The Swann Report of 1988 was a government commissioned report on the state of ethnic minority attainment in UK schools. It came in the light of concerns over Black and Afro-Caribbean pupils’ attained results in examinations and high level of permanent exclusions of young black males. The report looked in depth at school practice, and policy and highlighted several areas of concern. It also noticed that one must be careful to distinguish which ethnic group one is referring to when discussing performance, as on the whole, Asian groups appear to do similarly to whites at most levels.
In summary, the Swann report served the purpose of stimulating further sociological research within classrooms, homes and cultural upbringing A plausible explanation of ethnic differences in educational attainment is that they are due to various cultural factors, which might influence educational attainment. One such factor is language. In some Asian households English is not the main language used. In some West Indian households ‘Creole’ or ‘patois’ are spoken.
However, recent research evidence does not support the view that language is an important factor. A study by Geoffrey Driver and Roger Ballard found that by the age of 16, Asian children whose main home language was not English were at least as competent in English as their classmates. The Swann Report found that linguistic factors might hold back the progress of a few West Indian children, but for the vast majority they were of no significance. Another factor considered to influence educational attainment in ethnic minorities is the nature of family life.
From this point of view West Indians are held to have a family life, which fails to encourage children to do well in education and in which there is an inadequate provision of toys, books and stimulation from parents. It has also been suggested that the West Indian population of Britain has a high proportion of one-parent families and large numbers of workingwomen who leave their children without close parental supervision in the early years of their life.
In contrast to West Indian families, Asian families are widely believed to be more close-knit and supportive of their children’s education. In a summary of his report, Lord Swann suggested that ‘the Asian family structure, more tightly knit than either the white or the West Indian nay be responsible for their high levels of achievement. ‘ Geoffrey Driver and Roger Ballard claim that the majority of the original South Asian immigrants to Britain came from rural areas and had little form of education.
However, their research suggests that parents soon developed high aspirations for their children’s education, and that parental attitudes may have contributed to their success. They say of Asian parents’ attitudes to their children ‘not only have they encouraged them to work hard at school, but they have generally been prepared to give considerable support to their children’s efforts to gain further qualifications. ‘ Driver and Ballard conclude that membership of the Asian ethnic minority is a ‘positive resource’ which helps rather than hinders their education.
Perhaps the strongest attack on the British education system’s treatment of ethnic minorities has been advanced by Bernard Coard. He claims that the British education system actually makes black children become educationally subnormal by making them feel ‘inferior in every way’. He says of the black child, ‘in addition to being told he is dirty and ugly and ‘sexually unreliable’ he is told by a variety of means that he is intellectually inferior. When he prepares to leave school, and even before, he is made to realize that he and ‘his kind’ are only fit for manual, menial jobs.
‘ Coard goes on to explain some of the ways in which this takes place: West Indian children are told that their way of speaking is second rate and unacceptable, the implication being that they themselves are second rate as human beings. The word ‘white’ is associated with good, the word ‘black’ with evil. Coard gives an example of a children’s book in which the ‘white unicorn’ and the ‘white boys’ are able to repel an attack by the violent and evil ‘black pirates’. The content of the education that children receive tends to ignore black people.
Reading books often contain only white people, and when blacks do feature they are normally shown as servants. Coard claims that the people whose lives are studied and acclaimed are white. Black culture, music and art are all conspicuous by their absence from the curriculum. The pupils outside it reinforce the attitudes to race conveyed in the classroom. In the playground arguments white children may describe West Indian children as ‘black bastards’. Coard believes that these experiences have important consequences for the child.
He believes that black children develop an ‘inferiority complex’, a ‘low self-image’, and ‘low expectations in life’. Teachers expect black children to fail and this produces a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they live ‘up’ to the expectations once they have been labelled. Not only are black children placed in lower streams and bands in schools for the educationally subnormal, they themselves expect to fail, and as a result they do so. Coard’s views on the British education system have caused considerable controversy.
They have been both supported and criticized by other writers. Coard’s analysis was based upon impressionistic evidence and personal experience, but his argument that teachers hold stereotypical views of ethnic minorities has been supported by the research of Elaine Brittan. One of the solutions to racism and differential educational attainment is the development of separate schools for different ethnicities, much like the one created by John Loughborough the first ever state-funded Black secondary school.
It is thought that separate schooling for ethnic groups would be advantageous as children would learn more about their religion or culture because it will be concentrated on more in education and can be used as a focus for minority faiths. Children that have had racial abuse can work better in their schools and not feel like an outcast any more due to the lack of bullying and racist behaviour. The attainment of ethnic groups in mainstream schools is generally lower than the white population and can account for a different first language.
Equally though, children would be separated from other cultures and won’t know about each other, therefore they would not be prepared for mixed religions/cultures in the working world. Ethnic minority groups with a different first language may not learn the English language efficiently as a second language. Separate schooling divides communities which may lead to lack of understanding in people in other cultures, equally, if single faith or culture only provides one set of norms and values, they may not recognise others.
Separate schooling can also be very expensive and exclusive meaning that even with separate schooling, many of the old issues of discrimination and segregation thus enhancing the problems already existent in mixed schooling. The variety of explanations examined above are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is probable that a number of factors work together in producing the lower levels of achievement found in some ethnic minority groups. The Swann Report concluded that racial discrimination inside and outside school, along with social deprivation, were probably the main factors.
Although the Swann Report attached little importance to cultural factors, it seems possible that they play some part in explaining differences in levels of achievement between ethnic minorities, as well as between ethnic minorities and the rest of the population. Given the highly controversial nature of this issue it is not surprising that such varied explanations exist, and that a definitive answer to the question of why some ethnic minorities do poorly in education has not been reached.