class aspirant parents who are responding to a very competitive situation, who want their children to go to Oxford or Cambridge or a higher status university, which is quite different in intention from black communities in Birmingham and other cities who are responding to historic and endemic experience of under-achievement. It is not the same.

  184. Okay; let me put a specific question. If they did not have these supplementary schools would you conclude that they were 100 per cent satisfied with the state system or would you say that this was an indication of their lack of interest in and their alienation from the mainstream system? What conclusion would you draw?
  (Dr Warren) It is the perspective of those parents themselves that their investment in supplementary forms of education, including private tuition, is a direct response to the failure of the mainstream system.

  185. Where is that documented? Is that documented in your research or is that more a judgement?
  (Dr Warren) There is research on documenting the experience—

  186. Where is that research and can you provide the evidence to the Committee that concludes that?
  (Dr Warren) I can give you references, yes.

  187. That would be very useful. How do you view the performance of ethnic minority kids as affected by the fragmented system of education in Birmingham, the fact that there is so much selection in the system, either exclusive or inclusive? Do you think that has any impact whatsoever? Does it serve to increase the achievement gap between black and white or does it serve to reduce the achievement gap between black and white?
  (Professor Gillborn) I think in many respects there is not sufficient data to examine all of the different influences that are suggested by a question like that in terms of the different types of schools, selective, non-selective, single-sex, all the rest of it. What is very clear from evidence, not just from our research but nationally, is that when you have a system which selects according to some standard of ability and/or behaviour, be it selection into a different school or selection to different classes within a school, the overwhelming evidence both from this country and from North America is that those systems tend to disadvantage particular groups—working class students, African Caribbean students, also certain groups with English as an additional language, that those kinds of selective systems tend to put additional barriers in the way of achievement.

Jeff Ennis

  188. We saw a very interesting case study yesterday at a school called Four Dwellings Comprehensive School which is in a predominantly white working class area on the edge of town and they bus in quite a lot of African Caribbean kids from the centre of town because, as you know, a lot of the schools in the centre of town have been demolished to make way for economic regeneration projects. It is a school that is improving and it has got quite a good record of achievement in improvement terms. The one thing that stood out in the record of achievement of improvement was the fact that the boys were performing just as well as the girls in academic terms. I asked them what was the reason for that and how had they achieved this conundrum that we are all facing and trying to resolve. The head said that the reason for that was that the African Caribbean kids that were being bussed to the school were making that much more effort to go to this school because they bypassed about four or five other comprehensives to get to this particular school, so therefore they felt they had more parental support than other African Caribbean kids, and it was the African Caribbean boys that were bringing the record of academic achievement up to that of the girls. It was not the white working class lads who lived around the school that were doing that; it was the black African Caribbean boys. What do you think that tells us?
  (Professor Gillborn) I think it is very interesting when you look at a situation like that and compare it with what the students and parents were saying to us. We virtually universally came across students who genuinely wanted to succeed in education, parents who were desperate to see their sons and daughters doing well but were often complaining that the schools had diametrically opposed expectations, did not expect kids to succeed. What strikes me as interesting there is that you are speaking with teachers at a school who have a different view of the African Caribbean students. They have a view of the students as coming ready to learn, as being highly motivated, which sounds very different from the views of teachers who we were being told about. Whilst the school's explanation may be that it is a different kind of black student, the students' explanation might well be that it is a different kind of school. It is a school that thinks black students are highly motivated. The independent variable, the thing that makes the difference, might actually be the expectations of the school, that the school thinks, "If these kids are coming from miles across the city they have got the commitment to learn", which might be there in other city schools but may not be recognised.

  189. In my simplistic naivety as a Member of Parliament from Barnsley, what that means is that the more important parents consider their kids' education the more important a factor that is in terms of the achievement of their child's success, and it is quite clearly one of the major factors we have to try and bring about in every school within the authorities—parental involvement in their kids' education.
  (Professor Gillborn) I think that is absolutely right. All the evidence nationally supports that, but also clearly indicates that if you compare like with like most minority ethnic communities, including African Caribbean families, tend to have a higher level of commitment to education, support their kids staying in education longer and make greater sacrifices than equivalent white families. In many cases there is what Simon was talking about as high investment/low trust. There is a real untapped vein of high expectations and commitment in many of these minority ethnic communities.

