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Educational Research Vol. 43 No.

1 Spring 2001 91–106

Short report
Ethnic and gender differences in educational achievement and
implications for school improvement strategies
Feyisa Demie
Head of Research and Statistics, London Borough of Lambeth Education
Directorate, International House, Canterbury Crescent, London SW9 7QR


A vital element in school improvement is raising the levels of achievement of

under-performing groups of pupils in schools. This short report examines the
extent and reasons for underachievement throughout the key stage 1 and 2 and
GCSE school years in inner city local education authorities. Statistical trends and
patterns of performance are analysed, by gender and ethnic factors, to illustrate
differences in attainment. This is followed by a discussion of the implications of
the empirical evidence for school improvement. Overall, the message from our
study is that there are no simple explanations for ethnic differences in educational
achievement. Ethnic heritage does not presuppose underachievement. Some
ethnic minority groups, such as Indian and Chinese, have levels of attainment
above the average of the white UK groups. Others such as Caribbean, Portuguese
and African are under-performing. Additionally, ethnic minority achievements
are differentiated by both gender and level of  uency in English. The Ž ndings of
this study suggest that pupils in the early stages of English  uency perform at
very low levels, while bilingual pupils who are reasonably proŽ cient in English
perform better, on average, than English-only speakers at KS1, KS2 and GCSE.
Whatever the pupils’ ethnic origin, girls tend to perform at higher levels than boys
at all key stages. Several other factors are likely to have an in uence on perform-
ance at the end of each stage of the National Curriculum. This study also raises
wider questions about how contextual analyses can be used for school self-evalu-

Keywords: ethnicity, gender, school improvement, educational achievement, key

stage performance

Acknowledgements: The views expressed in this short report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the London Borough of Lambeth. The author
would like to acknowledge helpful comments and assistance on the draft copy from
Rebecca Butler and Anne Taplin. This report is based on a longer paper that was presented
at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of
Sussex, 4 September 1999.

Educational Research ISSN 0013-1881 /print/ISSN 1469-5847 online © 2001 NFER
DOI: 10.1080/0013188011004096 8
92 Educational Research Volume 43 Number 1 Spring 2001


Ethnic-related differences in achievement have generated much attention and

debate since the 1960s, and from the 1970s on, a modest but steady stream of
reports have been published. The focus of policy-makers’ concern, although
earlier concentrating exclusively on black Caribbean pupils, has lately included
the performance of all ethnic groups in the UK. The most comprehensive in u-
ential policy studies and inquiry were undertaken by the Rampton Committee
(1981); Swann Committee (1985); and the ILEA Longitudinal Literacy Survey
(Mabey, 1981); and the ILEA Junior School Study: School Matters (Mortimore
et al., 1988). Each of these appeared to show considerable under-achievement of
Caribbean and other black pupils, when compared with the average levels of
achievement of white and Asian children.
Some of the Ž ndings in these reports are supported by recent studies. Several
studies have found that ethnic background factors affect educational outcomes
and penalize schools with a high number of pupils from ethnic minorities. Pupils
from the main ethnic minority groups tend to have a level of attainment below
the average for that of their white peers (Nuttall et al., 1989; Jesson, Gray and
Tranmer, 1992; Drew and Gray, 1990; Demie, Reid and Butler, 1997).
Mortimore et al. (1988) and Drew and Gray (1990) further reveal African and
Caribbean under-achievement, even after controlling for social class. These
results are strikingly similar to the Ž ndings of a longitudinal study of pupils in
multi-ethnic comprehensive schools, which also found that the white pupils
attained the best average examination achievements when compared to ethnic
minority pupils (Smith and Tomlinson, 1989).
Although the above Ž ndings show that ethnic minority pupils tend to have
lower levels of attainment than white pupils, recent inner London studies suggest
that some ethnic minorities were performing better than the white pupils
(Thomas, Pan and Goldstein, 1994; Kendall, 1995, 1998). For example, the
analysis of the ILEA data by Nuttall et al. (1989) conŽ rms that all ethnic groups
performed signiŽ cantly better than English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish groups.
Only the Caribbean pupils achieved less well than the white ethnic group. In con-
trast, other ethnic minorities such as black African, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi
and Chinese obtained signiŽ cantly higher scores (Thomas et al., 1994; Kendall,
1995, 1998). One of the possible reasons for improvement by some minority
groups is that bilingual learners may start school as low attainers in verbal reason-
ing, but make substantial progress in language skills while attending secondary
schools (Demie et al., 1997; Thomas et al., 1994). A signiŽ cant limitation of both
the NFER and Institute of Education studies was that the sample size of some
of the ethnic groups used in the analysis was too small for a comparative analy-
sis with larger ethnic groups such as English, Scottish, Welsh, African and
Caribbean (Demie et al., 1997). Furthermore, the white population of inner
London is not representative socially or economically with the total white popu-
lation of the UK (Nuttall et al., 1989).
More recently, an OFSTED-commissioned research report also reviewed the
state of recent changes in the educational achievements of ethnic minority pupils.
The results conŽ rm previous research Ž ndings which suggest considerable under-
achievement of Caribbean and other black pupils, on average, compared with
white and Asian children. In addition, the report concludes that ‘if ethnic diver-
sity is ignored, if differences in educational achievement and experience are not
examined, then considerable injustices will be sanctioned and enormous potential
Short report 93

