Separating pupils into those who qualify for free schools meals and those who don’t does little to highlight the more nuanced and complex picture in relation to attainment outcomes for different pupils, says Sameena Choudry.
The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) research Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility, carried out in partnership with LKMCo and Education Datalab in December, is a refreshing and honest appraisal of the current state of play on ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status.
The latter has been a dominant feature of educational discourse and policy since 2010 with the introduction of the pupil premium for pupils who are eligible for free school meals (FSM) to help to counteract lower attainment. Ofsted’s Common Inspection Framework firmly puts disadvantaged pupils at the heart of inspection, holding schools to account for their attainment.
However, this binary approach – of separating pupils into FSM and non-FSM – does little to highlight the more nuanced and complex picture in relation to attainment outcomes for different pupils.
This is where the research carried out for the SMC plays a pivotal role.
This binary approach does little to highlight the more nuanced picture
Its intersectional approach in overviewing current attainment outcomes for pupils looks at how ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status interplay to impact on outcomes across all key stages (including further and higher education), drawing on an analysis of the national pupil database.
Section one of the report summarises the attainment trends according to ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status and how they interplay with one another. Section two looks at causes and explanations for variations in attainment. Teachers and school leaders interested in addressing inequalities will find it handy to have this information in one report.
One of the report’s key headlines is that young people from black and Asian Muslim communities are more likely than working-class white boys to be unemployed and face social immobility later in life, despite doing better at school.
Depending on the intended purpose, we often hear two versions of the story in relation to the attainment of minority ethnic students: either they are leaving their white peers behind as their attainment performance improves or they are lowering overall attainment standards for white pupils. Both these narratives are false, unhelpful and mask the true state of affairs.
Without a doubt, white pupils eligible for FSM perform poorly. It is, however, not factually correct to say that they are the lowest-performing group when Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils are consistently the lowest performing across all key stages.
My own research based on data obtained through a FOI request shows that regional variations impact significantly more on minority ethnic pupils, especially outside London and the south east. It has also been shown that there are large variations in attainment within ethnic groups dependent on the languages they speak and their stage of English language acquisition. These important points are missing from the report, as is the fact that there is no exploration of the five other minority ethnic groups who are underperforming (any other white background, Pakistani, white and black Caribbean, black Caribbean, any other black background).
Their gaps in attainment over the past five years have remained the same or widened.
Nationally, when the attainment of white FSM pupils is discussed, it is often pitched against ethnic groups on FSM where class plays a less significant role, instead of focusing on the in-group gap between white FSM and non-FSM pupils, which is the largest. Instead this is deflected by comparing attainment with other ethnic groups, especially those with English as an additional language, leaving the impression that it is their fault that white FSM pupils are being left behind.
Overall, at a time when the pupil population is becoming increasing diverse (30.4 per cent primary and 26.6 per cent secondary are black, Asian and minority ethnic), this SMC research is a welcome breath of fresh air. The recommendations are all worthy of being actioned.
My own recommendation is that further research needs to focus on solutions to help policymakers and schools address the issues that young people face in school and society at large, so that they can realise their future dreams and aspirations.
Sameena Choudry is founder of Equitable Education