The “ethnic advantage” among GCSE students

For the February #SWDchallenge which focuses on education and diversity in line with the Black History Month, I looked at educational attainment at the school level in England.

One thing that was really stood out among UK’s detailed education data was the performance of children from ethnic minority backgrounds.

I narrowed down on GCSE attainment in English and Maths for two reasons:  One, how children perform in earlier years of education ultimately carries through to their GCSE performance, and also takes into account any progress they make in intermediate years. And second, performance at the GCSE level can reflect a pupil’s aspirations, it may have an influence on the university the pupil attends and it may be an (imperfect) predictor of future life chances.

I compared the percentage of pupils who obtained A* – C grades in English and Mathematics at the GCSE level among major ethnic groups with White British pupils. Now I am aware of how this comparison can seem – I’m really not being divisive here by pitting ethnic minority students against White British students and asking who’s better.

It was a choice based on simple arithmetics. Whenever a population sub-group is compared against the national average, the sub-group itself in a sense dilutes the national average. So instead I compared the performance of ethnic minority students with White British pupils since White British pupils made up 93% of all pupils who took GCSE exams in 2017.

But I will also admit this: I was curious about how minority students fare against others. The constant mainstream stereotypes that we are fed of minorities being a bit less bright and a bit more primitive did make me wonder about how poorly these kids perform at school.

And I was happy to discover that, no, ethnic minority children as a whole don’t perform that shabbily after all.

In fact, Chinese and Indian children seem to be quite smart with significantly higher attainment at GCSE than other groups including White British pupils. Other Asian children do quite well too (except sadly Pakistanis. But the Pakistani demographic in the UK is hugely varied so it makes sense, plus the gap is narrowing, I console myself).

Pupils from Black African backgrounds perform just as well as White British children, and in many years had higher attainment rates.

Also quite interesting was that among pupils from mixed ethnicity backgrounds, their overall performance mirrored that of the non-white ethnic group they partially belonged to. So White and Asian pupils outfperformed White British pupils just like Asian pupils do, while White and Black Caribbean pupils under-performed compared to White British pupils, just like Black Carribean pupils tend to.

More details in the chart below (click on chart to see larger version).