Stepping through a racial minefield…

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“BETRAYAL OF WHITE PUPILS” shouts this morning’s Daily Mail in its trademark capital letters, that familiar typographic bellow.

The research behind the report comes from the CentreForum think tank. The story is not confined to the Mail, although the forceful promotion of that angle is.

The i newspaper prefers to use graphs to illustrate how pupils of different ethnic groups perform at school at different ages. This shows that Indian children are most successful at an early age, while Chinese pupils outperform their classmates by the age of 16.

Over in the Times the research behind this analysis is said to show that migrant children can thrive in our education system. The explanation is said to be that the parents of children from ethnic minorities are more ambitious for their children and better at supervising homework and setting bedtimes.

The Mail’s interpretation is guaranteed to set the hackles rising, as that newspaper so often does. A Mail story always has to have a robust angle. Here the paper points out that white British pupils start out as the third best performers but are “overtaken by pupils from ten other ethnic backgrounds” by the time they sit their GCSEs.

The forcefulness of the Mail’s approach is not exactly designed to help matters so much as slap down a “told you so” trump card, offering further proof of how the world conspires against “our own”.

Yet this is worrying and how to talk about such matters is never easy. I don’t much like the Daily Mail’s shouty approach to life, here or with other issues. In this case the word ‘betrayal’ worries me. Is this a betrayal or just the accidental product of cultural differences?

The research on which the Mail draws suggests that pupils without English as a first language have a disadvantage which becomes an advantage: because they don’t know the language teachers help them to catch up – and their parents are more supportive and want them to do well, giving a double boost.

Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University says in the Mail: “On the face of it, the education system is letting down white British children and we must examine the reasons with great urgency.” He adds that the extra attention received by immigrant pupils “may inadvertently be diverting attention from the needs of the poor white British pupils”.

What a minefield this topic represents, with scope for many interpretations. You could argue that the success of immigrant children shows the strength of our education system. Or you could choose to say that accidental discrimination against white pupils, especially poor white pupils, shows its weakness.

My own theory is that it’s down to culture as much as anything else, with hard work and success being stressed much more in some cultures than others – and even in some families more than others. A lot of that is down to what parents want for their children, and what they expect their children to achieve.

As a parent it is easy to worry if you pushed your children hard enough; if you should have been on their case more often, watching over their shoulders more acutely. Should a parent force their children to do well, or create a space of personal confidence in which that child does well on their own terms?

The second approach is preferable I’d say, although maybe the first gets better exam results. These things are never easy. Flinging the word ‘betrayal’ about doesn’t help, but it does attract attention.

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