wasted’ (Gillborn and Gipps, 1996, p. 7). This concern has increased in the wake
of recent key stages 1 and 2 and GCSE results,which show the underachievement
of African, Caribbean and white working-class boys in both primary and secon-
dary schools.
Various possible explanations were considered for the differences in perform-
ance between different ethnic groups and underachievement of Caribbean and
other black children. A number of researchers have argued that ethnic differences
in attainment can only properly be understood in relation to social class, gender
and levels of English  uency. For example, Arnot et al. (1998) reveal that, overall,
white girls are outperforming white boys from the professional and intermediate
classes, and Asian and African Caribbean boys from these classes are outper-
forming their female counterparts.
Previous research has also demonstrated a link between level of  uency in
English and under-achievement (Demie et al., 1997; Kendall et al., 1995, 1998).
Children who have English as a second language and are non- uent in English
have restricted access to the National Curriculum and are severely disadvantaged.
The research Ž ndings from inner London show that children who are not  uent
in English tend to do less well in KS1, KS2 and GCSE than those pupils who are
fully  uent in English (ILEA, 1987, 1990; Demie et al., 1997; Kendall et al., 1995,
1998). The London Borough of Tower Hamlets provides an interesting example.
In comparison with other LEAs, the borough has the largest number of
Bangladeshi pupils speaking languages other than or in addition to English. Sta-
tistical evidence from the LEA indicates that Bangladeshi pupils who were not
 uent in English are achieving considerably below the level of other ethnic
groups. This pattern changes signiŽ cantly, however, when the different levels of
 uency in English are taken into account. The borough has made a priority of
identifying the language needs of pupils and has tackled Bangladeshi under-
achievement through Section 11 funded ‘Language Achievements Projects’. As a
result of such targeted initiatives, the performance of Bangladeshi pupils has con-
tinued to improve, with stage 3 and stage 4 bilingual pupils achieving better, on
average, than English-only speakers (London Borough of Tower Hamlets, 1994,
1998). These Ž ndings from inner London are signiŽ cant for education policies
which aim to target resources to raise the achievements of ethnic minority pupils.
They illustrate the importance of additional English language support to help
pupils to be able to fully access the National Curriculum.
Other studies also provide an alternative explanation for the underachievement
of ethnic minority children, including ‘unintentional’ racism (Rampton, 1981;
Swann, 1985); differences in socio-economic conditions (Swann, 1985;
OFSTED, 1996); prejudice on the part of some teachers; inappropriate curric-
ula and teaching materials; the discouraging effect of relatively poor employment
prospects after leaving schools, resulting from discrimination in the labour
market; lack of adequate support to schools and teachers from some Caribbean
and other black parents; and inadequacy of the understanding of Caribbean and
other black children by both schools and teachers (Rampton, 1981).
This research on performance by ethnic group and gender has been valuable
in advancing our knowledge on the nature and extent of difference in educational
outcomes. However, much of the work in this area mainly relates to secondary
schools, where statistical records are more extensive. There have been compar-
able differences at primary schools too, but unfortunately, there is insufŽ cient evi-
dence to conŽ rm this. Even in the few studies where ethnic differences and
educational achievement are considered, the importance of English  uency and
94 Educational Research Volume 43 Number 1 Spring 2001

gender factors to explain differences in achievement between ethnic groups are

rarely reported. Thus it is not possible to tell from most studies whether white
pupils do better than the major ethnic minority groups through KS1 and KS2 in
primary schools, or whether boys of different ethnic groups perform better than
girls. Furthermore, previous studies lacked data on differences in performance
between the different ethnic groups by level of  uency in English.
This report considers evidence from an inner London borough and examines
performance differences among the main ethnic groups, during the early stages
of primary education and at the end of their secondary schooling by gender and
level of English acquisition.


