Meeting The Educational Needs Of Mixed Heritage Pupils: Challenges For Policy And Practice
Prof Leon Tikly
The achievement of mixed heritage pupils
Our analysis of the achievement patterns of mixed heritage pupils shows that:(3)
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.
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.
(1) For more information see: Tikly et al; (2004)
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