Meeting the Educational Needs of Mixed Heritage Pupils: Challenges for Policy and Practice
Posted on: Tuesday 28 2007
Prof Leon Tikly
The aim of the article is to present evidence concerning the educational needs of mixed heritage pupils in particular those of White/Black Caribbean origin and to outline the challenges for policy and practice in meeting the needs of these learners. The article draws on and extends the findings of original research (1) which was sponsored by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and is the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind. (2) The article will begin by outlining the evidence relating to the achievement of White/ Black Caribbean pupils and the nature of the barriers to achievement facing this group. This will provide a basis for a discussion in the second part of the article about the challenges facing policy makers and practitioners.
The achievement of mixed heritage pupils
Our analysis of the achievement patterns of mixed heritage pupils shows that:(3)
- the attainment of White/Black Caribbean pupils is below average in primary and secondary schools, the attainment of White/ Black African pupils is similar to average in primary schools and slightly below average in secondary schools, and that the attainment of White/ Asian pupils is above average. Furthermore, the relative rates of progress are below average for White/ Black Caribbean pupils at Key Stages 3 and 4, particularly for boys at Key Stage 4.
- Part of the reason for these differences appears to be associated with differences in relative levels of deprivation, as measured by the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals. However, this is not the full picture. (4)
- Although numbers are relatively small, the latest statistics on permanent exclusions show that White/Black Caribbean and White/Black African pupils are over-represented.
On the basis of the statistical evidence summarised above, particular attention was given in the original study to an examination of the factors affecting the achievement of White/ Black Caribbean pupils in secondary schools. This focus is reflected in the current article.
Barriers to Achievement
We have discussed the complex and often subtle barriers to achievement facing White/Black Caribbean pupils at length elsewhere. (5) Like their Black Caribbean peers, White/Black Caribbean pupils' achievement in school is negatively affected by low socio-economic status, low teacher expectations and behavioural issues related to peer group pressure. However, these take on a specific form for White/Black Caribbean pupils.
With respect to teacher expectations, we found that the views of teachers within any one school concerning the achievement and behaviour of White/ Black Caribbean pupils were complex and contradictory. (6) Views were also often implicit rather than explicit, reflecting only a partial and tentative awareness of White/Black Caribbean pupils as a group with distinctive educational needs. However, many teachers assumed/believed that some White/Black Caribbean learners faced 'identity problems' linked to fragmented home environments and because they were of mixed heritage. More research needs to be undertaken into the home backgrounds of White/ Black Caribbean pupils most at risk of underachieving and if any link between fragmented home backgrounds and achievement exists. Nonetheless, it was clear from speaking to the mixed heritage pupils in our sample and to their parents that a positive image of mixed identities was often reinforced in the home, which reflects research into mixed heritage children and their sense of identity. (7) This was not the case, however, in the school context, where their mixed identities were seldom recognised by teachers or were seen in similar terms to Black Caribbean identities. Like their Black Caribbean peers, White/Black Caribbean pupils, particularly boys, were often perceived to have behavioural problems at school.
Low teacher expectations were sometimes reinforced by low academic expectations and future aspirations on the part of the mixed heritage pupils themselves and, occasionally, parents. As Sewell has pointed out, Black Caribbean pupils, particularly boys, may experience considerable pressure by their peers to adopt the norms of an 'urban' or 'street' subculture in which academic interest and success are seen as undesirable and useless. (8) We found this to be equally true for White/Black Caribbean heritage pupils in our study, particularly at secondary school and particularly for boys, and peer group pressures were exacerbated by name-calling and forms of exclusion by both White and Black peers. High achievement or efforts to succeed were viewed as contrary to the values of this dominant sub-culture and credence was given to unruly behaviour with teachers and antagonistic behaviour with other pupils. Often high achievement attitudes and cooperative behaviour were more associated with a particular class-based notion of 'Whiteness', which was understood as 'posh' and/or 'geeky'.
According to one local authority advisor who had worked closely with mixed heritage pupils over a number of years, these factors together contributed to a phenomenon where some White/ Black Caribbean pupils tended to act out particularly extreme and rebellious Black identities. These patterns of behaviour then reinforce low teacher expectations in a negative feedback loop.
One area where it is 'cool' or permissible in terms of Black street culture for pupils to excel is in the area of sports and here positive aspirations on the part of pupils reinforce teacher stereotypes. Thus whereas the White/ Black Caribbean pupils were underachieving academically, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that they were over-represented in non-academic activities such as sport. On the one hand, participation in sport and music was clearly a source of affirmation for many of the pupils in the sample, but on the other hand, encouraging White/ Black Caribbean pupils to focus their aspirations on sport at the expense of other subject areas is unlikely to help any but a very few to gain access into the labour market.
