Skip to main content

BME Communities (Educational Attainment)

Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2012

I am grateful to have been awarded this debate on educational attainment in black and minority ethnic communities, which was triggered by a couple of things that have happened to me recently.

First, I have been holding a series of round-table meetings in my constituency to help to define my priorities and constituency strategy, and the differential attainment levels of our young people were a particular concern. For example, the proportion of young black people achieving more than five A* to C GCSEs in 2011, including English and maths, was 38.5%, compared with 47.5% for young Asian people and 69% for young white people. Although there has been significant improvement in those disparities since 2008, they remain of grave concern.

Secondly, I was horrified to hear—as I am sure many others were—the recent statistical release from the Office of National Statistics, which revealed that, nationally, 55.5% of economically active black men aged between 16 and 24 years are unemployed, and that this rate has doubled since 2008. For young black people, the unemployment rate is 44.4%; similarly, 27.6% of Asian young people are unemployed, rising from 22.8% in 2008. Breaking that down, 33.6% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people are unemployed, and 24.2% of Indian young people, which compares with 20% of white British young people. Those national trends are reflected in my constituency, too.

I have called the debate to examine educational attainment in BME communities, but it is important to note at the outset that although educational attainment influences employment, people with equivalent qualifications to those of different ethnicities experience different levels of employment. For example, young Indian people, who are the second highest performing group educationally, are more likely to be unemployed than their white peers. Similarly, Chinese graduates can expect to earn 25% less than their white counterparts. Thirty-six years on from the Race Relations Act 1976 and 12 years after the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, that is indefensible. We cannot wait for another 30 or 40 years to ensure that we deal with such questions.

What are the specific issues in equalities and educational attainment? From the evidence, gaps in achievement can begin in the early years. For example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission triennial review states that the proportion of pupils achieving a good level of development in the early years foundation stage varies between different ethnic groups. Pupils from Irish, Indian, white British and mixed white and Asian backgrounds achieved more than the national average for a good level of development in 2009, but pupils from black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups did not perform so well. In all ethnic groups, girls outperformed boys significantly.

The 2008 research undertaken by the Learning and Skills Network and the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities indicated that poor experiences at primary school often began a gradual but cumulative process of disengagement, which became entrenched in secondary school and resulted in lower achievement and lower engagement in post-16 participation in education or training. I was particularly struck by the following statement from the report, on education:

“Engagement is not a simple choice for all young people. Young people can feel disengaged from learning for various reasons, and this can be mild or severe...For some young people, this is a process that they feel powerless to stop.”

At GCSE level, although national attainment by ethnicity has improved since 2006-07, and the achievement gap between some ethnic groups and the national average has disappeared, there are still some gaps. For example, 52.6% of Pakistani and 48.6% of black Caribbean heritage pupils achieve five or more A* to C grades at GCSE compared with the national level of 58%. That is a massive improvement since 2006, when the rates were 35% and 34% respectively. During the same period, Bangladeshi pupils improved from 40% to 59.7%, and black African students from 40% to 57.9%. Chinese and Indian students have performed consistently above national levels; currently, 78.5% of Chinese students and 74.4% of Indian students achieve five or more GCSEs. Travellers, Gypsies and Roma people are still the lowest achieving groups, with 17.5% of Irish Travellers and 10.8% of those from Gypsy or Roma backgrounds achieving five or more GCSEs including maths and English. Those inequalities are even more pronounced when looking at those who gain the English baccalaureate.

The data available on A-level attainment is limited to the number of A-levels, rather than subject or grade. Based on the number, the gaps in attainment are reduced or disappear, and the proportion of BME students in higher education has increased significantly from 13% in 1994-95 to 23% in 2008-09, broadly reflecting their presence in the youth population. In spite of that, however, 44% of all black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian graduates attended post-1992 universities. Shockingly, in 2009, only one black Caribbean student was admitted for study at Oxford university. So although BME participation in higher education is increasing, there are restrictions. Attainment also reflects earlier patterns, with 66.4% of white students receiving a first- or second-class honours degree compared with 48.1% of BME students overall and only 37.7% of black students. Drop-out rates were also notably higher for black British and Asian heritage students.

I want to touch briefly on training opportunities for young people, specifically apprenticeships. Data from the Black Training and Enterprise Group has shown that, again, there is under-representation of BME young people in apprenticeships: in 2009-10, only 7% of apprenticeships were taken up by young people from BME backgrounds, although the BME population represents 14% of the working population as a whole. Provisional data for 2011-12 indicates that 9.2% of those beginning apprenticeships are from BME backgrounds, although 16% of 16 to 24-year-olds are from ethnic minority groups. The data are worse for completed apprenticeships.

As policy makers advocating a fairer society, such data and the issues that they reflect should be one of the reasons why we get up in the morning—they should drive us to do more, to do better. Educational attainment is not only a key indicator for the jobs we will do and the incomes we will earn but, as the recent health inequalities review undertaken by Professor Sir Michael Marmot showed, a predictor for how long and how healthily we will live. Our education, good or bad, affects our whole lives. We must ensure that policy—education, employment, welfare and economic—strives to reduce the inequalities that still exist.

For those people less motivated by social justice arguments, it is important to note that reducing educational inequalities is associated with higher national standards of educational performance, as evidenced by Wilkinson and Pickett in “The Spirit Level” of 2009, and that enhances economic productivity, not to mention tax revenue. Furthermore, all politicians are concerned about the low turnout at elections—again, people with higher educational attainment are more likely to participate in voting.

So what causes those educational inequalities and what can be done about them? The reasons for inequalities in attainment are many and varied, often interacting with one another in a complex way. Evidence indicates, however, that key determinants are the education system, family background and poverty. Although schools of poorer quality were associated with poorer educational outcomes for all pupils, the 2007 report by the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion on understanding low achievement calculated that the major determinant was living in poverty. That effect is compounded for BME young people—more BME children are likely to go to poor-quality schools.

The particular school characteristics associated with quality and achievement include head teacher leadership, school processes and school ethos, but many of those characteristics are not measured. School resources are also associated with school quality, in particular when pupil-teacher ratios are included, although the extent to which extra resources can add value has been contested—for example, by Hanushek. The composition of the student body is another important factor: the poorer the socio-economic mix of students, the poorer the school quality and attainment levels. In addition, a neighbourhood effect was also identified, suggesting that although household income is a key determinant in educational attainment, it is also influenced by wider socio-economic factors. A poor-quality neighbourhood, not providing a particularly salubrious educational environment, is associated with lower educational attainment levels.