The sample
This paper is an LEA case study using 1998 key stages 1 and 2 and GCSE data.
The sample consisted of 2,340 pupils who had completed KS1, 2,267 pupils at
KS2 and 1,225 pupils at GCSE in inner city schools. The analysis is based on
the results of these pupils.

Measures of pupil background

• Free school meals – this measure is frequently used as proxy for level of depri-
vation in the area served by schools.
• Ethnic group – each pupil’s ethnic origin was recorded in one of 14 ethnic
groups. Details of the ethnic groups and other descriptive statistics of the KS1,
KS2 and GCSE cohorts used in the study are given in the Appendix.
• Fluency in English – a pupil’s  uency in English is measured by one of the four
stages developed by the ILEA, ranging from stage 1 (beginner) to stage 4
( uent). The  uency codes used and their deŽ nitions are summarized below:

Stage 1: Bilingual English learners who might be able to engage in classroom

learning activities using their mother tongue, but need support to operate in
English. (Bilingual refers to all pupils who have access to or need to use two
languages at home and at school. It does not imply  uency in either language
and includes pupils just beginning to learn English.)
Stage 2: Bilingual English learners who can engage in all learning activities
but whose spoken and/or written English clearly shows that English is not their
Ž rst language. Their oral English is well developed but their literacy develop-
ment is such that they need considerable support to operate successfully in
written activities in the classroom.
Stage 3: Bilingual pupils whose oral and written English is developing well and
who can engage successfully in both oral and written activities, but where
further support is considered necessary for a variety of possible reasons, e.g.
pupils who can read aloud accurately but experience disproportionate difŽ -
culty in reading comprehension.
Stage 4: Bilingual pupils whose use of English and engagement with the cur-
riculum are considered successful and who do not require additional support.
Stage 5: Pupils who speak only English.
Short report 95

All primary and secondary schools were asked to provide the name, date of birth,
sex, meals status, ethnic group and  uency in English for each pupil taking KS1
and KS2 tests and GCSE examinations.

Measures of performance
Pupils aged Ž ve to 16 years in schools are taught the National Curriculum sub-
jects, including English, mathematics and science. This is divided into four stages:
KS1, KS2, KS3 and KS4 and is age dependent.
The National Curriculum sets the standard of achievement in each subject
and, for most subjects, these standards range from levels 1 to 8 between KS1 and
KS3. Pupils climb the levels as they get older and learn more. Thus a typical
seven-year-old is expected to achieve level 2 and an 11-year-old level 4. There-
fore the measure used in the analysis is level 2 or above for KS1 performance,
level 4 or above for KS2 and A*–C for GCSE. An overall indicator of pupil attain-
ment in KS1 and KS2 was also derived by taking the average of the three tests –
i.e. English, mathematics and science – for each school and the LEA.

Attainment at the end of KS1, KS2 and GCSE

Table 1 presents a summary of the results for KS1 and KS2. Overall, this infor-
mation indicates that 77 per cent of seven-year-olds achieved level 2 or above and
54 per cent of 11-year-olds achieved level 4 or above.
Prior to the introduction of the National Curriculum, the statistic routinely
available for monitoring performance at GCSE was the proportion of pupils
obtaining Ž ve or more grade A*–C. There is no data for KS1 and KS2 which
would permit trend analysis, but the results for GCSE indicate another dimen-
sion to the overall picture of performance between 1990 and 1998.The propor-
tion getting 5+ A*–C passes has been rising in recent years. Figure 2 shows the
improvement in performance. In general, the LEA schools have been achieving
higher 5+ A*–C grades than in previous years. There was an increase from 16.9
per cent in 1990 to 28.8 per cent in 1998. This represents an improvement of
11.9 per cent. The national Ž gure improved between 1992 and 1998 by 8 per
cent (see Figure 1).
Recent data allow us to analyse the results by ethnic background. The LEA
schools contain a high proportion of English/Scottish/Welsh and Caribbean and
African pupils. Of about 28,000 pupils on roll, 27.4 per cent were English/Scot-
tish/Welsh, followed by 22.7 per cent Caribbean, 17.2 per cent African, 10.7
per cent other black, 5.9 per cent other white and 3.8 per cent Portuguese.
There are much lower proportions of other ethnic minority pupils. The find-
ings confirm that there were substantial differences in performance between
different ethnic groups at each key stage. Of all the three main ethnic groups,
English/ Scottish/Welsh did better in their performance compared to the LEA
African pupils outperform Caribbean pupils at each key stage. They also have
higher levels of achievement than Pakistani, Vietnamese, Irish and English/Scot-
tish/Welsh pupils at key stage 1, although this is not true of key stages 2 and 4.
One reason is that KS2 and KS4 pupils are not as long-established in the borough
as the other ethnic groups: most of the African, particularly Somali, pupils, are

