Why is it so hard for Britain to make the best of education?

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at leeds.ac.uk
Sun Mar 19 10:40:24 UTC 2006

BBC World Service: People & Politics, Sunday 19 March 2006
Topic: Why is it so hard for Britain to make the best of education? 
The discussion on education begins 12.20 minutes in, and the exchange on lanuage is at 16.19-17.43.
The starting point is the claim (by an organisation called the OECD) that education in Britain lags behind many other countries, in connection with a bill to change secondary schools put through parliament this week, with some controversy (the main element in the bill is too allow greater  business and religious involvement in state education). The country where education is most effective is Finland, and the other place held up as a good example is South Korea. One of the speakers is Paul Marshall, a "hedge fund enterpreneur" who has an interest in sponsoring some of the proposed business-sponsored schools.
The interviewer, Dennis Sewell (not sure of spelling) says:
"Isn't it quite easy for these culturally homogeneous countries like Scandinavian and the Far East do have [sic] because where we seem to find the difficulty is in Inner City Schools where there are many pupils whose first language may not be English and it's those pupils who are failing."
Marshall agrees with this. He says that it easier for small culturally homogeneous countries like  Finland and South Korea, and mentions another successful country, China, which he describes as "big but quite homogeneous". He repeats that "the challenges in ethnically mixed and socially mixed societies are enormous."
Well -- expletives deleted, as you can imagine.
Once again, blame is placed on people who do not speak English at home. It is not the case that the UK is a massively multicultural and multilingual place, while Finland, South Korea and (even) China are "culturally homogeneous". The UK is in fact one of the more linguistically homogeneous countries in the world, and if there is anything wrong with education here it should be laid at the doors of the majority population and/or successive governments, rather than at the imaginary effects of the relatively small proportion of the population (we do not know how many, but it is less that 10%) who do not speak English at home.
Contrary to the impression given by these people, low achievement in education in the UK is not closely associated with native language. The  base line for academic success in England and Wales is in the external examination taken at age 16, 'GCSE'. A good result is Grade A-C in 5 or more subjects. The governments official data on this by ethnicity (1 March 2006) is as follows (I have placed an asterisk next to those groups with substantial proportions likely to have a language other than English at home):
Published today, the Statistical First Release shows the percentage of pupils achieving 5 or more A* to C grades at GCSE and equivalent: 

* White: up 2.8 percentage points to 55.1 per cent 

* Black Caribbean: up 6 percentage points to 41.7 per cent. 

** Black African: up 5 percentage points to 48.3 per cent. 

** Indian: up 3.5 percentage points to 70.1 per cent 

** Pakistani: up 3.2 percentage points to 48.4 per cent 

** Bangladeshi: up 4.3 percentage points to 52.7 per cent 

** Chinese: up 6.8 percentage points from 74.2 in 2004 to 81.0 percent in 2005, performing considerably higher than any other group 

* All pupils in maintained [=state] schools: up 3.0 percentage points to 54.9 per cent 
"* Chinese pupils, Indian pupils, pupils of Mixed White and Asian heritage and Irish pupils consistently achieve above the national average for all pupils in maintained schools at Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3 and at GCSE or equivalent. "
http://www.dfes.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2006_0021 <http://www.dfes.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2006_0021> 

The larger report does say that "Pupils with English as a First Language perform better than pupils with a language other than English as their First Language in each stage of education," but these diffferences are not large, and it has to be remembered  that at every stage some of those with a first language other than English will have just arrived in the UK recently, sometimes from traumatic circumstances. Poverty (as measured by whether or not the child is entitled to a free school lunch)  has a much larger effect, and some language groups are associated with poverty (including refugee groups). Only 29% of children who needed free meals got 5 GCSEs at A-C.
It also has to be remembered that those who speak a language other than English at home are a minority. The 2005 figures are supplied for 7 year olds (end of Key Stage 1). There were 565,129 children at this stage, 12% of whom were said not to have English as a first language.
My own university is at present negotiating how to cope with a member of staff (Frank Ellis) who has attacked multiculturalism (as part of putting forward his views on race, and 'political correctness'). It makes me angry that the negative portrayal of multiculturalism and multilingualism once associated with the extreme right wing is now being presented without challenge as fact.
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Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr) 
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT <www.leeds.ac.uk/english/staff/afg> 
NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at leeds.ac.uk 
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