Written by: Jenny Bourne

Education and racism

Education is seen by many minority ethnic families as the route out of deprivation and discrimination for their children. But, despite this high premium put on education, some groups seem to fare worse than others. When post-war immigrants first came here, there was clear evidence of discriminatory practices (such as the bussing of Asian children or the relegation of West Indian children to schools for the subnormal) which marginalised and segregated children – setting them up for failure. Today, overt racism is rare in schooling. But research suggests that other factors such as teacher expectations and possible job opportunities may have much to do with success or failure. For example, in one study of a local education authority over time, Black Caribbean pupils entered schooling as the highest achieving ethnic group but left as the group least likely to attain 5 A*-C GCSEs.


Low expectations and/or racial stereotyping may also be at play when it comes to the exclusion of pupils from school. Black pupils, particularly boys, are more likely to be excluded from school temporarily or permanently and exclusions now take place from primary as well as secondary schools. According to government figures for 2000/01, Black Caribbean and Black Other pupils were three times more likely than white ones to be permanently excluded from school. Whereas 13 in every 10000 white pupils were excluded, 38 in every 10000 Black Caribbean pupils were. The lowest rate of exclusions was for Indian pupils (3 in every 10000).


When it comes to achievement at school, there is quite a wide discrepancy between the way students in each group fare. Overall in 2002, Chinese pupils were most likely to get 5 or more GCSEs (grade A*-C) and Black Caribbean pupils the least likely. And girls in all ethnic groups did better than boys.

Employment and education

Young people from minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to continue in full-time education after 16 and to get good results. 71% of minority ethnic 16-19 year-olds are in full-time education compared with 58% of whites of the same age. Though they are 9% of the 18-24 age group, minority ethnic young people form 13% of university undergraduates.

Chinese, Indians and Black Africans are more likely than white people to have degrees or their equivalent. Yet graduate unemployment is much higher among minorities: 12% of African-Caribbean and 6% of Asian graduates as opposed to 3% of whites. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, nearly 18% of black and Asian 1995 graduates were unemployed six months after graduating – almost twice as many as their white counterparts. Even within educational institutions, there is evidence of discrimination. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (January 2002) show that, although 6.5% of all academics are classified as ‘non-white’, only 2%, 208 out of 11000, professors in this country are black or Asian.

Refugee education

It is estimated that there are now around 70000 asylum-seeker or refugee children in the UK and of these over half are in schools in London and the Southeast. Obviously, such children, who have had to move very suddenly from traumatic situations may be coming to school with particular problems and English will almost certainly not be their first language. Some children have had to flee to the UK without their family or any adults whom they know. These ‘unaccompanied minors’, who are estimated to be at least 6000 in number, face severe problems and need special care. Sadly, there is even less support for refugee children, than was made available for minority ethnic children in previous decades. Help with extra English classes and additional teachers for areas with many refugee children are being removed. One of the only specialist units for refugee education, in Newham (which takes the most refugees in the UK) was closed down in 2002. It has also been decided that the children in asylum-seeking families who are being held in detention centres, will not join other children in normal schools in the vicinity. They will be educated in prison.

Separate schools

Because certain minority ethnic groups see that mainstream schools are failing their children, one response has been to set up separate schools to serve that particular group. For example, in 1980, a Seventh Day Adventist Christian school to serve Black Caribbean children was set up in North London. More recently, a small number of Muslim schools have been set up. (There are already separate Catholic, Protestant and Jewish schools in the UK – the law allows for any religious denomination to set up their own school.) Some groups are trying to pressure the government to give more money towards the setting up of separate schools.

However, evidence emerging from research carried out in the north west of England following riots there in 2001, suggests that the reason for the disquiet and rioting was the division between the Asian and white communities. And the fact that young people had rarely been educated together, because of an informal segregation (separation), was a crucial factor. We believe that instead of financing more separate, religious schools (exclusive to one particular group) efforts should be made to allow all children to attend the local schools of their choice and funds given to improve services and support in those schools.

Related links

Graph of educational attainment from age 5 to GCSE

Statistics from the Department for Education and Skills

Reports from the Higher Education Funding Council for England

Sources: Permanent Exclusions from Schools and Exclusion Appeals, England 200/2001, Department for Education and Skills 2002; Annual labour Force Survey 2001/2; Access to what: analysis of factors detemining graduate employability, Higher Education Funding Council for England, 2002.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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