TA B L E 1 Performance at key stages 1 and 2 and GCSE, by ethnic background

Ethnic KS1 cohorts KS1 Results KS2 cohorts KS2 Results GCSE cohorts GCSE
background No. of %age achieving No. of %age achieving No. of %age achieving
pupils level 2+ pupils level 4+ pupils A*–C grades

African 435 81.1 378 48.3 196 37.2

Bangladeshi 40 72.5 35 46.0 22 37.0
Caribbean 516 79.6 575 47.0 251 25.6
Chinese 21 85.7 20 77.3 22 50.5
Indian 53 83.0 47 66.0 27 58.6
Pakistani 34 76.5 45 66.7 10 39.0
Vietnamese 20 76.7 27 59.3 17 48.6
Other black 266 75.1 242 54.7 76 33.4
English/Scottish/Welsh 636 79.7 546 60.0 301 40.3
Greek 11 78.8 9 61.3 3 78.2
Irish 17 62.7 36 59.3 26 57.8
Turkish 17 64.7 21 55.0 7 15.3
Other white 131 67.4 107 46.0 71 42.7
Portuguese 89 44.6 83 0.0 45 30.2
UnclassiŽ ed 54 56.8 63.0 35
Average 76.6 53.6 37.2
Educational Research Volume 43 Number 1 Spring 2001
Short report 97

F I G U R E 1 Proportion of pupils gaining 5+ A*–C passes, 1990–8

Source: DfEE Statistics for Education: Public Examinations GCSE and GCE in England,

less  uent in English and others are recent arrivals or refugees. The combined
in uence of these factors can be seen in the relatively poor performance of
African children.
The achievement of Caribbean pupils is a particular cause for concern. People
of Caribbean origin make up the largest ethnic minority in the LEA and have
been a focus of attention among policy-makers. This is partly a re ection of Ž nd-
ings from London Reading Test and GCSE results which have consistently shown
that Caribbean pupils have performed below both the average for the borough
and that for the other main ethnic groups. This is further supported by an analy-
sis of National Curriculum results that show at the end of KS2 and GCSE,
Caribbean pupils achieved below the borough average (see Table 1). It is inter-
esting to note here that Caribbean pupils performed better than Bangladeshi
pupils at KS1 and KS2, but at the end of KS4, this performance was reversed in
favour of the Bangladeshi pupils. This Ž nding mirrors the Ž ndings of previous
research into the performance of Bangladeshi pupils, based on the London
Reading Test and GCSE results. The research shows that once bilingual pupils
become  uent in English, they perform up to and, in many cases, beyond the
LEA average. Bangladeshi pupils at KS1 and KS2 have lower  uency levels, and
as they progress to higher levels of English  uency, they perform better than the
Caribbean group. Overall, at KS2 and KS4 the Caribbean pupils appear to
achieve lower scores than all major ethnic groups.
The results of the National Curriculum tests at ages seven, 11 and 16 years in
the LEA also show that Bangladeshi pupils are the main underachieving group
at the infant and junior levels. However, by GCSE, Bangladeshi pupils are per-
forming close to the borough average, and have overtaken Caribbean pupils. The
main reason for the Bangladeshi underachievement from this study is clear; at
age seven about 90 per cent of Bangladeshi children in the LEA were in the early
stages (1, 2 or 3) of English  uency. By age 11, just under 67 per cent of
Bangladeshi children were in the early stages of  uency, while by the time they
took GCSE, the majority were reasonably proŽ cient in English. These Ž gures
offer much encouragement. They demonstrate that once the disadvantage of lan-
guage is overcome, it is possible for an ethnic group to catch up with other groups
who have outperformed them at the early stages of education.
Previous studies on achievement concentrate mainly on the main ethnic minor-
ity groups, as above, both in London and at national level. Indian, Chinese and
98 Educational Research Volume 43 Number 1 Spring 2001

Vietnamese pupils are relatively small ethnic groups in the LEA, and so it is more
difŽ cult to draw Ž rm conclusions from the data. However, Table 1 replicates Ž nd-
ings from other studies, that Chinese and Indian pupils tend to be the highest-
performing ethnic group (Thomas et al., 1994; Kendall et al., 1995, 1998).
Vietnamese pupils in this study also perform well, especially at KS2 and KS4,
although they under-perform at KS1. Again, this could, in part, be due to improv-
ing performance as proŽ ciency in English improves. Information about new
groups, such as Portuguese pupils, is more scarce and they are not recognized
nationally as a separate category. The extra category was added due to anecdotal
evidence that Portuguese pupils were under-performing. This is borne out by
their performance at KS1, which is the lowest of any ethnic group in the LEA.

