Fighting inequality in education

The UK education system can create and maintain inequalities that can last a lifetime. Black Caribbean boys are three times more likely to be excluded from school, and fewer ethnic minority students gain top 2:1 or first-class degrees and may struggle to find work afterwards. Birmingham’s Centre for Research on Race and Education (CRRE) works to research and highlight the reasons for this, and change policy and practice to prevent this continuing.

The Director of the CRRE, Professor of Education and Social Justice Kalwant Bhopal MBE says: 'I'm proud to be the Director of an institution which has a remit to challenge. Sometimes we have to say things that can be uncomfortable, like highlighting the role of Higher Education in perpetuating inequality. But it is only by continuing to research and robustly evidence these injustices that we can begin to address them and create impact and lasting change.'

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on pupils' experiences of A levels. Working with the University of Nottingham, the CRRE is currently exploring how pupils feel their schools have dealt with the COVID-19 crisis, and the impact of having their exams cancelled. The subsequent debate over how grades were awarded led to teachers' predicted grades finally being used.

'It is only by continuing to research and robustly evidence these injustices that we can begin to address them and create impact and lasting change.'

However, with evidence suggesting students from minority ethnic backgrounds receive lower estimated grades than white students, there remain questions over how fair this system was. With surveys undertaken by students before and after results were given, this study will highlight the mental and academic impact of this policy and policy changes, and discover whether any groups have been unfairly disadvantaged.

The team has been highlighting racial inequality for many years, before the death of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter movement this year brought racial injustice to the forefront nationally, both socially and politically. Professor Bhopal was surprised by the scale and global nature of protests this year, but understood the motivation behind it.

'Although the scale of the movement has taken everyone by surprise, I can’t help but feel like we have been here before. After the publication of the Macpherson Report in 1999, which defined institutional racism for the first time, we thought things were going to change and that we had the momentum to make a difference.

‘I see our role in the CRRE as continuing to highlight injustice and underachievement, and to use evidence to inform policy-makers and bring about lasting change.’

'My worry is that the Black Lives Matter movement will be the same, and although institutions are happy to pay lip service to the movement, in six months' time everything will remain as it was before.'

Despite some frustration with the pace of change, Professor Bhopal is cautiously optimistic that this combination of robust research at the CRRE, practical action and popular support amplified this year can make a real difference.

'I see our role in the CRRE as continuing to highlight injustice and underachievement, and to use evidence to inform policy-makers and bring about lasting change.'

The Race Equality Charter and inequality at Birmingham:

We are committed to improving the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students at the University and have made real progress in terms of access, although there are still many challenges we face to improve student experience and academic progression. Some of the activities to support this include:

  • With its implementation supported by Professor Bhopal, the University is one of only 15 in the UK to hold the Race Equality Charter Bronze Award. Part of this process included putting a robust action plan in place to facilitate cultural change, improve the representation of ethnic minority staff, diversify the curriculum and library collections, and increase access and reduce the attainment gap for ethnic minority students
  • We are working closely with the Guild of Students and The Race Equality staff network to identify and support areas of inequality, and work together to support change
  • We recognise that these are complex and wide reaching issues that will take resources and support at all levels to address

You can support the work of the CRRE to improve access to education or support scholarships for ethnic minority students. Contact Head of Philanthropy, Gary Bilham giving@contacts.bham.ac.uk

Read more about the work of the CRRE at www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/crre