Media Briefings

School Achievement: Children From Ethnic Minorities Match Or Outstrip White Children By The End Of Compulsory Education

  • Published Date: August 2010


Just before they start school, ethnic minority children significantly underperform in early
cognitive tests compared with white British-born children. But by the end of compulsory
schooling at age 15/16, most ethnic minority groups catch up with (Bangladeshi, Pakistani
and black non-Caribbean pupils) or even overtake (Indian and Chinese pupils) their white
British counterparts (in key stage 4 tests).
These are the central findings of research by Professors Christian Dustmann, Stephen
Machin
and Uta Schoenberg from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration
(CReAM) at University College London. The study, published in the August 2010 Economic
Journal
, draws a generally positive picture of the progress of most ethnic minority pupils
through the compulsory curriculum.
In particular, the researchers find that improvements in their ability with the English
language is the single most important contributor to the catch-up or overtaking of ethnic
minority pupils relative to white British pupils. Language accounts for up to two thirds of
their relative progress.
In addition, differences in the kinds of school that ethnic minority and white children attend
become smaller in secondary school. This suggests that the transitions ethnic minorities
make when moving from primary to secondary school are important in explaining the
changing achievement gaps.
The researchers also find that the relative progress of ethnic minority pupils is particularly
pronounced in schools with more pupils from poor backgrounds. This may partly be related
to teacher incentives to focus on particular pupils, possibly generated by the publication of
school league tables.
The research concentrates on six main ethnic minority groups – black Caribbean, black
non-Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese – documenting the
achievement gaps between these groups and white British-born individuals in England over
their entire compulsory school careers (between the ages of 5 and 16). It examines three
explanations for this remarkable progress: family background characteristics, school quality
and teacher incentives.
The research finds that:
 At the beginning of primary school around age 6/7, all ethnic minority groups with
the exception of the Chinese lag behind white British pupils at nationwide English
and maths exams (key stage 1). The differences are most striking for Pakistani and
Bangladeshi pupils.
 By the end of compulsory schooling around age 15/16, most ethnic minority groups
catch up with (Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black non-Caribbean pupils) or even
overtake (Indian and Chinese pupils) white British pupils. The exceptions are black
Caribbean pupils.
 There are differences between boys and girls. Among black non-Caribbean,
Bangladeshi and Pakistani pupils, relative progress is more pronounced for girls than
for boys. Among black Caribbean pupils, boys lose ground while girls improve
relative to their white British counterparts throughout compulsory schooling.
 English is not a mother tongue for a remarkably high fraction of ethnic minority
pupils, with the exception of black Caribbean pupils. For example, among Indians,
the share of native English speakers is only one in five.
 Language is the single most important contributor to the catch-up or overtaking of
ethnic minority pupils relative to white British pupils, accounting for up to two thirds of
the relative progress. Language also helps to explain why the relative improvement
is smaller for black Caribbean pupils than for other ethnic minority pupils.
 With the exception of Indian and Chinese pupils, ethnic minority pupils are
substantially more likely to be living in poverty, as measured by their eligibility for
free school meals. But poverty cannot explain why ethnic minority pupils make
greater progress than white British pupils.
 Ethnic minority pupils attend very different schools to their white British
counterparts. For example, in primary school, the average share of white British
classmates of pupils who are themselves white British is more than nine out of ten,
but only one third for Pakistani pupils.
 These differences become smaller in secondary school, suggesting that transitions
that ethnic minorities make when moving from primary to secondary school (and
during these school phases) are of some importance in explaining the changing
achievement gaps.
ENDS
Notes for editors: ‘Ethnicity and Educational Achievement in Compulsory Schooling by
Christian Dustmann, Stephen Machin and Uta Schoenberg is published in the August 2010
issue of the Economic Journal.
The authors are at the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at
University College London (http://www.econ.ucl.ac.uk/cream/).
For further information: contact Christian Dustmann on +44-20-7679-5832 (email:
c.dustmann@ucl.ac.uk); or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:
romesh@vaitilingam.com).