Factors in uencing school performance

A number of factors may be responsible for the under-achievement of ethnic

minority pupils, including levels of English language acquisition, poverty and
social class. A major factor in the under-performance of ethnic groups such as
African and Portuguese at KS2 is the level of  uency in English. For example,
the results of the KS2 analysis show that the percentage of pupils attaining level
4 and above in each subject increased as the stage of proŽ ciency in English
increased. Bilingual pupils who were fully  uent in English were much more likely
to get level 4 or above in KS2 when compared with English-only speakers (see
Figure 1 and the Appendix).
There was little difference in the performance of stage 1 and 2 pupils in math-
ematics at KS2, but there was a marked difference for English, as might be
expected. Generally, the Ž ndings of this study indicate that the higher the level
of  uency in English, the better the pupil performance.
A similar pattern emerges when the data are further analysed by ethnic back-
ground. Table 2 shows the association between stages of English  uency, ethnic-
ity and achievement for KS2. The results are especially important because they
support the Ž nding of previous studies that performance increases with the
increased level of  uency in English for the major under-performing groups.
Analysis of the 1998 GCSE examination results also shows that background
factors, such as  uency in English and economic disadvantage, continue to have
a strong in uence on the examination performance of different groups of pupils.
For example, the results of the GCSE analysis by  uency in English indicates that
the percentage of pupils attaining A*–C grades increases as stage of English pro-
Ž ciency increases. Free school meals also demonstrate a similar pattern,with about
28.9 per cent of those entitled to free meals achieving A*–C grades compared with

TAB LE 2 Key stage 2 performance and stages of English language  uency, by

ethnic group (level 4+)

Stages of English KS2 results (%) No. of pupils

 uency ––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
African Bangladeshi Portuguese African Bangladeshi Portuguese

Bilingual stage 1 18 0 0 11 1 25
Bilingual stage 2 26 22 30 65 12 27
Bilingual stage 3 58 51 73 115 13 15
Bilingual stage 4 80 93 85 124 9 13
Short report 99

FIGURE 2 Key stage 2 performance, by stages of English  uency

FIGURE 3 GCSE A*–C grade performance and stages of English  uency

43.6 per cent who were not (see the Appendix). This result therefore further con-
Ž rms previous ILEA Ž ndings, which show that the higher the proportion eligible
for free meals, the lower is the performance in examination results.
Apart from the factors discussed above, earlier research has frequently revealed
the discrepancy between the performance of boys and girls (Arnot et al., 1998;
Gillborn and Gipps, 1996). Evidence from a number of studies suggests that girls
outperformed boys in virtually all subjects (Warrington and Younger, 1997;
Gallagher, 1997; OFSTED, 1996) at each key stage.
In this study, performance of boys and girls, by ethnic background, was exam-
ined for all key stages. Table 3 repeats the pattern established earlier, whereby
girls tend to outperform boys at each key stage. Overall, the Ž ndings of the results
between key stages indicate that girls achieve higher averages than boys. This is
true for African, Caribbean, English/Scottish/Welsh, and Vietnamese pupils at all
key stages. It also conŽ rms that for Bangladeshi pupils boys achieve better than
girls at KS2, but at KS4 girls are catching up and in fact doing better than boys.
However, sex and ethnic differences in achievement are not uniformly in favour
of girls across all National Curriculum subjects (see Appendix). Bangladeshi boys
were doing better than girls in mathematics at KS1 and KS2 and in English at
100 Educational Research Volume 43 Number 1 Spring 2001

TAB L E 3 Performance, by key stage, gender and ethnic background (percen-


Ethnic KS1 level 2+ KS2 level 4+ GCSE A*–C

background –––––––––––––––––––– –––––––––––––––––––– ––––––––––––––––––––
Girls Boys Average Girls Boys Average Girls Boys Average

African 84.0 78.5 81.1 50.0 46.0 48.3 41.8 27.9 37.2
Bangladeshi 75.0 70.8 72.5 43.0 49.0 46.0 41.7 32.5 37.0
Caribbean 80.7 78.5 79.6 48.0 46.0 47.0 28.6 18.3 25.6
Chinese 80.5 92.6 85.7 78.0 77.0 77.0 58.3 35.7 50.5
Welsh 79.6 75.9 79.7 63.0 59.0 60.0 40.2 40.5 40.3
Indian 84.5 80.0 83.0 63.0 67.0 66.0 58.5 58.7 58.6
Irish 13.3 83.3 62.7 66.0 56.0 59.3 40.2 47.5 57.8
Vietnamese 88.9 58.3 76.7 74.0 43.0 59.0 67.3 10.0 48.6
Portuguese 51.5 40.8 44.6 N/A N/A N/A 33.3 26.1 30.2
All pupils 79.4 74.4 76.6 56.0 53.0 53.7 41.2 34.6 37.2

