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Do schools provide educational equality?

The doctrine of educational equality is enshrined in the 1944 Education Act. This Act perpetuates the idea that the British education system is a force promoting social mobility based on merit. However, the evidence from both the Tripartite and Comprehensive systems indicates quite clearly that ascribed characteristics strongly influence educational achievement. Some sociologists are prepared to argue that differential achievement only reflects different levels of ability. Most sociologists accept that the education system actually perpetuates and affirms socially constructed inequalities.

A serious criticism of sociological investigations into ethnicity and education is that a fairly narrow approach has been taken. The dominant issue has been the educational performance of ethnic minority children. By concentrating research into the 'black underachievement' issue some have argued that:

Sociologists have:


  1. Reinforced racist stereotyping about black inferiority.
  2. Ignored the issues raised by black and Asian communities.
  3. Ignored the wider issue of black educational experience as a whole.


As a result of this bias a lot of research was done on black underachievement but very little was carried out into black pupils' experiences in schools, about teacher attitudes or parent-teacher relations.

An outline of the main areas to be considered

1. Research 'within' schools:

Research 'within' schools:


  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Texts and Curriculum


2. Research 'outside' schools:


  • Culture
  • Language
  • Class
  • Gender


3. Educational Policy:


  • Assimilation
  • Multi-culturalism
  • Anti-racism


Looking at teachers

Wright (1992) found that staff in four multiracial schools researched were committed to the idea of educational opportunity. But, some assumptions they held led to some black children being 'racialised'. That is, these children were unintentionally discriminated against because teachers held beliefs about 'racial' attributes. For example:

Asian girls were seen as quiet and submissive and this rendered them 'invisible' in class.

Afro-Caribbeans were seen as both behavioural problems and of low academic potential; this resulted in conflict with teachers.

Wright (1986): A study of secondary schools focussed on the interaction between teachers and Afro-Caribbean students, which was often characterised by confrontation and conflict. The outcome was that Afro-Caribbean students were placed in academic bands and exam sets that did not reflect their academic ability.

Gillborn (1990): In a study of an 11-16 comprehensive found like Wright (1992) that teachers unintentionally penalised Afro-Caribbean students because of their preconceptions. The students were treated differently because they were perceived as different. The result was more conflict with teachers.

Research 'within' schools

Eggleston (1986): Found that, in a study of 600 pupils in comprehensive schools, children from ethnic minority backgrounds were more likely to be placed on courses below those which might better suit their abilities and ambitions.

OFSTED reported in 1993-4 that children of Afro-Caribbean descent are more than twice as likely to be expelled from secondary school than white or 'Asian' children.

Some researchers have been more interested in studying the behaviour and attitudes of students rather than of their teachers. This type of research sees students as active rather than the passive recipients of teachers' behaviours, and describes how they actively resist the culture of the school.

Mac an Ghaill (1988), in an ethnographic study of 25 African and Asian students, found that the students disagreed about the extent of racism in education, but that the beliefs did not determine their attitude to education and they were not going to be labelled. Mac an Ghaill emphasised resistance to the culture of the school through the development of a distinct sub-culture. This resistance was not anti-educational it was anti-institutional. The students wanted to succeed academically and played the educational game without accepting the culture.

Sewell (1997), in another ethnographic study, found that students were positive about education but many rejected the schooling process. However, while Fuller (1983) found females students able to cope with the system even though they found it racist, Sewell found that male students found it impossible to operate within the school system and confrontation with teachers became inevitable.

Despite the above, Foster et al (1996) argue that there is currently no conclusive evidence by which discrimination against black students can be established. Ethnographic studies alleging racist attitudes are filtered through a process of selective interpretation based on the preconceived assumption that schools are racist. Foster in fact defends teachers arguing that teachers' views of students are not based on cultural stereotypes but on the actual behaviour and abilities of students. However, Mac an Ghaill (1988) claims to have found evidence of cultural stereotyping on the part of teachers.

Looking at texts and curriculum

Cole (1992) identified history and geography textbooks as mainly responsible for putting forward imperialist and racist views of non-white people. Wright (1986) suggested that two popular geography books of the 1980s continued to put forward unacceptable views of blacks.

Attempts to reduce the ethnocentric nature of the curriculum have tended to embrace aspects of ethnic minority life style rather than address their reduced life chances. The result was curriculum recognition at the level of music and dance, ceremony and cuisine. Some school proactively bring in professional multicultural artists, such as RSVP Bhangra, to run school music workshops.


Generally, these type of explanations have adopted the 'deficit' approach towards ethnic minorities, and, in effect, 'blame the victim' (Massey, 1991). Writers such as Flew (1986) argue that inequality of outcome in terms of educational attainment is not a result of inequality of opportunity, but rather are the result, as Sowell (1981) argues, of differences in culture. Scruton (1986) then argues that if it is ethnic minority culture that holds back pupils then the solution is for such pupils to embrace British culture in the education system and use leisure time to develop and preserve their own culture.