Another key determinant of educational attainment, both at school and later, in higher education, is family background. All children do better if their parents are well educated, and if education is valued. However, an evidence review published in April by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that parental involvement is the most important characteristic, showing a strong causal relationship with attainment levels. Parenting style and expectations are also important, but less strongly so. The effects of both household and neighbourhood poverty on children’s educational attainment are obvious, and have been mentioned. However, analysis by Wilkinson and Pickett, comparing international data on educational achievement from the programme for international student assessment, shows that countries with high levels of income inequality also have lower scores for maths and literacy. Fairer societies do better on a range of measures, and educational attainment is one of them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I apologise for not being able to stay for all of it. She is discussing some of the factors behind differential attainment between BME and other populations. Does she agree that in finding the solutions to the problem, it is critical to involve parents, the school and the pupils? Indeed, that is what the black pupils achievement programme in Lewisham found. When all those elements can be brought together, it can make a difference.

I totally agree. We need to engage young people and parents in the solutions to the problems associated with educational inequalities.

The Joseph Rowntree review also considered the influence of individual attitudes, aspirations and behaviour, to see whether those are causal factors in determining attainment levels. At this stage, there is not enough evidence to suggest any positive association, although involvement in extra-curricular activities or sport showed a weak link. If we are to deal with those inequalities in educational attainment, what should we do?

My hon. Friend will be aware that for at least 10 years I have run a project—London Schools and the Black Child—looking at black children and under-achievement. Although all the social issues that my hon. Friend raised are important, one thing is clear: one problem for black children is a culture of low expectations in education. Controversial as Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, is, he showed, first at St Bonaventure’s and then at Mossbourne community academy in Hackney that, even if they come from deprived backgrounds, when black children are given high expectations, structures and limits, they can achieve.

I would not be at all surprised about what my hon. Friend says. The review examined systematic review-level evidence. My hon. Friend’s point is valid. I am sure that a greater amount of research will prove the causal link.

What should we be doing? I am proud that many of the improvements in BME attainment levels in the past six years can be attributed to the interventions of the Labour Government. The ethnic minority achievement grant was particularly effective, for example, in meeting the needs of bilingual pupils. Disadvantage because of language issues is one reason for the attainment gap in primary school, but that gap can be made up with specialist support. With the abolition of EMAG in April, there are concerns that that vital work will stop.

Aiming High was another effective programme aiming to increase participation and attainment for black pupils at key stage 4. Similarly, education action zones, targeting resources to improve attainment in inner-city areas, and curriculum development such as citizenship education contributed to positive changes in the education system, and to increased BME attainment levels. The 900,000 reduction in the number of children living in poverty achieved under Labour will also have had an impact on attainment levels.

Measures in the Education Act 2011 do not deal with disparities in attainment and could reverse the progress that has been achieved. For example, the measures on behaviour and discipline relating to detention, searching and exclusion have particular significance for Traveller, Gypsy and Roma children, who are four times more likely to be excluded, and Black Caribbean boys, who are twice as likely to be excluded. Excluded pupils are four times more likely to leave school without any qualifications. The measures have been introduced despite research conducted by the former Department for Education and Skills that acknowledged that exclusion is partly due to the conscious and unconscious prejudice of some teachers.

The expansion of academies and free schools without fully considering the potential and unintended consequences is another concern. Resourcing through the pupil premium may contribute to improvements in educational attainment if associated with increases in the teacher-pupil ratio. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) has written:

“If the premium is allocated precisely according to need, it is surprising that the area getting the largest increase in their allocation this year is Rutland (8% of children living in poverty), while the smallest increase goes to the Wirral (26% of children in poverty).”

The most recent proposal to reintroduce GCEs and a two-tiered exam system where children are streamed at 14 will only exacerbate the inequalities that already exist. Black and minority ethnic students are currently more likely to be put into lower attainment sets and, as such, would be more likely be put into CSE streams, thereby pigeon-holing their futures.

The economic and welfare policies which, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, are projected to increase the number of children living in poverty to 4.2 million by 2020, should alarm everyone who wants a fairer Britain. We cannot and should not let these children endure such hardships, but to compound that by failing to give them the support they need to reach their potential at school is unforgivable.

Finally, I want to make some recommendations. It is important to reintroduce the ring-fenced ethnic minority achievement grant; to develop teacher training to equip all teachers to teach a diverse range of students; to explore issues around unconscious bias; to reinstate targets for BME teacher recruitment; to increase research into the causes of differential attainment, including effective independent careers advice and guidance for young people from BME communities; to reduce the number of exclusions of black Caribbean boys, and restore powers to exclusion appeal panels; and to ensure that the curriculum is inclusive and promotes diversity, and that the call to reinstate GCEs is rejected.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this vital debate. There has been much talk about this subject in the media and in the report by Alan Milburn, and I know that the Government are taking seriously the work on social mobility. None the less, unless we deal with the issue of differential attainment, we will be letting down a generation of young people.

We have a mixed story to tell. I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for her pioneering work on this matter. Had she not been making noises about the underachievement of black boys in particular, some of the progress and bureaucratic changes that have been made would not have taken place. I will touch on that matter in my suggestions to the Minister at the end.

Over the past week, the Secretary of State has talked about changing and splitting the GCSE, which is relevant to many of my constituents in Hackney. I do not disagree that we need to see rigour in standards—in Hackney, we have seen huge improvements in schools, which were achieving well below the national average 10 or even seven years ago, but most are now achieving well above that, with Mossbourne academy, which my hon. Friend cited, achieving 84% A to C grades including maths and English. A number of children are going on to not just good universities but Oxbridge as well as other Russell group universities.

We have done a lot in Hackney to improve standards, which we attribute to good heads, rigorous standards and a clear framework of expectations for young people of all backgrounds. We accept no excuses because of poverty or ethnicity and no low expectations. In one school, City academy—its principal, Mark Emmerson, is now also acting executive principal of City academy Islington because of his success so far—the pupils have not sat GCSEs. He has told his staff that they should see all the pupils in his highly ethnically mixed school, which is populated mostly from the dense local council housing estates in the area, as future A* pupils, and that that must be the teachers’ expectation. The school has been growing year by year, and is now in its third year. Most of the pupils are a couple of terms ahead of the expected achievement at the end of year 8, their second year in secondary school. A couple of them are more than a year ahead of where they would normally be, but they did not necessarily come in with the highest level of achievement at key stage 2—level 5. Some were achieving below that. Mark Emmerson has got them back not just to where they should be, but to above that.

I spoke about one school, but I could spend a lot of time talking about good practice in Hackney schools. Everything is not perfect, but there are good heads and good rigour, and we have seen huge investment, thanks to the previous Government, in new schools and good buildings. Young people have been amazed when they have gone into their new schools, and feel that they deserve them. They have a feeling that they have the right to be in a good-quality environment. The schools operate long days, with breakfast and after-school provision.

