Early years should focus on needs of different ethnic groups to boost social mobility

Jedidajah Otte
Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The DfE should fund support for home learning for poor parents and those from ethnic groups that do less well in the EYFS, the Social Mobility Commission recommends.

This includes young people from Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, who are more likely to be unemployed and face social immobility later in life than working class white boys despite outperforming them at school.

The report, which uncovers stark differences in the educational and labour market outcomes of different groups in society by ethnicity and gender, has prompted the commission to call for renewed efforts by the Government to uphold the 'British social mobility promise' that working hard should be rewarded. 

Alan Milburn MP, chair of the Commission, said Britain was ‘a long way’ from having a level playing field of opportunity for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity or background and called for renewed action across the education system and labour market to better understand and dismantle barriers to success.

Among the report’s key recommendations for policymakers was that the Department for Education should ensure that provision in the early years is sensitive to different ethnic groups' needs.

The report found that white British and white other children from low income homes are the lowest performing groups in the EYFS and at primary school and are the least likely to access higher education, with only 1 in 10 of the poorest attending university, compared to 3 in 10 for black Caribbean children, 5 in 10 for Bangladeshis and nearly 7 in 10 among lowest income Chinese students.

Despite this, ethnic minority groups experience higher unemployment rates compared to White British groups.

The ‘Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility’ report was commissioned by the Social Mobility Commission, an advisory, non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010 as modified by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the United Kingdom and to promote social mobility in England.

Academics from the think tank LKMco and Education Datalab examined student’s trajectories as they progressed through the early years, primary and secondary, through to sixth form and university. Finally, the researchers looked at how attainment at school translated into the labour market.

The research uncovered a broken social mobility promise for Asian Muslims, particularly women. Young people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds are more likely to succeed in education and go to university. But they are less likely to go on to find employment or secure jobs in managerial or professional occupations. Pakistani and Bangladeshi women earn less than their counterparts from other ethnic minority groups.

The report also found that black children, despite starting school on a par with their peers from other ethnic groups, are most likely to fail maths GCSE, have the lowest outcomes in science, maths and technology A-levels, and are the least likely ethnic group to achieve a good degree at university. Black boys face extremely high levels of school exclusion and overall do substantially worse than their female peers.

The report concluded that parental expectations and engagement – such as involvement with schools, support with homework and investment in private tuition – play an important role in explaining the high attainment of some ethnic groups, particularly Asians. In comparison, poor white British families tend to be less engaged in their children’s education than other ethnic groups.

The report recommends that schools should seek to involve and work with parents and should particularly target those from the groups that are least likely to engage in their children’s education, such as poor white British.

The researchers further recommended that schools should avoid setting, particularly at primary level, and that government should discourage schools from doing so.

In the workplace, the researchers found that factors such as geography, discrimination and cultural expectations may explain why some ethnic groups – particularly asian Muslim women – do not do well in the labour market despite performing highly at school and university.

‘The British social mobility promise is that hard work will be rewarded. This research suggests that promise is being broken for too many people in our society,’ Mr Milburn added.

‘It is striking that many of the groups that are doing best at school or improving their results the most are losing out when it comes to jobs and opportunities later in life.’

Lead author Bart Shaw said, ‘A range of factors give rise to these differences and some require further research to understand specific issues. However, with regards to participation in the labour market, key factors include cultural, family and individual expectations, geography and direct/indirect discrimination. Meanwhile in education, differences arise from access to schools, teachers’ perceptions of behaviour and practices such as tiering and setting.’

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