GCSE attainment levels and the persistence of racial disparities

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Written by Remi Joseph-Salisbury

Last week, the Department for Education released data on GCSE attainment levels for 2014.

The percentage of black Caribbean, white and black Caribbean, and pupils from the ‘Any other black background’ group achieving the benchmark of five grade C’s or above fell well below the national average, once again. The attainment of the black African and white and black African groups very marginally exceeded the national average but still lagged considerably behind some of the high achieving groups. This made pupils from a black background the lowest achieving group. Whilst the mixed group achieved above average, this is largely attributable to the high attainment of the white and Asian mixed group who far exceed their black mixed peers. Based on my own research looking at the experiences of black mixed-race males it seems that black mixed groups have far more in common with their black peers, than other mixed groups. This is supported by the data on attainment levels.

When the groups are disaggregated by gender, the attainment levels cause further concern. For each of the black and the black mixed groups, girls achieved far higher than their male counterparts. This means that black and black mixed-race males are still further from the national average. Whilst the data shows that females do better than males generally, the gender gap is bigger still for black groups.

A further useful disaggregation can be found in the free school meal data. Free school meals can be used as a, somewhat crude, indicator of social class. When we consider the data for black and black mixed groups, we see that those eligible for free school meals achieve way below the national average. Black males who are eligible for free school meals achieve the lowest. Here we see how race, class and gender can combine to create barriers to educational attainment. Importantly, research has shown that when class is accounted for there are still barriers to achievement that can only be accounted for by race. Thus, to attribute the low attainment levels of black and black mixed groups to economic disadvantage, as many have tried to do, misses much of the picture.

Any hope of black liberation from the barriers presented by a racist schooling system must maintain a focus on the most disadvantaged of its population. With this in mind, we cannot afford to allow the relative achievement of some of the black subgroups to detract attention away from the barriers facing black pupils as a whole.

The introduction of a new performance indicator, the English baccalaureate further disadvantages black groups. A lower than average percentage of black groups are entered for the baccalaureate, this percentage is lower still for black and black mixed-race boys eligible for free school meals. Most notably, whilst only 24.2% of all pupils achieve the baccalaureate, only 20.2% of black males on free school meals were even entered for the examination. We see here then how this new measurement of attainment acts to perpetuate racialised barriers. Low teacher expectations have long been recognised as one such barrier to achievement for black and black mixed groups. These racist low expectations should cause concern in the context of the baccalaureate’s introduction as low expectations see black and black mixed-race pupils filtered into lower groups, and entered for lower level exams, than their performance warrants. It seems unsurprising then that a troublingly low number of black pupils achieve the English baccalaureate. The introduction of the baccalaureate has acted to widen the attainment gap. It is also conceivable that the devaluing of vocational courses has also disproportionately affected black groups.

Whilst we are reminded each year of the progress black groups make, it is conveniently ignored that the attainment gap remains consistent and pervasive. We should think of this, not as a failure of the system, but as the success of a system designed to perpetuate white privilege and domination through processes of endemic racism and classism. As the civil rights activist and Sociologist W.E.B Du Bois famously stated, ‘a system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect’. Schooling represents a key vehicle of racism used to structure society along racial lines. Schooling does not operate in isolation but alongside numerous societal institutions including higher education, employment and the criminal justice system.

The growing black and mixed population in Britain mean that, if the country is to compete in an increasingly competitive globalised economy, the schooling system must work to engage all of its population. Such an engagement would require a radical overhaul of the system as we know it. This would necessarily see an influx of teachers from black and non-white backgrounds, cultural awareness training for all teachers, an extensive redesign of school curricula to reverse the deeply embedded Eurocentricity that was further entrenched by Michael Gove’s curricular changes just last year. An ongoing e-petition has called for Black history to be introduced to the primary school curriculum. Moving beyond compulsory education, there also needs to be a challenging of the university admissions processes to remove the racial bias that makes it more difficult for ethnic minority candidates to get a place than their white British counterparts with the same grades.

Given the history of institutional racism we should not place all our hopes upon State interventions. Whilst maintaining, and escalating, pressure on the State for change, we should also look to grassroots movements and organisations. A refocus on the black supplementary school movement is one direction in which we can positively focus our energies. Although numbers attending supplementary schools have been in decline, many of these schools still provide an important, community-based, space for black and black mixed children to learn in a positive and supportive environment that values and validates blackness.

Education has the potential to create greater equality in society but at present the schooling system works only to create inequality. It is imperative that we work with, within, and when necessary, against the State until the achievement gap is closed and we see racial equality in our schools.