Another school in my constituency, Petchey academy, gives same-day detentions, but that is seen as positive. If a child is falling behind, for whatever reason—they may have been messing around in class, they may just not understand something, or they may have difficulties at home and bring other issues into the classroom—at the end of the day they spend an hour focusing on that area of under-achievement so that by the next day at school they are back with the rest of the class. I am sure that that does not always work, but that aspiration is surely needed. Many pupils in Hackney come from challenging homes, and often live in overcrowded conditions in families with long periods of worklessness. I will touch on some of the issues of ethnicity and language in a moment.

Returning to the Secretary of State’s comments, I do not agree that reintroducing a two-tier system for education is the answer. The idea that 25% of Hackney pupils at 11, and certainly at 13 or 14, will be pigeon-holed and earmarked for a lower qualification is a retrograde step. The example I have just given of Hackney’s City academy shows that much can be done at secondary school for pupils who may not have achieved their full potential at primary school. It would be a retrograde step for a cohort of teachers to expect a percentage of pupils to take a lower-grade exam. The benefit of the GCSE is that whatever someone’s ability, they can progress on the same programme of attainment, and if they work hard they can achieve higher than C grade.

Changing the landscape massively confuses matters for employers, who tell me that they have several issues about the qualifications that young people leave school with, and I certainly do not believe that changing them will make a difference. I am not alone in thinking that. Lord Baker, former Secretary of State for Education, gave the Minister and the Secretary of State good advice when he said:

“The CSE certificate which we did away with in the eighties”—

I was one of the last pupils to sit the old GCE, which shows my age, but we are talking more than 20 years ago—

“became a valueless bit of paper. It wasn’t worth anything to the students or to the employers. That means that there has got to be rigour for the other subjects at 16 as well.”

Lord Baker is promoting university technical colleges, as I am. I have one in my constituency, Hackney university technical college, where young people will be studying from the age of 14 and taking more technical qualifications alongside academic qualifications, but that will not be seen as second best or something different, and will be not instead of but as well as GCSEs.

I am one of the vice-chairs of the all-party group on social mobility, and in the discussions I have touched on there is much talk about universities and getting young people into university, but the issue starts much earlier. That is one reason why I was a great champion of Sure Start. The investment in children under 5, and helping their parents to parent better and to understand the benefits of wider education through play, is very important. Professionals say that they can see the difference between children of parents who have been supported by Sure Start and those who have not, because the former have been positively engaged with the child. We must start there.

We need a raising of attainment in primary schools and a raising of ambition. That is why many Hackney primary schools take pupils to universities and into the workplace, through work programmes, to see those places for themselves. That is particularly important for a range of young people, including some from ethnic minority backgrounds, who do not have a pattern of work in their family.

I shall touch on some of the data, which show why this issue is so important and why the Minister, who I am sure is listening hard, needs to ensure that the Department does not take its eye off the ball. The inequality is still quite stark: we have seen some improvements in Hackney, but provisional data from 2011—last year’s results—show a 6% gap in achievement at GCSE level between Caribbean-heritage boys and all other boys and a 5% gap between the same cohort, Caribbean girls, and all other girls. We can look at the pattern from 2005. Due to interventions by various schools and the Learning Trust in Hackney, we have seen the number achieving five A* to C grade GCSEs, including maths and English, steadily improving for both boys and girls. It is a good story so far, but we should not sit back and say that that gap is acceptable.

As a Hackney resident and a Hackney mother, I am glad to see the very many improvements, but we need to be careful about what we say about improvements, because some of the stats go back to a period when there was the use of NVQ equivalents to GCSE. My concern is that although on paper the gap may have narrowed, it is because some black children have been palmed off with NVQ equivalents, which do not in fact equip those children to compete in the marketplace.

I completely agree. Statistics can bury many issues, which is why the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth about ensuring proper teacher training and support so that assumptions are not built in at the beginning is a key one. I shall give a couple of examples of where I have seen that in the past.

Some issues that probably do not figure on most hon. Members’ horizons, although my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and I will come across them regularly, are those to do with Turkish, Kurdish and Cypriot children, who are still massively underachieving compared with their cohort group. Although there has been an improvement since 2011, we still see a gap in attainment between Turkish, Kurdish and Cypriot boys and girls and all other pupils of 14%. That brings in one of the other issues—language. At home, many of these young people will speak only their mother tongue. That is fine. The mother tongue is very important, and of course parents and mothers in particular are the first educators of a child. However, if the parent is not very literate in the mother tongue, the child may not be getting the range of educational input required from the parent in the mother tongue. Often, the only adult whom many of these young people speak to in English is their teacher. Their exposure to the wider world is sometimes a bit limited. Often, the young people will be helping in the family business, which will involve working with other Turkish families, for instance; and in the mosque and other community groups, it will be only the mother tongue that is spoken.

I do not want anyone to go away with the impression that I do not think that the mother tongue is important, because it is very important. Actually, it is very important for our young people as they go out into the world and develop their careers. Given that the Turkish economy, for example, is growing by about 7% a year, speaking their mother tongue is a real skill and strength for young people in Hackney. However, there is an issue and it may not hit the Minister’s radar screen because, in terms of the national population, this group is relatively small and focused in parts of north-east London.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington about statistics, but let us look at the differences between young people when they leave primary school at 11 and when they get to GCSE level. In Hackney in 2011, 77% of white boys left school at key stage 2 at the end of year 6 with a level 4 in English and maths. At GCSE level in the same year—so it is not the same cohort, but this shows the gap that we have to bridge—51.7 % got five or more A* to C grade GCSEs, including English and maths. That is a differential of 26 percentage points. If we look at the same figures for black boys, we see that 69% achieved level 4 in 2011 and, in the same year—so it is not the same cohort—42% achieved five A* to C grade GCSEs. That is a differential of 27 percentage points. The differential is similar, but there are endemic issues, on which I and others have touched, about why certain groups achieve less well.

I want to illustrate the importance of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth about teacher training. For about nine years, I was a governor, and latterly chair of governors, at a primary school in north Islington. During that time there was a big shortage of teachers. We had a lot of very bright, talented, young teachers, who were keen to teach, but many of them, to put it bluntly, had never seen a black face in their lives.

The head teacher, who was a black woman, which was still quite unusual, and I were very concerned on a couple of occasions. On one occasion, a child was very scared about going into assembly to see African dancing. My immediate reaction was that it was terrible that a child was worried about seeing something that reflected, to a degree, their own heritage. There were a number of issues to unpack about witchcraft and pride in their background, but the other teachers saw it as naughty behaviour, because they had not come across the cultural issues involved.