Paul Holmes

  190. There has been a lot of debate in the national press over this issue and one black university academic whose name I cannot remember argued that it is far too simplistic just to say that schools were being racist because you could see, he argued, distinct differences according to what particular group people came from. We were looking in detail at the Birmingham schools admissions figures earlier this week, broken down by ethnic grouping, and we visited King Edward VI Camphill Technology College, which is a former grammar school and we found that they take over half of their pupils from ethnic minorities, which is bigger than the proportion for the area, so you certainly could not say that that school is being racist because it is taking more ethnic minority kids than white kids. When you break down their admissions by ethnic group you have got high numbers of Indians, high numbers of Sikhs, and you have got very low, almost non-existent numbers of Bangladeshis and African-Caribbeans, for example. That would seem to support the argument that you cannot just say it is racism. You have got to look at social class, deprivation, etc, and you have got to look perhaps at culture as well and parental support because there are clear differences between ethnic groups, not just between white and ethnic groups.
  (Professor Gillborn) There are many factors involved in this. Social class is one of the key ones. When you try and understand the performance of any group social class is the first variable you need to look at. However, when you say it is not as simple as racism, very often there is a tendency to assume that racism is simple. Very often when white people hear the word "racism" they tend to think of the BNP, they think about the people that killed Stephen Lawrence, but the Stephen Lawrence inquiry pointed out that racism involves a whole variety of actions and assumptions, many of which are well intentioned. There is an awful lot of research in education suggesting that particularly white teachers' assumptions of different minority groups differ. It is not the case that if a teacher assumes that African Caribbean students will be badly behaved they automatically assume that all students who are not white will be badly behaved. The same teacher may have exaggerated expectations of, for example, Indian students or Chinese students. Stereotypes do not always work in one direction. They often are contradictory. Part of the problem with the term "racism" is the way in which we use the term. In a room like this, if there are 20 people there might be 20 different assumptions about what we are talking about. The evidence from schools increasingly suggests that racism in that very crude form, the kind of Alf Garnett racism, has virtually disappeared from the staff room, but racism in terms of different expectations about behaviour, about attainment, the evidence suggests is still quite commonplace. The way in which that works through decisions about which group a kid is going to be taught in, which subject is more or less appropriate when they come to choose their GCSE options, which tier of exam they are going to be entered in (which can set a limit on the grades they can gain), is that those decisions are quite mundane, they are not dramatic, obviously racist incidents, but they are decisions which over time tend to work against particular minority ethnic groups. If we are talking about racism we need to remember that usually in schools it is that more mundane, subtle sort of racism rather than the headline grabbing kind.

  191. But in this particular case you have got a school that is admitting children on the basis of an academic test and it is taking in more ethnic minority children than white children, the reverse of the population make-up of Birmingham, for example, and it is taking in considerable numbers of certain ethnic groups and not others. It is not just a matter of taking in Asians but not black minority groups, for example, because it is also distinguishing between different groups of Asians. That is being done by an objective academic test, not by selection in the sense of people deciding, "We will have you, you and you but not you".
  (Professor Gillborn) You use the phrase "objective academic test". Part of the historical way in which apparently objective things have worked against particular communities is not just because of ethnicity, linguistic issues or social class which you mentioned, but because certain communities have more access to preparing for certain kinds of tests and assessment. We know that historically, for at least 50 years if not a century, certain kinds of cognitive tests, which some people at the moment view as a way of getting past stereotypes, have systematically worked against black people. I think the objectivity or fair nature of tests cannot always be taken for granted in terms of class as well as ethnicity.