KS2. In English, Caribbean, English/Scottish/Welsh, African, and Vietnamese

girls do signiŽ cantly better than boys at all key stages. A similar pattern is
observed for maths and science for these major ethnic groups. In addition, the
results conŽ rmed that Chinese and Vietnamese boys achieve better than girls in
mathematics at KS2 and Indian boys in maths and English and Pakistani boys in
science. By the end of KS4, however, girls do better in all subjects than boys.
Given the relatively small number involved in some ethnic groups, this picture
may well vary from one year to another.
As always such Ž ndings are incomplete without further analysis by social class.
In this case, there are no data within the LEA which would permit an analysis of
the performance by ethnic background and social class. It would be of con-
siderable interest to know how the interaction of these variables in uences per-
formance at KS1, KS2 and GCSE. However, the Ž ndings of research studies
published a decade ago show that social class is strongly associated with achieve-
ment regardless of ethnic background (Drew and Gray, 1990).

Differences in performance between schools and key issues

for school improvement

Another important aspect of this study has been the feedback to schools. Each
school is provided with their own performance data for each of the three key
stages. Figure 4 (and the Appendix) provide a sample of benchmarking infor-
mation that is used by the LEA to support school improvement and target setting
in schools. It also gives school-by-school differences in performance by ethnic
background. The LEA provides this information and other detailed statistical
data as part of its support for school self-evaluation (see Demie, Taplin and
Butler, 1999).
The issues which arise from the above Ž ndings, and critical analysis of these
Ž ndings, have important messages to convey regarding educational opportunity
of under-performing groups in schools. Many of them are familiar equal oppor-
tunities concerns. There are also implications for the way we analyse the data and
about its relevance to the realities of classroom practice. We need to encourage
Short report 101

schools to use individual pupils’ performance data for school self-evaluation and
target setting.
Overall, the results in Figure 4 show how well schools can do, whatever their
circumstances. They also conŽ rm that there is a wide range of performance
between schools within the LEA. However, while overall there is a relationship
between ethnic background and achievement at KS2, some schools with high
levels of disadvantage also have excellent results with English/Scottish/Welsh,
Caribbean and African children. These schools might be considered to be doing
better than expected and may be seen as benchmarks for success. In contrast,
there are schools with low scores based on the background indicators above which
attained a lower percentage at level 4 or above (see also ibid.). These schools might
be considered to be doing less well than expected. Our benchmarking information
is based on a crude analysis, but conŽ rms that there is a wide range of perform-
ance between schools within the LEA.
It is important to note that the relative position of a school on each of the indi-
cators may be due to a number of factors. Figure 4 shows the comparative pos-
ition for schools on a variety of indicators, including KS2 performance by three
main ethnic groups within the LEA. Information of this nature, while illustrating
the position of schools relative to the LEA average, does not of course explain
why they occupy that position: it is a matter for headteachers, governors and the
LEA to make sound judgements about why schools with similar characteristics
perform differently. Comparative information such as this is not a substitute for
detailed monitoring or review in schools themselves. However, it triggers a series
of questions concerning school improvement, and suggests areas of discussion
once headteachers, governors and teachers have compared their own school’s
performance with those in the bar graphs, the LEA and national averages:
• How well are we currently doing?
• How does my school compare with other local authority schools and the
national average?
• Why is it that some schools can achieve results that are so much better?
• What is it that these schools are doing in raising the achievement of under-
performing groups that we can learn from?
• What can be done to address and improve the underachievement of different
ethnic groups?
These are questions which headteachers, governors and school staff should ask
themselves as a basis for improving their work and raising achievement of under-
performing groups in schools.


In this study we have examined the educational achievement of ethnic minority

pupils at the end of each of three key stages. The Ž ndings of this study suggest
that children from different ethnic groups show differences in educational attain-
ment at the end of each key stage. Indian, Vietnamese and Chinese children
achieve higher results, on average, than African, Caribbean, Irish and English/
Scottish/Welsh pupils. Caribbean, African and Portuguese pupils are the main
underachieving ethnic groups. Underachievement becomes pronounced for
Africans at KS2 and KS4 and for Caribbean and Portuguese pupils at the end of
each of the three key stages.
A o

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B A o
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Educational Research Volume 43 Number 1 Spring 2001

FI G U RE 4 Key stage 2 performance, by main ethnic groups (level 4 or above)

