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October 16, 2003

Education News

In an earlier post here I discussed the educational performance of ethnic minorities in Britain.

This week the Guardian newspaper has a feature report here on education in Birmingham (England, not Alabama) which highlights the poor performance of African-Caribbean children. Despite the active efforts of the education authorities to assist ‘disadvantaged’ groups, ‘the attainment gap between African-Caribbean children and the rest of Birmingham’s diverse multicultural school population remains stubbornly resistant to change, especially for boys’.

Part of the problem is that while African-Caribbean children have shown some progress, other groups have done even better, so the gap has widened. Bangladeshis in particular have shown ‘spectacular gains’ at GCSE level.

American readers may get a strong sense of deja vu from all this!

My earlier post also mentioned the paradox that Black Africans in Britain have relatively poor performance in school, but also a high proportion obtaining higher education (university level) qualifications.

Some light may be cast on this by a passage I have noticed in P. E. Vernon’s classic book Intelligence and Cultural Environment (1969):

‘Another, rather surprising, reason for educational backwardness is that Africans - especially boys - are so strongly motivated towards education. Except among some of the more remote and primitive tribes, it is seen as the avenue to a well-paid job. The office worker or civil servant is likely to earn as much cash in a month as the peasant family does in a year. Great sacrifices are made to pay school fees... Thus not only the parents but the extended family expect to reap the benefits. Primary pupils, therefore, feel a very strong obligation to gain a secondary school place, and secondary pupils to pass the examinations which give entry to a career. They work extremely hard and, with their linguistic difficulties, concentrate all their efforts on memorising the textbook and the teacher’s notes. They take little interest in artistic or practical subjects, or extracurricular activities which do not directly contribute to passing examinations, and they tend to reject any attempts to liberalise teaching as a waste of precipous time. Apart from the few brightest students they do not want to be helped to think.’ (page 179).

To the extent that these traditional attitudes are carried over to second generation African immigrants, they would help to explain both the high propensity of this group to seek higher qualifications, and their relatively slow progress and mediocre achievement in higher education.

Posted by David B at 04:18 AM


I wonder whether the success of Africans at British universities is explained in part, at least, by the proportion of able students coming through the independent sector. A British education remains highly respected throughout the Commonwealth. Educated, moneyed African families seem to be no exception and to send their offspring to board in all the better known prep and senior schools.

Otherwise we are left with hard work alone to explain how so many of these students bridge (on average of course) the equivalent of three standard deviations. The evidence from the last year's first audit of Excellence in Cities does not support this conclusion. Very little worthwhile perfomance gains were achieved in any groups except white females.

Posted by: Guessedworker at October 16, 2003 07:17 AM

hmmm. So extra motivation and hard academic work causes educational backwardness. Right.

Posted by: eric f at October 16, 2003 12:19 PM

1) does anyone know the racial breakdown in birmingham?

2) isn't he male vs. female gap interesting??? i know this has been problem in the british culture as a while, and we see some of this in the states (more female college graduates, etc.)

Posted by: razib at October 16, 2003 09:07 PM

Guessedworker: do you have a reference for the Excellence in Cities audit?

I don't know where you get 'three standard deviations' from. If you are referring to IQ, Africans *in Britain* are probably not far from the white British norm. See my earlier post on 'IQ issues'.

Eric f: have you ever heard of 'plodders'?

Posted by: David B at October 17, 2003 03:12 AM

Sorry, the title of my earlier post was 'IQ comments', not 'IQ issues'. The date was 23 September.

Posted by: David B at October 17, 2003 03:18 AM

"1) does anyone know the racial breakdown in birmingham?"

Per the 2001 census

White 70.4%
Mixed 2.9%
Pakistani 10.6%
Indian 5.7%
Bangladeshi 2.1%
Other Asian 1.2%
Black caribbean 4.9%
Other black 1.2%
Chinese 1.2%

This is for the City of Birmingham.

Posted by: Phil T at October 17, 2003 10:06 AM