  192. Given that you are saying that there is a lot of evidence of Afro-Caribbeans, for example, putting a lot of money and effort into after hours coaching for their kids, why is that not making a difference on the numbers of that group who are passing these tests and who have been coached for that? Why are we not therefore seeing an improvement following through from that if it is as widespread as you say, that in the evenings there are hundreds and thousands of these coaching schools across the country?
  (Professor Gillborn) They are not coaching schools towards particular fixed tests. I am not an expert on supplementary schools but my understanding is that they are schools focusing if you like on the basics, schools trying to ensure that, in particular, levels of numeracy and literacy are good. One of the interesting things from the data in this city and from other areas is that often at age five, six, seven, black students are performing as well as, if not better than, the LEA average. It is not that there is a deficit in performance which needs to be made up but that those inequalities in attainment appear as the students move through the schools. That is one of the most disturbing findings, not just from Birmingham but more widely.
  (Dr Warren) It might be worth, as an attempt to try and answer your question, trying to compare the intake and the GCSE outcomes of those students compared to other selective schools in the city where the intake is mainly white and asking questions about why those schools do not have that proportion of students from minority ethnic communities given that something like at present 43 per cent of the school population are from minority ethnic communities. That might go some way to trying to address some of what you are saying. We do not have that answer here but that might be quite a useful way of looking at what are the different dynamics going on in those contrasting but similar schools.

Valerie Davey

  193. What you have just said indicates that school is damaging to those children's education. I think that statistics or graphs which Estelle showed us a little while back in terms of income and ability also showed the same trends, so children with low ability and low income do progressively badly and children with high income but low ability do better than low income and high ability. There is a crossover at about the age of six or seven which indicates that school is quite damaging, if you look at it crudely. That is an appalling thing to say. Is that really what you are saying in terms of ethnic minority groups in Birmingham?
  (Professor Gillborn) "School is damaging" may be the wrong way of viewing it. School is not equally good for everyone. I am not playing with semantics. The idea that school is not good for anyone is potentially quite dangerous. What is very clear from the evidence, and it sounds like the data that you are quoting is another example of this, is that schools are much better for certain students; they are much better for middle class students, they are much better for students who they identify as having ability. The problem with ability is that when you actually go into schools and see how that is identified, it is often identified on the basis of social cues. Schools are good at identifying students from particular kinds of background and then treating them differently, even schools that are absolutely committed to delivering equal opportunities and closing inequalities in attainment. One of the most important findings from the last decade or so is that the increased pressure, not just at the school level from headteachers and governors but at LEA level and at national level through the league tables, to deliver better standards in terms that can be measured has led teachers more and more to differentiate between different groups of students: "Where will we get the most return for our efforts?" When you look at how those decisions are made, it tends to be that working class students, black students, students with English as an additional language, are viewed as the students where the return on the extra investment, the time, is not going to show up in the league tables, it is not going to show up in the SATS. We need to focus on these kids at the borderline. One of the consequences of that is that some of these inequalities actually get worse.

  194. So you are exacerbating the problem. Part of it is perception; part of it is the time and effort spent on those who give a quicker or easier return?
  (Professor Gillborn) When you increase pressure on the system the system responds in ways that it feels comfortable with. The system responds along the lines that it has always used to identify who are the kids with ability, who are the motivated kids. Therefore some of these stereotypes are then given even more power as schools increasingly look to set by ability, look to differentiate between where the resources are placed. It is largely done on a colour blind basis. People do not say, "We need to put all the black kids in the bottom group". They say, "There are certain kids who are not going to make it so they have to go in the bottom group." It just so happens that when you look in the bottom group you have a disproportionate number usually of African Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Pakistani students. It is a process which you can see at work not just in the classroom but nationally. The major reforms have not focused on race equality as a key issue. There has been an assumption historically, not just for the last ten years but for the last 20 or 30 years, that as you raise standards everyone will share in that. All of the evidence suggests that unless you try and make sure that people share equally most of the benefit will be taken by the groups that have always done best.