There are also factors operating in schools that affect the broader educational needs of all mixed heritage pupils (White/ Black Caribbean, White/ Black African and White/ Asian) i.e. needs relating to having their identities recognised and understood in the curriculum as part of the overall diversity of society and to be protected from racist abuse. Whereas these factors may not serve as a barrier to achievement for all mixed heritage pupils, they form part of a climate in which schools are unable to effectively respond to the barriers to achievement facing White/ Black Caribbean pupils noted above because of their relative 'invisibility' at the level of LA and school policy. (9) This parallels the findings of studies into mixed heritage pupils in the USA. (10) Indeed, we found little evidence that across the LAs there was any great awareness of the needs of mixed heritage pupils. Across all the schools we visited awareness of the educational needs of mixed heritage pupils was limited amongst the teachers we spoke to and tended to be isolated amongst senior managers and specialist Ethnic Minority Achievement Service (EMAS) staff. We found that whilst school policy statements expressed a commitment to tackle discrimination, racism and underachievement, these phenomena were expressed in 'mono heritage' terms that did not acknowledge the existence of mixed heritage pupils in the school or the specific barriers to learning faced by White/ Black Caribbean learners.
A telling indicator of the lack of attention given to issues affecting mixed heritage pupils is the uncertainty around the terminology used to describe them. Whilst this is of course an issue that is wider than the school context, the absence of discussion in this area means that many teachers are unsure of the 'correct' terminology and as such are often hesitant to talk about this group for fear of using the 'wrong' term. Within the school environment, we found that a range of terms was used to refer to pupils from mixed heritage backgrounds and that different groups tended to use different terms. Moreover, pupils of White/ Black Caribbean and White/ Black African heritage are sometimes lumped together within a broader group of African Caribbean learners and on other occasions they are not. The lack of discussion at school level is equally represented by the general absence of references to the experiences of this group of pupils in official statements issued by the government, by local authorities as well as those contained in school documents relating to equal opportunities and race equality. Such an absence reinforces the invisibility of mixed heritage groups and provides little guidance to teachers regarding the needs that these pupil groups might have. Moreover, we found that the existence of data monitoring systems and of the requisite skills and/or the will to effectively monitor performance data relating to ethnicity was patchy across the sample of schools as a whole, which affected the ability of schools to set challenging targets to raise the achievement of minority ethnic learners at risk of underachieving. The problem was particularly acute for groups of mixed heritage learners because the numbers involved are often relatively small which makes data relating to their achievement sometimes harder to interpret. The lack of attention to the academic performance of White/Black Caribbean (and other mixed heritage pupils) can serve to reinforce the widely held and false perception that 'there is no problem here'.
A further aspect of the invisibility we refer to above is the almost total absence of references to mixed heritage people and experiences in the curriculum. At present the mainstream curriculum does little in the way of acknowledging Black experiences and identities. Where it does do this, little attention is given to mixed heritage people within this broader focus. Finally, there is a lack of accessible role models for mixed heritage pupils in schools. These last two issues, however, raise complex issues around the relationship between mixed heritage and other Black learners that we discuss in more depth below.
Meeting the educational needs of mixed heritage pupils: Challenges for Policy and Practice
Challenges for Policy
Implementing educational change such as those required to meet the educational needs of mixed heritage pupils requires a mixture of top down and bottom up approaches. (11) On the one hand, schools in England are locally managed and have control over their budgets, and they are expected to use this autonomy to meet the needs of the local communities they serve. In other respects, the English system is highly centralised and schools must operate within the confines of a prescriptive national curriculum and a plethora of central initiatives and targets. They must also perform this balancing act in a context of a quasi-market in which they must compete with other schools to attract students and are made accountable through the publication of their examination results. Notwithstanding the recent strengthening of race relations legislation, it remains painfully obvious that in this context issues such as those facing mixed heritage and other minority ethnic pupils tend to get pushed down the educational agendas of schools. In this respect, if the government is serious about meeting the needs of this group then it must realise its own responsibilities and role in leading change.
Policy makers need to be aware, however, of some of the political and other sensitivities surrounding mixed heritage pupils mentioned above and to take into account the reality that many teachers continue to struggle to come to terms with existing policies targeted at 'mono heritage', minority ethnic groups let alone possible future ones targeted at mixed heritage pupils. Some teaching staff feel that there is already an over-emphasis on the achievement of minority groups, and that the major achievement issue in their schools was related to pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds and in particular to white, working class boys. (12) To some extent these views are supported by the achievement data reported above, i.e. that the proportion of pupils within any ethnic group that is entitled to free school meals is a strong predicator of the overall achievement scores for that group. (13) Nonetheless, as we also suggested above, even if socio-economic factors are controlled for, there remain issues of underachievement amongst some minority ethnic groups including pupils of White/Black Caribbean origin that are irreducible simply to socio-economic background and that these also need to be addressed by schools.