It's easy to understand that some students will experience difficulties in learning because English is not their first language. Such students, unlike those who, like black British students, are perceived as having non-standard English, may attract funding (Taylor, 1981). There is some evidence that speakers of black British English may be labelled as less able because of the form of language they use. A consequence is that such students may well feel discriminated against and actually use their language to 'resist' schooling, (Mac an Gail, 1988).

Thompson (1984) points out that teachers assume that they share the same language with their pupils, but that teachers usually operate with a dominant form of language, to which all students do not have equal access. Language then can operate as a part of 'cultural capital'.

Social class

Class has been used as a basis for explaining the differential educational enjoyed by different minority groups. Indians and African Asians do well educationally because they are predominantly middle class. Bangladeshis and Afro-Caribbeans under-perform because they are predominantly working class. Jeffcoate (1984) argues that because the majority of Afro-Caribbean children come from working class backgrounds it is reasonable to assume that they will suffer the same disadvantages as white working class children.


Female members of minority groups do better educationally than male members of such groups. Females, like males, feel and resent negative labelling, but unlike males to not develop anti-school cultures, but a more pliable 'resistance'. Anti-school subcultures just lead to educational failure; instrumental compliance allows the females to obtain the qualifications they want (Mirza, 1992). The girls then were pro education but not pro school.

Genetic explanations

For coverage of this aspect see 'The Bell Curve' Herrnstein and Murray (1994).


Up until the mid-sixties educational policy, even if not explicitly stated, was one of assimilation, a policy currently being returned to by writers such as Scruton. The idea behind such an approach was that incoming minorities should 'integrate' into the dominant culture.

Educational policy

Minority responses to this policy were negative, for example, Carter (1986) notes the emergence of 'Saturday schools' for Afro-Caribbean children as a way of motivating children to succeed. Currently, Islamic groups are seeking to establish State support for Islamic schools in the same way that Christian schools are supported.

Ethnographic research carried out by Mac an Ghaill (1991), in Marcus Garvey, a black voluntary school in the midlands suggests how state schools might incorporate more positive responses to the black communities they serve. Most of the students attended state schools but felt them to be white institutions.


In 1966, Roy Jenkins indicated the move away from assimilationist policies, towards what became known as the multi-cultural approach. He spoke of: '...not a flattening process of assimilation but equal oportunities, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance' (quoted in Mullard, 1982). This was seen as important for creating tolerance and understanding in society and allows the ethnic minorities to draw on their own cultural background.

Both the political right and left have attacked this approach. On the right there is a concern that multi-culturalism is an attack on 'national identity'. Pearce (1986) sees multi-cultural education as undermining the 'native' British 'way of life'. The same point of view was argued by Scruton and the Hillgate group. The Hillgate group were influential in planning the content of the National Curriculum, especially the teaching of British history, English literature and standard English.

On the left, multi-cultural education has been parodied as 'saris, samosas, and steel bands' because of its focus on lifestyles as opposed to racism. Parekh (1986) argues that multi-culturalism is used to keep ethnic minorities silent and ignores the social and political conditions that lead to their disadvantage.


By the 1980s, many teachers had adopted a more openly political anti-racist stance. Its aim is to examine and challenge racism in schools and society. This approach too has its critics. On the right there is the claim that anti-racism constitutes an attack on nationhood. In Britain, O'Keefe (1986) argued that those involved in race relations promote disharmony. Some critics view multi-culturalism as 'indoctrination' by teachers who should remain neutral. The Macdonald Report (1989) blamed a school's anti-racist policy for alienating white working class pupils and thereby contributing to the murder of an Asian pupil.

On the left, sociologists such as Gilroy (1990) and Mohood (1989) have criticised some anti-racist policies for 'colour racism' - focussing on black and white and ignoring other minority groups.

Post-modernists argue that simple comparisons of the experiences of black, white or Asian students is simplistic and unhelpful. The categories are crude, they ignore many other minority groups, but also there are differences within the categories (Brah, 1992). Crude typologies ignore the diversity of cultural identities in contemporary Britain. Postmodernists argue that the fluid and diverse nature of contemporary society makes attempts to explain education (or anything else) in blanket terms, such as class, gender or 'race', as both foolishly inadequate and likely to be hopelessly inaccurate.

McLaren (1991) argues that globalisation and increasing ethnic plurality in British society necessitates a different way of thinking about ethnic issues. What is advocated is the development of challenges to racist ideas and patterns of behaviour in the classroom, and the need for education to empower disadvantaged groups. But this is all a bit vague and post-modernist abstraction.