Short report 103

However, this picture needs to be qualiŽ ed in a number of ways. First, the

different ethnic groups often show different gender composition. Gender is
strongly associated with achievement regardless of ethnic background. The Ž nd-
ings of this research indicate that girls outperform boys at KS1, KS2 and GCSE.
Second, none of these ethnic categories is homogeneous. The African group, for
example, is itself made up of groups whose language  uency levels differ from one
particular ethnic constituent to another. Pupils from Somalia and Zaire, and some
ethnic groups from the former French colonies and North Africa, are considered
as having a lower level of  uency in English when compared to African ethnic sub-
groups, for example, from Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa or Nigeria.
Third, it must be taken into consideration that the numbers in some of these
ethnic groups are relatively small, and any conclusions or interpretations should
be made with care, since the performance of a few pupils can signiŽ cantly weight
the overall performance of a group.

Implications for school improvement

The current local and national government school improvement initiatives put
much emphasis on the monitoring of performance and the need to identify the
factors behind underachievement. The focus has been on disseminating per-
formance data to schools to help support them in identifying areas for improve-
ment. The Ž ndings in this study show that Caribbean, African, Bangladeshi and
Portuguese pupils are under-performing compared to English/Scottish/Welsh
and other ethnic groups. This is hardly surprising, given that some of the African,
Bangladeshi and Portuguese pupils are the most recently arrived pupils or
refugees, and therefore represent the most economically deprived groups with
additional needs for English language support. The under-performance of these
groups remains a cause for concern and is obviously an issue that policy-makers
and schools need to address. There is a need for strategies to be developed to
raise levels of achievement among these groups.

Implications for English language support

The Ž ndings of this research conŽ rm that there is a strong relationship between
the stages of  uency in English and the achievement of bilingual pupils. In
general, empirical evidence from the LEA shows that the performance levels of
ethnic minority pupils increase as  uency in English increases. Pupils in the early
stages of English  uency perform at very low levels, while bilingual pupils who
are reasonably proŽ cient in English perform better, on average, than English-only
speakers at KS1, KS2 and at GCSE. Bilingual pupils assessed as fully  uent in
English perform much higher than the national average at all ages. These Ž nd-
ings offer much encouragement for policy-makers and school improvement prac-
titioners. They demonstrate that once the disadvantage of language is overcome,
it is possible to attain high levels of achievement for all key stages.

Research agenda for addressing ethnic differences in educational

Our study is not complete, and it is useful to identify some of the gaps revealed
by the Ž ndings of this research. There are some clear areas where further research
is needed if we are to obtain a fuller picture. The review of previous research into
104 Educational Research Volume 43 Number 1 Spring 2001

ethnic differences in achievement reveals that there has so far been little research

• what strategies schools are adopting to address underachievement of different

ethnic groups
• the extent to which different strategies are addressing ethnic differences in
• how the experience of successful schools may be disseminated within the LEA
to address underachievement in other similar schools.

The Ž rst step in answering these questions is to identify successful schools and
the strategies used in raising the achievements of under-performing groups,
including ethnic minority pupils. Some schools are already using a wide range of
different initiatives and good practices to address the issue. The strategies most
frequently raised by schools during training sessions on school self-evaluation
were: target setting, new teaching methods, parental involvement, role model-
ling/mentoring, staff training, language support for bilingual pupils through the
Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant and literacy and numeracy initiatives.
However, the extent to which these strategies have successfully addressed this
issue has not been documented. There is a need to explore further these strat-
egies and draw good practices that may be shared between similar schools.
The data used in the research do not reveal whether the variations in attainment
are the result of differences between pupils that existed before they arrive in
school, or whether they have developed during the course of schooling. To answer
these questions requires, at the very least, that each pupil’s progress is charted from
the point of arrival in school to the point at which the National Curriculum tests
and public examinations are taken. Further, it would be interesting to examine
whether certain groups fare better at one school than another. Any extension to
this work could involve using the data for value-added analysis which takes into
account such factors and weights them statistically. Another factor which has not
been examined here is that of social class. These ethnic groups may show a totally
different class composition, which may further explain the difference in achieve-
ment between the groups. Further research over time will help to determine the
trends of achievement.
Despite these limitations, the paper contains a wealth of empirical data relat-
ing to the performance of different ethnic groups that may be used as baseline
information for subsequent studies.