The case needs to be more effectively put by policy makers for the needs of all pupils to be addressed in schools, in a way which recognises diversity. In the case of mixed heritage groups, this can be achieved through presenting the facts relating to the changing demographics, the relative achievement and patterns of exclusion from school of different mixed heritage groups along with evidence concerning barriers to achievement and effective strategies for overcoming them.
One obvious way in which the central and local government can raise the visibility of mixed heritage pupils is through providing clear and unambiguous directives to schools about the use of language and terminology to refer to them and to be consistent in the use of appropriate terminology in its own policy pronouncements. The DfES can also work in partnership with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to ensure that both mixed and 'mono heritage' identities and experiences are reflected in the national curriculum. The government could also take a lead in working with educational publishers to ensure that mixed as well as Black and minority 'mono heritage' identities and experiences are reflected in educational materials used by schools including pictures and text.
Local authorites also have a key strategic role to play in raising the achievement of White/ Black Caribbean pupils. Some isolated examples of pilot projects were found in three of the LAs we visited during the course of our study, such as curriculum resources that presented positive role models, in-service training sessions for teachers and governors focusing specifically on the needs of White/Black Caribbean pupils, and having books and other materials reflecting both Black and White/Black Caribbean heritages.
Challenges for Practice: the Culturally Learning School
Recent research into how schools can raise the achievement of minority ethnic groups at risk of underachieving (14) has highlighted the need for a whole school approach. Considering the needs of White/Black Caribbean and other mixed heritage pupils draws attention to a dimension of the existing model of a whole school approach that up until now has been under-emphasised, namely, that of the need to create 'culturally learning schools'. The concept of a culturally learning school affirms yet also seeks to go beyond the existing whole school approach for tackling minority ethnic underachievement. It does this principally by laying greater emphasis on building the capacity for schools to effectively manage change. There is also recognition in these schools that developing an understanding of the identities and experiences of mixed heritage pupils is not just of benefit to these pupils but to all pupils in a rapidly diversifying and increasingly 'mixed' local, national and global context. Finally, culturally learning schools work in active partnership with central and local government whose job it is to support and challenge schools to realise race equality objectives including meeting the needs of mixed heritage pupils as well as with parents and mixed heritage learners themselves.
(1) For more information see: Tikly et al; (2004)
(5) Haynes et al, 2006; Caballero et al forthcoming
(6) Contradictory views were often held by teachers within the same school and sometimes even by the same teacher. Teacher statements on high expectations were on other occasions contradicted by pupils and parents from the same school who reported a more negative experience of teacher expectations.
(7) Tizard & Phoenix (1993)
(8) Sewell (1997)
(9) We acknowledge that many of these factors may also apply to other minority ethnic groups of pupils albeit in different ways and with different emphases. Chinese learners, for example, are often almost entirely absent from policy statements on equality and are poorly represented in the curriculum. The extent of data monitoring for all groups is often patchy and sporadic etc. The aim here, however, is to show how these factors specifically impact on the experiences of mixed heritage pupils.
(10) Wardle (1999)
(11) Fullan (2001)
(12) See also DfES (2003 b)
(13) Indeed, the relationship between low socio-economic class and educational underachievement has been pointed out for many years by researchers and has recently been reiterated by the chief inspector of schools. It is unclear whether existing government strategies such as Excellence in Cities (EiC) which is a targeted programme of support for schools in deprived areas of the country, will have any significant impact on this most deep rooted of problems. (See http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/sie/eic/ for more information about EiC) (site accessed 1 January 2005).
(14) Gillborn & Gipps (1996); Blair et al (1998); Runnymede Trust (1998); OFSTED (2002a,b); Bhattacharyya et al (2003)
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About the author
Prof Leon Tikly is Director of a DfID funded Research Programme Consortium (RPC) on Implementing Education Quality in Low Income Countries (EdQual). He is also currently directing an evaluation of the UK government's Aiming High: Raising African Caribbean Achievement project; is involved in a state of the art literature review on globalisation and education with colleagues in the Graduate School of Education; and, on a project looking at leadership and the management of change in rural and township schools in South Africa.
This paper is taken with kind permission from the forthcoming Runnymede Trust publication: Mixed Heritage: Identity, Policy and Practice.