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More Must be Done to Close Ever-widening Racial Attainment Gaps in British Schools

Oriel Octave, Head of Education at NOSCE Education.
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Just this September, Labour MP Dianne Abbott and activist Lord Simon Woolley wrote a detailed letter to the former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. In this, the pair urged Williamson and his cabinet to make immediate provisions to boost the attainment of Black students, a topic which has hit UK headlines before and during national lockdowns in 2020, the most recent of which is in the form of a damning Government report released in September. 

The contents of this report confirms what many of us in the Education sector have been arguing before and since the first national lockdown in March: that Black students in British schools are at a severe attainment disadvantage to White students, and that this has only been made worse by school closures, exam cancellations and the shift to remote learning. 

The report states that “longstanding gaps” between the attainment of Black and White school students aged 11-18 have “significantly widened” between 2019 and 2021, equivalent to an almost 1.5% increase to an already-present difference. 

Of course, we must not forget that the pandemic has had a range of negative impacts on school children, regardless of their race, gender or socio-economic background. The quick switch to remote learning meant that many students – especially those at critical learning stages (such as those approaching their GCSEs and A-levels) were cut off from the support they needed from teachers, and their learning suffered as a result. Equally, the Government’s choice to use mock and predicted grades to determine final exam results for many students also had a major impact on students who had struggled in previous years. 

However, while this certainly is the case, it’s clear that several groups of school children have been hurt more than others when it comes to the effects of social distancing measures. Along with Black students, students eligible for free school meals (FSMs) and children from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families. 

Incidentally, the Government recently pledged a £1 million cash injection with the express aim of helping education professionals provide more support and resources for Roma, Gypsy and Traveller students, and closing attainment gaps in this area. It is with this in mind that Abbott and Wooley (as well as many other people positioned in both the policy and practical side of the education sector) are asking for the same measures to be put in place for Black students. 

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Now that Williamson has been replaced as Education Secretary, it is important that these calls are not buried, but instead pushed to the forefront of the cabinet’s agenda. A combination of financial and legislative initiatives must be implemented, which work to aid the closing of attainment gaps between White and Black students, and promote equal opportunities in further and higher education. 

How this can best be done is complex. Across the pond, US educators and researchers are trialling a concept called ‘collective efficacy’ which works off the basis that teachers who feel they can make a genuine difference to a student’s grades are more likely to see improvements in their students. 

One Texas-based study found that schools where teaching staff displayed high levels of collective efficacy (in other words, they really thought they made a difference to their student’s learning) had a 50% reduction in the academic disadvantage experienced by students who were Black when compared with schools where staff had average levels of collective efficacy. 

Though this study was conducted within a different educational system, racial attainment gaps in US schools mirror those in Britain. White students in American State schools have a far higher average grade than their Black counterparts, and this gap has been growing for several years. This study has been hailed by professionals in the sector looking for a solution to the issue, which can actually be implemented and which actually works. 

Ultimately though, it is up to the Government to produce and implement measures and aid to help boost the attainment of all students, and level the playing field for young people undertaking compulsory and Further Education. It is only through this support that education and teaching professionals can actually start to feel empowered enough to make change and that students will feel the benefit of this. 

Oriel Octave, Head of Education at NOSCE Education

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