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Appendix: Key stages 1 and 2 test performance, by ethnic group, gender and subjects

Background Test/Task Key Stage 1 (percentage achieving level 2+) Test/Task Key Stage 2 (percentage achieving level 4+) Cohort Number
Indicators —–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– ––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– –––––––––––––––––––––––
Reading Writing Mathematics Aggregate English Mathematics Science Aggregate KS2 KS1
—–––––––––– –––––––––– ––––––––––– –––––––––– –––––––––– ––––––––––– –––––––––– –––––––––– ––––––––––– –––––––––––
Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls

Ethnic UnclassiŽ ed 63.2 55.0 68.4 60.0 68.4 55.0 66.7 56.7 66% 61% 67% 51% 70% 71% 68% 61% 114 126 28 26
back- African 76.7 84.0 76.2 84.0 82.5 84.0 78.5 84.0 46% 52% 45% 48% 47% 50% 46% 50% 141 141 223 212
ground Bangladeshi 62.5 75.0 70.8 62.5 79.2 87.5 70.8 75.0 47% 43% 47% 48% 53% 38% 49% 43% 19 141 24 16
Caribbean 76.4 80.2 75.7 81.4 83.3 80.6 78.5 80.7 43% 54% 45% 41% 50% 48% 46% 48% 262 256 263 253
Chinese 88.9 83.3 88.9 83.3 100.0 75.0 92.6 80.5 69% 73% 85% 80% 77% 80% 77% 78% 13 15 9 12
Indian 68.2 90.3 77.3 90.3 72.7 90.3 72.7 90.3 67% 63% 72% 58% 61% 68% 67% 63% 18 19 22 31
Pakistani 84.6 57.1 92.3 71.4 84.6 81.0 87.2 69.8 53% 77% 67% 73% 67% 59% 62% 70% 15 22 13 21
Vietnamese 50.0 83.3 37.5 91.7 87.5 91.7 58.3 88.9 38% 77% 54% 69% 38% 77% 44% 74% 13 13 8 12
Other black 65.5 76.0 70.3 78.5 77.9 84.3 71.2 79.6 46% 61% 53% 55% 49% 63% 49% 60% 95 96 145 121
ESW 73.4 83.7 72.0 83.3 82.2 86.5 75.9 84.5 50% 62% 60% 59% 62% 67% 57% 63% 283 245 354 282
Greek 60.0 66.7 80.0 83.3 100.0 83.3 80.0 77.8 100% 50% 100% 50% 50% 50% 83% 50% 2 4 5 6
Irish 83.3 0.0 75.0 20.0 91.7 20.0 83.3 13.3 47% 71% 53% 57% 67% 71% 56% 67% 15 7 12 5
Turkish 60.0 42.9 60.0 85.7 80.0 85.7 66.7 71.4 43% 78% 57% 44% 57% 67% 52% 63% 7 9 10 7
Other white 65.4 64.2 67.9 73.6 69.2 73.6 67.5 70.5 39% 44% 53% 42% 51% 45% 48% 44% 79 78 78 53
Portuguese 35.6 36.4 37.8 59.8 48.9 59.1 40.8 51.5 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a 45 44

Free UnclassiŽ ed 77.8 76.2 80.0 81.0 84.4 73.8 80.7 77.0 66% 60% 67% 51% 70% 70% 68% 61% 122 134 54 48
meals Free meal 62.8 71.5 62.4 72.5 73.5 77.1 66.2 73.7 38% 51% 47% 44% 47% 50% 44% 48% 480 482 559 516
Paid meal 78.6 83.4 79.9 85.3 85.1 86.8 81.2 85.2 55% 64% 59% 58% 61% 64% 58% 62% 474 436 626 537

Level UnclassiŽ ed 68.2 65.4 72.7 65.4 72.7 65.4 71.2 65.4 74% 65% 74% 52% 78% 75% 76% 64% 94 113 31 32
of English only 72.7 80.7 72.7 83.3 81.2 83.3 75.5 82.4 46% 58% 52% 50% 54% 58% 51% 55% 707 640 120 92
 uency Stage 1 33.3 30.4 35.8 51.1 48.3 51.1 39.1 44.2 14% 0% 21% 35% 21% 25% 19% 20% 14 20 194 167
in Stage 2 78.4 78.4 81.4 83.2 86.1 83.2 82.0 81.6 22% 19% 28% 23% 37% 28% 29% 23% 65 53 59 81
English Stage 3 98.3 100.0 94.9 100.0 98.3 100.0 97.2 100.0 47% 51% 57% 44% 55% 45% 53% 47% 93 98 33 36
Stage 4 90.9 91.7 87.9 94.4 97.0 94.4 91.9 93.5 66% 80% 69% 73% 67% 75% 67% 76% 103 128 802 693
All pupils 71.4 77.5 72.0 73.9 79.8 81.7 74.4 79.4 49% 58% 54% 51% 56% 58% 53% 56% 1076 1052 1239 1101