Just Sociology

Examining the Educational Disadvantage of Black Students in the UK

Educational Disadvantage for Black Students

Education has long been viewed as a tool for social mobility and a key to reducing inequality. However, the underachievement of black students in the United Kingdom (UK), particularly in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), continues to be a challenge.

The GCSE is a set of exams undertaken by students at the age of 16 years, and the results are used to determine the next phase of their education. The achievement gap between black students and their white peers remains significant, despite some progress in closing it.

This article will examine some of the factors that contribute to the underachievement of black students, including banding and streaming, racialized expectations, and the low expectations of teachers and society.

Underachievement of Black Students

Black students in the UK have consistently performed at a lower level than their white peers, with the gap becoming more pronounced in recent years. In 2018, only 17.1% of black students achieved a grade 5 (a good pass) or above in both English and Maths, compared to 45.2% of white students.

Furthermore, only 53.4% of black students achieved a grade 4 (a pass) or above in both subjects, compared to 76.5% of white students (Department for Education, 2018). These statistics demonstrate the scale of the educational disadvantage faced by black students.

There are many reasons for this underachievement, including poor teaching, lack of support, and poor pupil attitudes. However, an important factor is the way in which black students are grouped and marked.

Banding and streaming are two methods used in schools to group students according to their perceived ability. Banding is the separation of students into tiers based on their performance in school entrance examinations, while streaming is the separation of students into classes based on their ability in a particular subject.

Both of these practices contribute to the underachievement of black students by then being put into lower tiers or streams, which in turn gives them lower expectations, resources, and opportunities.

Banding and Streaming

Banding and streaming are forms of triaging that shape the way black students are perceived by both teachers and fellow students. Those who are placed in lower tiers or streams are often regarded as having low ability and are not given the same opportunities and resources compared to those who are perceived as having higher ability.

Banding and streaming create barriers to achievement and negatively impact the self-esteem of students who are grouped in lower tiers. The impact of grouping is particularly evident in the case of students from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Due to the practice of banding and streaming, black students are more likely to be placed in lower tiers or streams than their white counterparts. The placement of black students in lower tiers or streams ultimately limits their opportunities and reinforces the view that they have less ability than white students.

Racialised Expectations

Discriminatory stereotypes and low expectations are among other factors that contribute to the underachievement of black students. Teachers often hold low expectations of their black students, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This cycle of low expectations leads to underachievement, and there is a danger that this becomes ingrained in the educational mindset of black students. In addition, the victim-blaming rhetoric that has emerged in recent decades has created a culture of control and punishment rather than one of support and understanding.

The low expectations teachers have of black students relate to a number of factors. These include stereotypes and assumptions about black students ability and behavior, as well as negative experiences in schools where students are frequently underrepresented in leadership roles and in a position of lack of control over the narratives that inform their lives.

Research Methodology

The methods used to research these factors that contribute to the underachievement of black students are essential. Researchers use a range of methods, including qualitative methods, such as observations and interviews, as well as quantitative methods, where data is analyzed statistically.

Mixed Methods Approach

Observations, surveys, and interviews are used together to conduct mixed-methods research in order to gain a holistic view of the research topic. Mixed-methods research can draw on the strengths of qualitative and quantitative methods and can address a range of research questions from a variety of perspectives.

The combination of methods can provide insights that might not be available through the use of just a single research method and can help in better understanding the complexities of the social phenomenon being studied. For instance, this mixed-method approach can be used to identify the causes behind the underachievement of black students in schools or to examine the current policies and practices in place to address them.

Case Study

The case study approach is another useful research methodology that can be used to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular situation or issue. Case studies provide detailed descriptions of a particular phenomenon or situation using qualitative data, such as interviews, observations, or document analysis.

These case studies are used to identify the reasons behind the underachievement of black students or to evaluate the effectiveness of certain policies or practices. For example, Taylor and Clough Schools case study was conducted over two years to examine the interplay between literacy practices and literary education for black students.


This article has explored two themes that are of great importance: Educational disadvantage for black students and research methodology. Black students in the UK face significant educational disadvantages in terms of academic achievement, teachers low expectations, and discriminatory stereotypes.

Research into these issues requires a range of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods approaches. As educators, we must take a holistic view of the problem and seek to address the root causes of the achievement gap.

Through conducting careful and methodical research, we can better understand these issues and develop effective strategies and policies to reduce the educational gap and improve academic achievement for all students.

Macro Factors

Marketisation Policies

Education policies can have significant impacts on the educational outcomes of students. The rise of neoliberalism has resulted in a shift toward marketisation policies in the education sector.

Marketisation policies have been criticised for contributing to the educational disadvantage of certain groups, including black students. Marketisation policies aim to introduce market forces into the education sector by encouraging competition between schools and promoting parental choice.

This approach to education policy has led to a significant increase in the number of schools that operate as academies or free schools, which function as independent schools within the state system. This approach also includes the introduction of league tables and performance indicators, which are used to rank schools and measure their progress.