On another occasion, they were casting for “The Wizard of Oz”. In the film, Dorothy is played by Judy Garland—a young, white girl—so presumably, that was the image in the minds of many teachers. Each class was asked to do a bit of “The Wizard of Oz”, so they each had a witch, a Dorothy and so on. The Dorothys, when they came out of the classes, were all little white girls. The head, being from a different background, challenged it, but at the time I was worried; this was a cohort of good teachers, but teachers who did not have that perspective, which was a real worry. We need young people in schools now not only to achieve well, but to go on to become teachers themselves.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I were at Sebright school in my constituency, which is one that works with City Year kids. Through City Year, young people on a gap year work with pupils, providing mentoring, physical training and an extra adult to support the students. They have found different ways to engage and are very popular with the Hackney schools they go into. They are now moving into secondary schools. What is good about that cohort is that the groups of young people, aged between about 18 and 22, coming into Hackney schools better reflect the wider Hackney community. They are not all from Hackney, but they better reflect what you might see, to put it simply, on a Hackney bus.

To a degree, there is a time lag with teacher training, but the teachers in our schools do not necessarily reflect the ethnic background of the pupils they teach. What is the Department doing to encourage change? Are the Government being proactive? Let us be honest, we do not have enough teachers from ethnic minority backgrounds. Just as we have concerns that there are not enough male teachers in primary schools to be role models, the Government need not to be shy at addressing this issue. That brings me to my final point and recommendation to the Minister.

We used to see a quite detailed breakdown of achievement by ethnic background. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. If she had not talked about, and made it acceptable to talk about, the difference between black and white children, the Department at the time would not have had the courage to produce a much more granular breakdown by different ethnic groups. We have gone back and shrunk to broad-brush breakdowns—black, white, Asian and so on. That breakdown does not work for me, because it would not pick up Kurdish, Turkish and Cypriot achievement, which is a big issue. We collect some of those data locally, but no wider dataset is collected.

I know that there has been nervousness about labelling and pigeonholing pupils by ethnic background, but used properly, such information can be very helpful. It can be used by MPs, parents and others to challenge what a school does and by good teachers and head teachers to ensure that they focus on areas of proven underachievement and do not contribute to it. I understand that that is a detailed point, but if the Minister cannot comment now, will he write to me with exact reasons why the Department no longer breaks down the data to that level of granularity? Will the Department consider doing so again? Will he also pick up the point about teacher training and attracting more young people from ethnic minorities into teacher training?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this important debate.

The first thing to say is that the underachievement of black children is not a new issue. It goes back all the way to the 1950s, when children would come here from the Caribbean—bright and able children, who had excelled in the classroom in the Caribbean—but they suddenly found themselves in units for children who were educationally underachieving.

There is a clear pattern to that underachievement. When children of African and Caribbean descent enter the school system at the age of five, they are doing as well as white and Asian children. In some cases they are doing marginally better, because there is some medical evidence to show that black children are a little more developmentally advanced at the age of five. By the age of 11, their achievement levels, particularly for boys, start to drop off and by the age of 16 there is a huge gap. Although we—my Government—masked that gap, partly by the use of national vocational qualification equivalents for GCSE, it still remains startling.

Ministers might say, “Why does this matter to us? We don’t have many of these people in our constituencies. Maybe it’s their families. Maybe it’s them. Why should we bother?” First of all, as hon. Friends have said, it is an issue of equity and justice. If it means anything to be a British citizen—even in austerity and even in the times that we face—it ought to mean that there is the chance to make something of yourself through an educational system that treats people fairly.

As the child of immigrants who came to Britain in the 1950s, I know that that generation of West Indian immigrants knew that it would be tough, that they would have to work two jobs, that often they would live in overcrowded conditions and that they would encounter racism, but they thought—as immigrants always think—that for their children it would be better, and that education was the means by which it would become better. All the challenges faced by minorities today—whether about employment, policing or immigration—pale to nothing, in my view, in comparison with the betrayal of an earlier generation of immigrants who came to Britain to better themselves and their families, and thought that education would be the ladder for them, as it has been historically for immigrants all over the world.

Education matters because equity matters; it matters because fairness matters; and it matters because justice matters. I throw into the debate a quote from Martin Narey, who is the former director of the Prison Service and the former head of Barnardo’s. He said years ago that on the date and time a child is permanently excluded from school, they might as well be given a date and time to turn up in prison. The link between educational underachievement, social disorder and eventually a life of crime is a very clear pathway. Rather than spending money on rehabilitating young people and on dealing with the consequences of crime, let us focus on and pay attention to what I believe is the root of a lot of these issues—the educational underachievement of too many of our children, particularly black children, in our schools.

Post the riots last summer, people talked about the rioters being in gangs, about their parents, about lack of religious leadership and about all sorts of things. People did not talk about the fact that the biggest signifier when we looked at the young people who were arrested and charged with incidents in the course of the riots was that two thirds of them—I think that was the figure—had special educational needs, and the majority of them had been excluded from school. Those were the two biggest indicators. I am not saying that educational underachievement is an excuse for criminality or rioting, but the link is there. If we are talking about a business case, the business case for making sure that all our children achieve their very best in school is unanswerable.

As colleagues will know, this is an issue that I have harassed Ministers about, both in my Government and in this Government. On the question of the figures, I remember going to see a brand-new Labour Schools Minister in 1997 and asking him about the figures about ethnic achievement. I will not give his name—he was a very nice man—but he looked at me and said, “Well, Diane, we have got these figures and, you know, they seem to show that ethnic minorities are doing better.” I said, “How can that be?” I think he had a youth cohort study and the figures were broken down into white and ethnic minority, so I said, “I tell you what, you tell your officials to go away and break down those figures between white, Asian, African and Afro-Caribbean.”

The Minister looked at me, but he was a nice guy, so he went away and came back a few months later and said, “We have broken them down, and we find that you have the whites doing how they’re doing, and the Asian students doing better than the black students, but even the black students are creeping up a little bit.” I replied, “I tell you what, you go away and break down the black student figures between boys and girls.” He came back with what I and the black community knew, that black boys’ results were flatlining. What was happening to black boys at the end of the ’90s, and had been happening for decades, was masked by a failure to keep statistics. Although it seems arid and technical to ask for stats, we cannot have programmes that reach those children effectively without a statistical basis.

