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‘There is a Myth of Meritocracy for Ethnic Minorities in the UK’

A new report finds that, while black and ethnic minority children are doing well at school, inequalities persist later in life

Photo: David Bagnall/Alamy

‘There is a Myth of Meritocracy for Ethnic Minorities in the UK’

A new report finds that, while black and ethnic minority children are doing well at school, inequalities persist later in life

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There is a “broken pipeline” with “clear barriers standing between our young ethnic minority people and the opportunities they deserve”, according to Dr Shabna Begum, head of research at the Runnymede Trust, in response to a new report on race and ethnicity published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The report presents a complex picture of the ways in which inequality continues to manifest, including when it comes to educational outcomes, employment and earnings.

One of the most striking findings was the rapid improvement in educational outcomes for many students from ethnic minority groups, particularly for second-generation immigrants.

In England, GCSE attainment has improved particularly rapidly for Pakistani and black African students in the past two decades, while Bangladeshi students have gone from a nine percentage point attainment gap compared with white British students in 2004 to a six percentage point advantage in 2019. 

Improved educational outcomes have also meant that black and ethnic minority students are statistically more likely to go to university than their white peers. 

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However, the picture was far from clear cut. While young black and ethnic minority people are succeeding in school and university, inequalities manifest later in life with poverty rates among ethnic minority individuals much higher than the white British majority. This is even more marked in families with children.

This is, in part, because while the employment gap between white British people and ethnic minority people has reduced, some gap still persists. Black and ethnic minority people experience a wage gap, with the report finding that “median earnings gaps appear to be more persistent, and even where educational and occupational successes have facilitated faster relative wage growth, unexplained wage penalties remain”.

Intersecting issues of gender and class also play a role in people’s experience of workplace discrimination and structural racism. Research by the Runnymede Trust shows that 75% of women of colour experience racism at work, and more than 42% report being passed over for promotion despite good feedback, compared to 27% for white women. 

“What this research makes abundantly clear is that, despite improvements in educational outcomes, those successes are not materialising into a clear pathway of consistent gains in higher education and employment opportunities,” Dr Begum told Byline Times. “There is a myth of meritocracy for ethnic minority people in the UK, particularly those at the intersection of multiple structural inequalities including race, class, and gender.”

Fixing the Pipeline

Dr Begum argued that many of the issues facing black and ethnic minority children and adults are down to racist stereotypes that persist in British society, leading to educational, employment and economic inequalities.

“South Asian people in the UK are stereotyped as being quiet, timid and non-confrontational which comes with a certain set of barriers, while the opposite stereotypes are imposed on black and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities,” she told Byline Times.

“These stereotypes could explain, to some level, why black Caribbean and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students are excluded at shockingly disproportionate rates compared to their classmates of all other backgrounds, and are subsequently fed into the school to prison pipeline.”

The report follows last year’s controversial Sewell Report and the Commons’ Education Select Committee report into educational outcomes for white working class children, which expressed concern that discussions of white privilege in classrooms was impacting white pupils.

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The two reports questioned the existence or impact of structural racism, due to the ways in which different ethnic minority groups had very different experiences of education, poverty and employment.

In the new report this was clear in the ways that black Caribbean children, for example, were found to perform less well in school than people from an Indian or Chinese background or those from a black African background – while members of the white Traveller community have the poorest educational outcomes. 

“Where this research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies is really strong is in highlighting the different experiences of people from different ethnic minority backgrounds, and why we need to disaggregate this data,” said Dr Begum. “The outcomes reported here require a differentiated response and reinforce that we need to be attentive to the specific experiences of each group.”

Socio-economic factors are behind some of the differences – black Caribbean children are disproportionately likely to be growing up in poverty on free school meals, with white children on free school meals struggling the most at school. White children with high socio-economic status were comparably much more successful than their fellow pupils, benefiting from both white and class privilege. 

But class cannot “explain everything”, said Dr Begum. 

“We know for instance that black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities are some of the poorest in the UK – so why is it that Bangladeshi and Pakistani students are now achieving better at school, while black Caribbean pupils are seemingly doing worse?

“We need to see commitment to equality of opportunity and fair progression pipelines for our young ethnic minority people as they enter higher education, secure a job and then progress within their careers.”

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