  195. What I am not getting clear from the paper that I have seen, and I know that it is only an abstract from your piece of work is this. We have been going round all these schools and we have been talking to all these people. What I want to know in a sense is how do I compare poor students from all backgrounds? I do not want them to be mixed up with all other students. I want to know in the lowest social class how whites, blacks, African Caribbeans, Bangladeshi students compare. Have you done that in your survey? It is different when taking all the people in schools and saying, "Okay, it ends up that there are more African Caribbean non-achievers". It seems to me that we have got to know that because otherwise some of the evidence that we have taken so far suggests that there is a complex mix. Someone came up to us today in the PRU; she was the liaison person for parents, and she said, "So many people who end up here are the people who lack the parental role models, the backing, the support at home, the books at home, the environment of people sitting down and reading even a newspaper". It is complex. Some of the things you have said today put a question mark over schools and schooling and teachers whereas what we have seen this week, certainly I have seen, has surely to do with parenting and support and a whole host of other things.
  (Professor Gillborn) Yes, absolutely.

  196. I am worried. I have seen all these dedicated teachers and I am worried that it is the teachers and the school environment where students spend 17 per cent of their time.
  (Professor Gillborn) You are absolutely right in terms of the complex nature of the various factors that are at work here. There is a tendency when people talk about education to talk only about gender, the boys under-achieving issue, or to focus only on class or to focus only on race and ethnicity, when all of us have gender and class and race ethnicity and sexuality. The problem when you start to try and map these different influences across each other is that very quickly the size of the sample that you are looking at starts to shrink. The best evidence that I have seen nationally which tries to hold these different things in view at the same time suggests very clearly that if you want to predict how well a student will do, find out their social class. That is the best single predictor, not their gender, not their ethnicity. Once you know their social class, ethnicity then becomes critical. While it is true that nationally an African Caribbean student of middle class background is much more likely to go to university, to get five high grade passes, than a working class African Caribbean student of the same gender, that middle class black student is not as likely to be successful as a middle class student from an Indian family, a white family or even Bangladeshi family. Class of course takes lots of different background measures and bundles them together, and although class is obviously critically important, it does not explain away all of these other variations.

  197. No, no. What I am pushing you on, David, is that as we went round, and I think most of the Committee would agree with what I am saying on this, the most flagged up group which seemed to be difficult to teach, which was under-achieving, needing special measures to keep them in school and perhaps exclude them, was white working class boys. It came to us time and time again, even going round and seeing the people who were having disciplinary problems and being interviewed and so on. It just seemed to be almost in your face that this was the group that they were most concerned about. I do not believe they are prejudiced about them. We heard much less about any problems in teaching and being involved in the educational process of African Caribbean boys.
  (Professor Gillborn) I think it is absolutely vital to keep class in view. When I talked about the processes at work, particularly in secondary schools but increasingly in primaries, around selection within the school, different sets, different bands, different tiers, I did mention working class students because the evidence suggests that white working class students face very similar processes, very similar sets of expectations, that when they open their mouths, when they arrive for lessons and they are bedraggled or they are not adequately dressed, a set of expectations about what they are capable of doing comes into play. They are just as deeply rooted as the sets of expectations that come into play when three African Caribbean students are seen on a corridor and very often teachers think, "Oh, there is a gang", whereas three white kids might not be a gang. Three white kids might be a group of kids. I am not for a moment suggesting that these issues only work around race and ethnicity. Class is another one, another modality through which these issues sometimes operate.

Mr Pollard

  198. Bob Dowling, who is the headteacher of the George Dixon School, and who has absolutely transformed the school, there is no doubt about that, said to us this morning that he believed that refugees—and he has a lot in his school—are better in mainstream schools than being taught separately. I wonder if you have a view about that and whether having the refugees in this school might be an advantage or a disadvantage.
  (Dr Warren) In the work that we have done we have not got a definite position on whether—

  199. No; it is just a view I want.
  (Dr Warren)—they should be or should not be. In a sense that partly depends on the Home Office and whether they pursue the policy that they have suggested.


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