There is an emerging concern that although girls from certain ethnic minority backgrounds now achieve well in Hackney schools at 16, and in particular at 18, and some of them even go on to university, a number of them drop out of education after 18. Studies show that, and it exactly illustrates my hon. Friend’s point about the need to track the figures and keep the statistics at a detailed enough level for them to be meaningful.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

I also remember, a few years into that same Government, going to see the then Secretary of State for Education and asking for a breakdown by ethnicity of GCSE results. She said, “Sure Diane, of course you can have them,” but her officials looked shifty. At that time, schools were supposed to keep the figures; they just were not published. Months later, I got a letter from my colleague, who is now in another place, saying that unfortunately the data could not be released because they were “not in a usable form”. Even if schools are made to keep data, unless they know that the figures will be made public and used, it is in their interests, particularly those of schools that are failing our children, to keep them in all sorts of higgledy-piggledy ways so that no one can drill down and see what is happening to the children. I cannot stress enough the importance of examination data broken down by ethnicity, because if we do not have that we cannot reach those children because we do not know what is happening to them.

I suppose this is the appropriate point at which to raise the question of why. Why do black children fail? That is something I have struggled with, as have academics, parents and community workers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth said, it is a mix of things. It is partly to do with poverty in an absolute sense, although all the research shows, particularly that done by the Institute of Education, that even when we allow for poverty—usually by using free school meals as an indicator—black children systematically do less well than children of other ethnicities. There is no question but that poverty is an issue. Nowadays there is also increasing peer group pressure. Parents can be devoted to their children’s academic futures but if, as the children reach adolescence, their cohort thinks that studying is not cool, that can be problematic. I have mentored the children of friends in that situation, and I do not discount its significance.

There is also a culture of low expectation in some schools. I am not talking about bad teachers, but about teachers who say, and have said to me, in effect, year on year, “What do you expect?” Well, let me tell Members what communities in areas such as Hackney expect: they expect each and every child to reach their potential. There is a culture of low expectation, of saying, “Well, if we can make school a nice, safe place, and the children come in and make samosas and bang steel drums, isn’t that nice?” That sort of culture masks the failure to give young people the academic equipment they need to fulfil themselves as people and to compete in the world of work.

Some educationalists, some teachers and perhaps some Ministers might say, “Well, you know, Diane, you can’t expect schools to make good the failings of society.” That is a strange thing to say because if we read the history of education in this country, the Victorians believed exactly that: school could make good the failures of society. Had we said to Arnold, the first inspector of schools, “Oh, you can’t expect schools to make good the failings of society”, he would have said, “That’s ridiculous! This is what we’re here for.” Hiding behind—I emphasise “hiding”—real social and youth culture issues to say that schools cannot make a difference is to take a position that the Victorians would not have recognised.

One reason why it is important to keep detailed stats is that it is not sufficient to talk generally about black and minority children. I have worked on the subject for years, and in London, which is the part of the country I know best, the figures and outcomes are complicated. Chinese children, I think, do best in London, white girls do second best, then children of east African, Asian or Indian origin and, going down the list, Bengali boys, who are bumping along at the bottom with white boys and black boys. Black girls always do better than black boys. The London stats show us differences in out-turn between Asian children from the subcontinent, Asian children from Bengal, Asian children from east Africa, African children or Caribbean children, and not keeping detailed statistics about out-turns year on year is failing such children. Only when we see the differences can we start to identify what the issues are.

For instance, one of the reasons why Bengali boys do so badly compared with Asian boys from other backgrounds is to do with rural Bengal and the conditions that they come from. Unless we have the detailed statistics, however, we cannot identify that. One of the things I have seen as the years have gone by is that first-generation African children tend to do better than Caribbean children. That is an interesting fact, which is worth contemplating. In my opinion—having studied this, held events and looked at the figures—the results of first-generation African children may speak to more stable families in the African community at this point and a stronger sense of personal identity. Until we have the figures and can analyse why there are differences, we cannot help those children.

We have not spoken much about higher education, which the debate is not primarily about, but we cannot talk about educational underachievement without mentioning what is happening to BME children in higher education. A case in point is London, where it is striking that universities within a few miles of each other and in theory serving the same population are very different in their demographic make-up. In fact, some of the former polytechnics in London educate more BME young people than some of our Russell group universities put together. I do not accept the argument, “Well, that’s because it’s all they are capable of.” A lot of things are going on, such as poor advice at school level or poor A-level choices. There is a lot to say about what is happening in higher education to BME young people.

As my hon. Friend knows, a lot of interesting work has been done on that, but for me it is summed up by the bright young woman from Hackney who was offered places to read medicine at Nottingham and Cambridge universities. She turned down the place at Cambridge because she said that she did not think she would fit in there. That demonstrates that it is about more than the academic side; it is about the attitudes of universities and their welcoming of the wide population of this country.

It is an interesting issue, and I hope that on another occasion in the House we shall have the opportunity to debate BME communities in higher education specifically.

The issue we are debating has engaged me for many years, almost since I first entered the House, and there are two specific things that I have done about it. I set up an initiative called London Schools and the Black Child. Over a decade we have had annual conferences at which we brought together parents, community leaders and teachers, not to say, “Oh, the system is terrible and these teachers are terrible,” but to ask what we could do to help our children. The heart of those conferences—officials can tell Ministers about them, if they look through the files—were workshops, where parents dealt with issues such as how to cope with exclusions, how to help black boys to achieve, and how to help children to achieve higher standards.

The extraordinary thing about the conferences was that every year more than 1,000 parents would turn up. We held them at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre just across the way. The first one was due to start at 10 o’clock, and at 9 o’clock we had people queuing outside the door. Parents really want to help their children. There is an assumption that perhaps black children do badly because the black community does not value education. No. If I only ever say one thing in this House let it be that the black community does value education. That is why it is so important to me to keep making the case for focusing and having practical strategies.

The other thing that I have done, with the support of UBS, the international financial services company and bank, is to run an awards ceremony for London’s top achieving black children. One is always trying to counter stereotypes. The Minister might be surprised to know that there are black children at inner-city schools turning out 10 or 11 A* grades and four As at A-level, and going on to study medicine or law at Russell group universities. One year, we got Lenny Henry and the newscaster Trevor McDonald to hand out the awards, and we rang the Evening Standard and said, “We are having this awards ceremony—London’s top achieving black children; would you be prepared to cover it?” They asked, “Are any of the children gang members?” In other words, unless those children fit a stereotype they do not get coverage. We can open a London newspaper any day and see gang atrocities, stabbings and shootings. We do not hear enough about the children, of all ethnicities, who are achieving, and trying their very best. I thank UBS for its support. After the debate, I have a meeting with UBS to plan this year’s awards ceremony in the autumn, which will be held in the House of Commons.

