Army cadet teenagers enjoy the top deck of a recruiting bus before the Lord Mayor's Show in the City of London. Picture Credit: Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

Is cultural conservatism the key to educational success?

Culture beats race and even class when it comes to pupil performance

Artillery Row

While the UK’s grievance industrial complex continues to peddle the absurd view that Britain’s education system is “deliberately rigged” against its racial and ethnic minorities, the findings of a new government report challenge this miserable doom-and-gloom identitarian narrative. 

A survey of around 9,000 families commissioned by the Department for Education found that ethnic-minority pupils are happier, more academically confident and less likely to report being bullied than their white British counterparts. The findings certainly don’t nestle in with the view that young ethnic-minority Britons are the victims of widespread institutional racism and systemic discrimination in the sphere of education. 

When compared with white British parents, ethnic-minority parents are more likely to both have a positive view of their child’s well-being and encourage their offspring to take on A-level studies. This provides a picture of ethnic-minority confidence and optimism that will, quite depressingly, be treated as an inconvenience by elements of the contemporary British Left that ought to celebrate such positive forms of socio-cultural migrant incorporation. 

Along with these findings, the latest figures for average “Attainment 8” scores (England-based pupils’ results across eight GCSE-level qualifications marked out of 90) provide much food for thought for those who place racial identity at the heart of debates on what influences educational outcomes among schoolchildren. 

A robust school culture based on hard work and discipline can lift educational standards

Indeed, multiple non-white ethnic-minority groups are ahead of their white British peers in terms of academic attainment. In the 2020/21 academic year, England-based pupils of Chinese (69.2), Indian (62.0), Bangladeshi (55.6), Black African (52.2) and Pakistani origin (50.5) achieved, on average, better “Attainment 8” results in than their white British peers (50.2). Exposing the crudely homogenising nature of the terms “Black” and “White”, Black Caribbean-heritage pupils are behind their co-racial counterparts of African heritage by 8.2 points (44.0), while Irish-origin ethnic-minority pupils are notably ahead of their co-racial British peers by 5.5 points (55.7).

But there are multiple patterns at play that challenge tired orthodoxies surrounding social class and material deprivation. It is true that within every single ethnic group, pupils on free school meals (FSM) have a lower average Attainment 8 score than co-ethnic counterparts who are not on free school meals. However, there are pupils on free school meals in certain ethnic groups who are outperforming non-free school meal pupils in others — and in some cases, the differences are striking

Chinese-origin pupils on free schools are an astonishing 13.4 points ahead of white-British pupils not on free school meals (66.5 and 53.1 out of 90 respectively). Making a complete mockery of the utterly useless “BAME” acronym, Bangladeshi-origin pupils on free school meals are, on average, a higher-achieving group than their Black Caribbean-origin peers who are not on free school meals (51.5 and 46.8 out of 90 respectively).

There is no doubting that the white British working-class pupils — especially boys — are struggling on the whole in our school system. White British pupils in England who are on free school meals have an average Attainment 8 score of just 35.8 out of 90. Indeed, the “free school meals” effect is the strongest within the white British ethnic group — a gap of 17.3 points. But the reality of the matter is that are a number of cases which demonstrate that economically deprived non-white ethnic minorities are outperforming relatively “well off” peers in the white British mainstream. What are the reasons for this? 

There is no doubt that a robust school culture based on hard work and discipline can lift educational standards. But it is time to recognise that much of the shaping of youth educational outcomes and personal development does not take place in public institutions — but is influenced by family life, parental approaches and community-based relationships. 

There are limits to what the British state can achieve

Deprived sections of British ethnic minorities are overturning poverty-related disadvantages through multiple social and cultural assets — such as relatively stable family structures, parental emphasis on academic excellence and a strong sense of belonging and rootedness provided by thriving civic associations and places of worship. Swathes of traditional-minded ethnic-minority communities have insulated themselves from the brutally cold winds of materialistic individualism and cultural secularism which has torn through the white British mainstream. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the one ethnic-minority grouping that is “hyper-integrated” into the white working-class mainstream — Black Caribbeans — suffers from astonishingly high rates of family instability and terribly low levels of school attainment. 

The snake-oil profiteers of the grievance industrial complex would like nothing more than the rest of British society to believe that one’s racial identity is the primary factor that determines their educational progress. Tied up in knots over “protected characteristics” such as race, ethnicity and religious belief, we blind ourselves to what truly shapes educational outcomes in modern-day Britain. This includes family characteristics, quality of parent-child relationships, values promoted at home and the degree of “in-the-community” respect for educational achievements. 

When inspecting cases of ethnic-minority academic development in the UK, we cannot ignore the fact that many migrants left their underdeveloped countries of origin to provide their children with a higher-standard British education — the kind of state-funded schooling that some foreign-born ethnic-minority parents could have only dreamed of in their childhood. In many cases, they may not be “formally educated” themselves — but they crucially cultivate a strong educational ethos in their households. 

Minority cultures of determination and resilience must be recognised — and go some way towards explaining how Chinese-origin pupils who receive special educational needs support, on average, outperform the entire pupil population with no identified special educational needs (Attainment 8 scores of 55.8 and 54.5 out of 90 respectively). 

There are limits to what the British state can achieve in terms of boosting levels of school attainment. Pretending otherwise only serves to trivialise the pivotal impact of family life and local environmental dynamics on youth development. Parental responsibility and community culture both need to feature more in our national conversation on the educational prospects and social advancement of young people.

We simply cannot afford to be held ransom by race-obsessed blame-the-system theories when it comes to examining levels of school attainment. It is time to place family and community at the heart of our understanding of educational outcomes in modern-day Britain.

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