Sunday, 21 April 2013

Race, Culture and Education

I woke up this morning in a good mood. The sun was shining. My twins had chosen to wake me through speech rather than the usual method of jumping on my head. Then I turned on my phone and saw a link to this article ("Race row Tory town tells Gove super head we don't want inner city pupils here").

Durand is an outstanding primary in Lambeth. The headteacher Greg Martin, an extraordinary and ambitious man, wants to continue providing an excellent education for the young people in his care up to the age of 18. He wants to do this by opening a boarding school in Stedham, West Sussex which would be the first entirely free state boarding school in the country. (There are 36 existing state boarding schools but they charge most parents for the boarding element).

A group of local residents are unhappy about this plan. Not because they don't want a school nearby - the proposed site is a former fee-paying boarding school - but because the majority of the pupils will be from ethnic minorities.

Some of the quotes from those opposed are just bizarre: "When you’re a teenager, isn’t it too late to start appreciating the countryside? I don’t know if it’s the right environment."

But the comments from local councillor John Cherry are breathtaking:

"Ninety-seven per cent of pupils will be black or Asian. It depends what type of Asian. If they’re Chinese they’ll rise to  the top. If they’re Indian they’ll  rise to the top. If they’re Pakistani they won’t. There are certain nationalities where hard work is highly valued. There are certain nationalities where they are uncertain what this hard work is all about. If the children are not allowed out of the site then it will make them want to escape into the forest – it will be a sexual volcano...Stockwell is a coloured area – I have no problem with  that. To be honest, I would far rather Durand took over a secondary school in London rather than  shoving everybody here."

These comments have been roundly, and rightly, condemned. After reading them it took me a little while to calm down and stop throwing things. But then I started wondering why Mr Cherry holds such astoundingly ignorant views and started to worry about the wider discourse around education, race and culture.

It got me thinking about the many conversations I've had over the past few years about the very noticeable difference in performance between ethnic groups (or "national" ones - all of this terminology is ill-defined and slippery). Often these conversations focus on "culture" as the primary driver of difference; rather than race or nationality per se. In some cultures (e.g. Jewish or Indian) - so the argument goes - education is highly valued. In others (e.g. Pakistani or white working class British) it isn't.

Is this, though, really much less reductive than Mr Cherry's comments? Indeed was he simply reproducing a garbled, and more overtly racist, version of that type of argument?

In reality the relationship between ethnicity, culture, geography, socioeconomic status and exam performance is incredibly complex. It cannot be reduced to simple rules of thumb.

Take, for example, the performance of poor Bangladeshi students in GCSEs. Last year 58.6% of Bangladeshi pupils on Free School Meals achieved five good GCSEs with English and Maths. That's bang on the national average for all pupils. In comparison 30.9% of white British pupils on FSM achieved the same benchmark.

What does this tell us? It's tempting to assume (as I've done in the past) that this is because Bangladeshi "culture" values education. But then remember that over half of the Bangladeshi population lives in East London and a third in Tower Hamlets alone. Then remember that London has seen much greater improvements in exam performance than the rest of the country and Tower Hamlets has been a particular success story.

Last year FT journalist Chris Cook looked at the extent to which London's higher performance was driven by higher performing ethnic groups and found that the effects were complex. Or in his words:

"Is the capital so good because it has these children, or do they do so well because they are in London? Well, the answer is “both”."

This is reinforced by conversations I've had with LA officials and headteachers who have been involved in the transformation of education in Tower Hamlets. It took - they will tell you - a significant amount of hard-work to engage parts of the Bangladeshi community in the schools' work. It wasn't automatic that pupils from these communities would perform well - indeed they weren't until fairly recently. Even since 2007-08 the Bangladeshi students on FSM achieving five good GCSEs with English and Maths has improved by 17% compared to 11% for white British.

The contributions of heads; teachers; community leaders; parents and the pupils themselves can't be easily separated. Reducing high-performance to ethnic or national "culture" is dangerous for two reasons. First because it can lead to Cherry-style reductionism. Secondly because it implies there's only a limited amount schools - and individual families - can do. The example of Tower Hamlets (or of, say, Park View Academy in Birmingham - which gets phenomenal results in a predominantly Pakistani area) shows this simply isn't true.


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