I want to talk about what I think the solutions are. I have never doubted that part of the solution is to get parents to engage. The children who come to the awards ceremony are often from underachieving schools in socially deprived areas. One of the problems is that the room is always packed, because they bring their mum, dad, aunt and gran; the children who do best are those whose parents are most engaged in their education. It is important to get parents to engage, and that is why I have held conferences every year. Often parents do not quite know what to do for the best. The education system is very different even from when I was at school in this country. It is important to get parents to engage, but it is also important that the education system should recognise that. It is important to recruit more black teachers, not because only black teachers can teach black children, which is clearly absurd—I have mentioned Sir Michael Wilshaw—but because, particularly in metropolitan areas, unless the demographic in the staff room bears some relationship to that of the children who are being taught, there is unlikely to be the overall cultural literacy that will help teachers to engage with the children. It is also important, for all working-class boys, to recruit more male teachers. I deal with boys in Hackney—black, white, Asian, Turkish—who throughout their education have engaged only with women and have never seen a man as an educational role model. More male teachers are important. Teacher training is also important so that teachers have cultural literacy.

In closing, I will mention a subject on which I could talk for an entire hour and a half, because I have spent a lot of time on it in my life as a Member of Parliament. I had to have this debate with Labour Ministers: it is not good enough to adopt a colour-blind approach. With a colour-blind approach, ethnic minority children continue to slip under the radar and are palmed off with substandard qualifications, education and life chances. A colour-blind approach will not work. Comprehensive statistics are vital, as is recognising the importance of parents.

I must mention the institution of Saturday schools. For 20-odd years, Saturday schools have been run on a voluntary basis by the black community in London and other big cities. The same children of whom teachers in their mainstream school say, “Oh, what do you expect? We can’t get them to sit down,” go to a Saturday school, get their heads down and do their work. That is partly due to parental involvement.

We need statistics, recruitment of black and male teachers and teacher training, but above all we need to recognise that the issue is easy to ignore or to utter pieties about. If we abandon a cross-section of the community in our inner cities, they have a way of bringing themselves back into the political narrative—a way that is not good for them or for society. Better people than me have worked on the issue over their lifetime. I implore the Minister: let us not lose the advances made under the Labour Government. Let us continue to move forward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate. I welcome the debate, and the tone so far. It is correct to point out at the outset, as other hon. Members have done, that the title of the debate deals with educational attainment in black and minority ethnic communities. High attainment is found in all black and minority ethnic communities, and, as other Members have highlighted, some minority ethnic communities seem to be doing particularly well. We should all be as interested in why that is the case as in why pupils in other communities are not doing so well. Why some communities do well should be of great interest to us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth presented a thoroughly researched and well-argued speech, obviously born out of a desire to do something about an issue that she has encountered in her role as a constituency MP. She is to be commended for bringing to the House an issue that she has discovered in her constituency in order to highlight the need to do something about it. She emphasised the need for a well-rounded approach to educational attainment and mentioned, as did other hon. Members, the importance of parental inclusion. She also pointed out the abolition of the ethnic minority achievement grant, which I may comment on later. I congratulate her on her remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) made an excellent speech, also born out of her constituency experience. She emphasised, as we all should, the importance of rigour and standards in our schools, saying how much had been done, particularly in her borough of Hackney, through effective leadership in our schools. That is a key part of high achievement, as is having no excuses or not accepting low expectations in our schools.

In recent years, there has been real improvement in achievement and attainment in our schools, particularly in our London schools through measures such as London Challenge. That was acknowledged recently on television by the Mayor of London, who said that huge improvements in standards had been made in London schools in recent years. He was absolutely right to highlight that, but, as other Members have mentioned, that may well mask some of the underlying problems in relation to black and minority ethnic communities.

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of work on exclusion, which I will say more about in a moment. She was also strong in her opposition to introducing any kind of two-tier qualification system, which she called a retrograde step. We will debate that issue on the Floor of the House later today, so I am sure that the Minister will understand why I do not want to go into it in detail now.

My hon. Friend has mentioned one of the Secretary of State’s innovations, which we will debate later today. Does he agree that the principle behind the English baccalaureate—that every child should get certain core GCSE qualifications—is a good one and that it would help avoid a situation in which too many children are damaged by a culture of poor expectations?

I agree that it is extremely important that every young person and child should understand the implications of the pathways that they choose at GCSE. It is important that they understand that certain choices may lead to closing off opportunities at a later stage. I do not, however, support the crude mechanism of the E-bac, because I do not think that it is the way forward for qualifications at 16, and it will not necessarily mean that people will opt for those subjects that it is in their interests to take. There should be a clear understanding of the implications of choices made at 16. We should retain high expectations for young people in their GCSEs, particularly in English and maths, but also allow them the opportunity to make informed choices about the subjects that they want to take.

I want to address a number of points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). She is right to emphasise that this is not a new issue. Indeed, she has been making that point for the 25 years she has been a Member of this House, which she entered in 1987. It is only right that we pay tribute to her efforts on the subject, including her practical efforts in relation to the initiative that she mentioned in her speech.

My hon. Friend and I debated the issue when I was a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2008 and I can confirm that she is passionate about the subject and has a lot to say. As I recall, she took 26 of the 30 minutes that we had to debate the issue and I did my best to respond in the remaining time available. She was quite right, however, because she had a lot to say on the subject. She was right to emphasise its importance and to take me to task, as a Minister, on the subject, as she had previous Labour Ministers and as I am sure she will continue to do to coalition Ministers. It is important to hold our feet to the fire and make sure that our attention is maintained. That applies not just to those of us on the Opposition Benches, but, more importantly, given that the Minister is in government, to those who hold the levers of policy in the Department for Education. My hon. Friend was also right to mention the need for detailed data, which I will return to in a moment.

When we debated this topic in 2008, my hon. Friend made a number of points that caught my attention, one of which was that research by the former Department of Education and Skills confirmed:

“Black Caribbean pupils are significantly more likely to be permanently excluded—3 times more likely than White pupils.”

However, as my hon. Friend has said today, and as she said in 2008:

“In relation to base-line entry tests, black pupils outperform their white peers at the start of school”.

We need to understand what is going on.

My hon. Friend went on to emphasise the importance of teacher training, pointing out that only 35% of newly qualified teachers

“rated their course as good for preparing them to teach black children, as opposed to 60 per cent. who rated their course as good preparation for teaching children of all abilities.” —[Official Report, 1 April 2008; Vol. 474, c. 223, 224WH.]

That is still a significant issue that we all need to consider and that the Minister must not lose sight of in his reform of teacher training.

