Imprecise ethnicity

22 May

During a weekend’s perusal of the news, this little snippet on the BBC website caught my eye.

It describes the finding of the London Metropolitan’s Institute for Policy Studies, which say that the diversity of backgrounds of school pupils is not adequately reflected by monitoring their ethnicity. The Institute researchers suggest that instead monitoring should be done of the languages which school pupils speak, particularly if English is their second language.

What I took from this is a little further evidence that the “ethnicity” categories in general use are not fit for purpose. Two of the categories which do not reflect a pupil’s linguistic background were mentioned directly in the write up of the research. Firstly, the category “white other” as opposed to “white British” or “white Irish” does not give any clue as to the child’s educational needs: if they are from Eastern Europe, an area from which a comparatively high number of immigrants have come over the last decade or so, they may have English as a second language and need support to develop their English to a strong academic standard. In amongst the other “white others” who might well be English first language or strong second language (Australian, South African, New Zealand, American, Canadian or Western European for example) this large minority group with its particular needs is lost.

Secondly, all of the African origin children are “black African” perhaps with some arbitrary break down within that category (West or East African, for example). This is absurd. Africa is a big place (REALLY REALLY BIG), and home to a staggeringly diverse array of communities. If you find that the English spoken in Basingstoke sounds different to that spoken in Derby, imagine the differences across a massive continent like Africa. So the researchers suggest using language to define the background of African origin children as well. African languages I can think of off the top of my head: Yoruba, Swahili, Shona, Zulu. However a quick look at Wikipedia tells me I’m well over 2000 languages short. Clearly the amount of useful information gained from describing a minority group child’s background by language is greater than using the religio-racial-geographical-cultural bubble-and-squeak mishmash which we call “ethnicity”.

Same goes for the subcontinent, Indian communities often have language as one of their defining features. This seems to me a pretty practical way of monitoring diversity and the effect of diverse school populations on attainment and school culture. Interestingly the researchers note that students with English as an additional language do better than national attainment averages at GCSE within the London area, but that in the north of England this is not the case. Sounds like more socio-economic factors are at work there. In general bilingualism is thought to make you smarter and there is neuroscientific evidence for this: however the stereotype of the English is that we don’t bother with other languages, so any level of multilingual ability is an enviable talent in modern Britain. C’est bon.

I understand the purpose of monitoring ethnic background, I admire the goal of trying to make sure that all young people have a level playing field from which to study, however I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the categories we use to describe race and ethnicity are not fit for purpose. They are inaccurate, they are unscientific, and in some cases, they are downright daft. If we must have labels, at least let’s get the maximum level of information out of the labels that we use.

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