My hon. Friend talked about exclusion, which absolutely needs to be tackled. When we were in government, we started to look at that subject in more detail and in greater depth than Ministers had at the start of the Labour Government in 1997, when my hon. Friend had a meeting with Education Ministers. In 2007, the Department published a priority review entitled “Getting it, getting it right” on the exclusion of black pupils. It discussed the iconic status of the issue of exclusion in black communities. Black Caribbean parents in particular believed that the school system would not meet the needs of their children unless something was done about the disproportionate level of exclusion of pupils from that particular background. It was extremely important that that report was undertaken at that time, and I would be interested to hear from the Minister about what the Government are doing now to follow up on that issue in relation to the exclusion of black and minority ethnic pupils. It was a priority of the previous Government to try to do something about that, even though they accepted that it was a complex and difficult issue. We undertook a number of initiatives that were specifically designed to tackle the issue of exclusion.

Another matter that was raised in the debate was the expectations of teachers. As long ago as 2003, the London Development Agency undertook major research that showed, among other things, that many teachers had lower expectations of black pupils and that black pupils felt that they received less positive input and, in some cases, even discrimination from teachers in the course of their school lives. Under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, schools have a duty to ensure that they deal with this issue. A significant amount of literature for schools has been published by the Department and, in the past, by the Commission for Racial Equality on the subject. One report found that a significant minority of schools were failing to implement their duties under the race relations legislation. Given that we now have a more fragmented system of education in which a number of schools are no longer run as community schools in a local authority system but have become academies, independent of any local accountability, how will the Department ensure that such schools fulfil their obligations under race relations legislation in relation to black pupils?

I am sorry to have missed part of the debate, but I am pleased that it is taking place this morning. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a particular concern now given that the Government intend to repeal the good relations duty on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is of course the institutional framework by which this kind of mechanism can be applied?

Yes. My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of expertise on this subject. We are all concerned that a lot of very good work on equality could be undone—perhaps not in a deliberate sense—by Ministers who desire to follow their own path and ensure that they distinguish themselves from the previous Government in their approach to education and schools. They could be undoing very good work and taking a significant step backwards in relation to the education system and the topic that we are debating today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth talked about the impact of exclusion on people’s lives and about the fact that the Department itself had calculated that there would be a significant loss of earnings for pupils who were excluded in the course of their lifetime. At the time of that study, I think the reduction in lifetime earnings as a result of exclusion was calculated at £36,000. Worse than that, 80% of the juveniles in prison had been excluded from school at one time or another. That statistic made me sit up at the time, and should make the Minister focus on the issue. If 80% of juveniles in prison have been excluded from school, that must tell us something about exclusion and whether it is effective in trying to change the sort of behavioural problems that probably led to exclusion in the first place. If that exclusion has a racial component, we should be significantly concerned.

I would always defend a head teacher’s right to manage their school, and clearly exclusion may have a place in that, but a concern that I came across recently is a child who was excluded but brought back into school with intense provision for a short period. That intense provision was for only half a day, so the working parent was left with half a day to try to cover, and it also took the child out of their normal environment. Has my hon. Friend given any thought to how that might have an effect on the outlook of that young person when they re-enter the school?

For many years, the scandal was that excluded pupils received little or no education after they had been excluded. My point is that exclusion should be a last resort, and it is sometimes necessary. As a former teacher, I absolutely defend the right of schools to exclude, having followed due and proper process. The Government have reformed that process, and changed the way in which an appeal can be made against exclusion. Instead of insisting on reinstatement, they have introduced fines on schools and head teachers who refuse reinstatement after that has been recommended on appeal.

I do not want to go into the details of that, but I want to make the point that responsibility for that child does not end when they are excluded, and that includes a responsibility on the head teacher and the school that excluded the child, on other schools in the area, even if they are independent academy schools in the state sector, and on all of us who are interested in education. Responsibility for that child does not end at the point of exclusion. One reason why so many young people end up in the juvenile justice system is not that they are inherently bad, but that, at the point of exclusion, there is no proper follow-up to ensure that the child receives an education, let alone attempts made to try to prevent exclusion in the first place whenever possible, given that it should always and everywhere be a last resort.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington said that improvement in GCSE achievement might have been due partially to the use of equivalencies at GCSE, but I think the facts will show that even if that were taken out of the equation, the improvement in London schools in recent years is real, as the Mayor of London said. In fact, results for black Caribbean pupils were rising at a faster rate than those for many other groups, but that does not mean that there is not a real and continuing problem, and my hon. Friend was right to highlight that.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the need for detailed data, and I appeal to the Minister that in his wish to unburden schools of bureaucracy, which is laudable, he does not fail to collect the data that are essential to tackle issues such as this. The Government are keen on having masses of data available in other areas, and that is good because it enables people to trawl through and analyse it, and to get to the root of a problem, but in this matter, less data are likely to be collected and that would be a significant mistake.

I have a few questions for the Minister before concluding and giving him time to respond. In tackling the problem, how will ending the ethnic minority achievement grant help? How will introducing a two-tier qualifications system, if that is indeed what he intends, help to improve black and ethnic minority attainment? How will not collecting proper statistics help? How will abandoning the approach of Every Child Matters help? Obviously, educational achievement is partially a case of good leadership in schools and so on, but it does involve wider issues, which many of these children may be bringing to school with them and which need to be tackled. How will a fragmented approach to exclusions help to tackle this problem? I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s response to those questions.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate on an issue of enormous importance—tackling the differences in attainment among certain groups of pupils.

The overarching objective of the Government’s education policy is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds, between girls and boys and between those from different ethnic minorities. As hon. Members have already argued, the gap in attainment between black and minority ethnic pupils and other pupils is too wide, and has been too wide for too long.

The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth pointed to the educational attainment gap between BME students and their peers. She pointed to the high levels of unemployment among black men. It is 55.5% in the 16-to-24 age group. She pointed to the fact that young Indian people are more likely to be unemployed than their white peers, despite being in one of the highest-performing ethnic groups educationally.

The hon. Lady pointed to the high degree of variation in the educational achievements of different ethnic groups. She pointed to the poor attainment levels of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils. For example, in 2011, 25% of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieved level 4 or above in English and maths at the end of primary education, compared with 74% of all pupils. That is one of the largest attainment gaps for any minority ethnic group. At key stage 4 in 2011, 12% of GRT pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs including English and maths, compared with 58.2 % of all pupils. We have established a ministerial working group on tackling the inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers. We are taking action, including by piloting a virtual head teacher for GRT pupils, looking again at the impact of legislation with regard to not prosecuting families for non-attendance at school, and so on.

The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) pointed to the attainment gap of 6% between Caribbean-heritage boys and the rest of the cohort at GCSE level. For girls, it was 5%. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out that when black children enter primary school at the age of five, they are doing as well as, and in certain circumstances better than, their peers attending the same primary school, but by the age of 11, achievement starts to drop off, and by 16 there are real attainment gaps for that group of children. I agree with her that this does matter—it is a matter of social justice and fairness. She is right to have devoted so much of her life to trying to tackle these issues and raise awareness of them. I join the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) in paying tribute to her for the work that she has carried out over three decades in seeking to address the issue of higher educational standards for BME children in general, and black boys in particular.

The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington is right to say that the focus must be on raising educational achievement for black children, and children from groups that historically have underperformed educationally. She is right to point to the importance of data and making the data available. That is something that we are doing. We have put increasing amounts of educational attainment data in the performance tables. Those are broken down by free school meals, by low prior attainment and by high prior attainment. The underlying data are also available. They break down achievement by different ethnic and minority groups. We intend to put ever more data on the website over time, so that they are available to the public, and to academics who want to drill down further than the general public.

Attainment gaps are a complex issue. BME pupils’ underperformance may be due to a combination of factors, including financial deprivation, low parental literacy levels and aspirations for children’s academic achievement, poor attendance and bullying.

The Minister mentions low literacy levels among parents as a reason for educational underachievement. Let me tell me him that many parents with whom my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and I work would resent that inference.

I take the hon. Lady’s point. I am making a general point about the issue of underperforming groups in society. The range of causes is complex, and one of them can be—it is not always—literacy among parents generally.

Particular combinations of pupil characteristics can indicate that a child is especially vulnerable. Currently, white or black Caribbean boys eligible for free school meals are among those making the slowest progress. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children significantly underperform. Many of the lowest-achieving free school meal pupils also have a special educational need, and therefore face an even steeper struggle to succeed.

Nationally, in 2011, 58.2% of pupils gained five or more GCSEs, including English and maths, but the attainment levels of black and minority ethnic groups were lower. Some 52.6% of children of Pakistani origin obtained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including in English and maths, while 54.3% of black pupils, including those of African and Caribbean background, attained the same GCSE results. The figures show that some attainment gaps have narrowed in recent years, as hon. Members have mentioned. For example, attainment levels for pupils of Pakistani origin have improved at a greater rate, narrowing the gap from 12 to six percentage points since 2006.

Narrowing the gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds is key to raising attainment levels among those black and minority ethnic groups with higher than average levels of deprivation. For example, 30% of key stage 4 students of Pakistani origin were eligible for free school meals in 2011, compared with 14% of all key stage 4 pupils.

Our policy is to improve reading in primary schools through systematic synthetic phonics and the new draft primary curriculum for English, with its focus on rigour and ensuring that children become fluent readers and develop a long-lasting love of reading, as well as being taught the rules of English grammar. That is key to closing the attainment gap, as are our other programmes of study for maths and science.

The academies and free schools programmes are designed to raise standards in schools throughout the system, particularly in areas of deprivation. Similarly, the new floor standards for primary and secondary schools and the new focused Ofsted inspection framework are designed to raise academic standards in the least well-performing schools. The pupil premium will direct £600 of extra school funding to each pupil eligible for free school meals, giving schools the resources to tackle all the challenges that they undoubtedly face in overcoming disadvantage.

The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington is right that schools must not hide behind social difficulties as a reason for poor educational attainment. That is one reason for the pupil premium. It is a challenge: “Here are the resources to deliver high attainment, so there can be no reason for not delivering.” Total funding for the premium was £625 million last year. It will be £1.25 billion this year, rising to £2.5 billion a year by 2014-15. In 2012-13, coverage of the pupil premium is being extended to include pupils who have been eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years, extending the premium from 1.2 million pupils to about 1.7 million. The Deputy Prime Minister also recently announced an additional £10 million for the education endowment fund to support projects aimed at transition and literacy catch-up for disadvantaged pupils who did not achieve level 4 at key stage 2 in English at the end of primary school.

The hon. Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth and for Cardiff West raised the issue of the ethnic minority achievement grant. Raising the attainment of children from minority ethnic communities remains a key priority for the coalition Government, but we believe that head teachers understand the particular needs of their schools and are best placed to decide for themselves how that money should be spent. That is why, as part of our school funding settlement for 2011-12, we decided to simplify the funding system by mainstreaming some grants, including the ethnic minority achievement grant, into the dedicated schools grant. Although the EMAG will not continue as a separate ring-fenced grant, we are maintaining last year’s funding levels during 2012-13 at just over £201 million. That means that schools still have funds to support underperforming minority ethnic pupils, and to contribute to the additional costs of supporting pupils with English as an additional language.

Does the Minister accept that as schools are under severe financial pressure at the moment, the funds might not be targeted specifically at reducing the inequalities in attainment for which they were originally intended?

I accept that that is always a risk, but our philosophy is to trust the professionals to make the decisions, and not have decisions always taken in Whitehall that direct head teachers, who are experienced professionals, on how to spend their budgets. The funding of £201 million is in the dedicated schools grant to address such issues.

This country performs poorly in helping young people to overcome their socio-economic backgrounds. The OECD recently reported that just 24% of disadvantaged students are able to overcome their backgrounds and achieve as well as their peers academically. That is compared with 76% in Shanghai, 72% in Hong Kong and 46% in Finland, which puts the UK 39th out of 65 OECD countries in terms of what it calls the “educational resilience” of children from poorer backgrounds.

In this country, however, there are many schools where pupils of all backgrounds succeed. In Challney high school for boys and community college in Luton, for example, 29% of pupils are in receipt of free school meals, and 61% are of Pakistani origin and 11% of Bangladeshi origin. It saw 77% of its students achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths. The national attainment figure is 58.2%. In Valentines high school in Redbridge, 19% of pupils are in receipt of free school meals, and 24% are of Pakistani origin and 10% of Bangladeshi origin. It saw 76% of its students achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths. The question we must ask is this: if such schools are able to achieve those results and that standard of education for their pupils, why not all schools?

As the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington pointed out, black children sometimes have a culture of low expectation. When Sir Michael Wilshaw was head at St Bonaventure’s and at Mossbourne community academy, however, he transformed the educational achievement of the youngsters with a combination of high expectations and strong limits and boundaries on behaviour. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch cited Mossbourne community academy and its very high academic achievement. It saw 84% of pupils achieve five or more GCSEs at A* to C and nine pupils offered places at Oxbridge last year, despite high levels of deprivation in that part of Hackney and a very high proportion of pupils with English as an additional language.

The hon. Lady pointed to City academy, and the high academic achievement of pupils who had low attainment prior to coming to the school. She said that good heads and good rigour are key, and I certainly agree. She also pointed to the exemplar behaviour policy at the Petchey academy in Hackney, which brings me to school attendance and how regular attendance is key to raising academic standards.

Absence rates for some BME groups are higher than the national average. The absence rate of children of Pakistani origin is 6.7%, but the national average is 5.8%. Nationally, over 54 million school days were lost in 2010-11 due to absence. A pupil missing about nine—