While marketisation policies can lead to improvements in educational outcomes, they also have the potential to exacerbate inequality. Parents who have the resources and knowledge to navigate the market are able to choose the best schools for their children, leaving those who lack such resources to settle for less well-regarded schools.

This has particularly negative impacts on the achievement of disadvantaged students, including black students, who are less likely to have parents with the social and economic capital to access good schools. Moreover, marketisation policies also contribute to the process of segregation in the education sector.

Due to the competition between schools, more affluent and white families cluster around higher-achieving schools, leaving schools in low-income areas to struggle. This leads to a situation where schools in disadvantaged areas find it particularly difficult to attract and retain good teachers, further exacerbating educational inequality.

Micro Factors

Teacher Perspectives

The attitudes and beliefs of teachers are crucial in shaping the educational outcomes of students. Teachers play a central role in creating equitable learning environments, strengthening or weakening the potential of pupils to excel academically, and responding to the needs of diverse pupils.

Teachers also play a role in constructing the school culture, and, therefore, are instrumental in shaping the opportunities and experiences of pupils. While education policy and structures can create structural barriers to educational achievement, so too can teacher perspectives and expectations.

Some research has highlighted that the attainment of black students is linked to the attitudes and perspectives of their teachers. Some teachers have low expectations for black students, often influenced by discriminatory stereotypes and perceptions of their potential capability.

The influence of white privilege is also prevalent in teacher’s expectations regarding black students (Gillborn, 2005). Teachers may perceive students of color as failing to conform to white cultural norms, leading to negative judgments of students behavior or ability.

This, in turn, contributes to the low performance of black students. Moreover, white privilege also plays a role in the setting of lower expectations for black students.

For instance, in seminar discussions, some teachers frequently overlooked black students or did not value or acknowledge their contributions, while paying more attention to white students. This behavior leads to fewer opportunities for black students to demonstrate their potential- which reinforces the perception of black students as having a lower capability than white students.

Student Perspectives

The perspectives of students are also key in understanding educational disadvantage. Studies have demonstrated that black students face various challenges and barriers, that limit their opportunities in education, including discrimination, challenge to authority, and low perceived grades.

Black students have reported experiencing discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping from teachers and peers in school settings. The repeated exposure to such negative experiences of exclusion or rejection results in psychological trauma that alters students motivation and affects their educational outcomes.

The stigma attached to being seen as different or an outsider in a school environment disfavours black students and leads to a lack of participation in educational activities or disengagement from the educational process. Furthermore, black students often challenge authority more frequently than their white peers.

They may challenge authority non-consciously or consciously due to their perceived sense of exclusion or marginalization. This behaviour often leads to negative labels of disruptive or aggressive, resulting in isolation from educational activities, which further limit their academic progress.

Finally, black students often receive low predicted grades in comparison to their white peers. This may be due to the racialized expectations of teachers, who view black students as having a lower capability to succeed academically.

The perpetuation of racialized expectations by teachers sends a message to black students that they are not valued and can impair their academic performance.


The educational disadvantage of black students is a multifactorial issue that requires attention at multiple levels, from policy to individual teacher perspectives and student experiences. The contribution of marketisation policies to educational segregation and inequality within schools must be addressed by policymakers.

At the micro-level, ongoing professional development of teachers, coupled with promoting diversity in the teaching force, are crucial steps to addressing the low expectations and discriminatory attitudes that disadvantage black students. Finally, recognizing the perspective of black students is crucial in building an education system that meets the diverse needs and circumstances of all students.

Relevance and Evaluation for A-Level Sociology

Current Trends

The issue of educational disadvantage for black students in the UK has received significant attention in recent years, including at the A-Level Sociology level. Black Caribbean students have been found to be one of the most academically disadvantaged groups in the UK, experiencing poorer outcomes than their white counterparts.

However, recent trends reveal that these students are beginning to catch up to some extent in terms of educational achievement. Research conducted at the sociological level indicates that the educational disadvantage of black Caribbean students is gradually being reduced, although more work is needed to fully close the attainment gap.

For instance, the 2016 Progress 8 data from the Department of Education shows that black Caribbean students are making significant progress in academic attainment, with many achieving higher grades in their GCSEs. Despite these improvements, black Caribbean students continue to experience significant inequalities in educational achievement. Moreover, recent research suggests that the experience of racism and discrimination can have powerful and long-lasting effects on the educational outcomes of black students.

For instance, a lack of confidence or negative attitudes towards specific subjects can result from the racist incidents of exclusion or belittlement that black students encounter in schools. Teachers also often hold lower expectations of black students, which can further reinforce negative attitudes.


In evaluating the relevance of the educational disadvantage of black students for A-Level Sociology, it is also important to consider the representativeness of the research conducted. While there is abundant research exploring the educational experiences of black Caribbean students, the sample size used in previous research has been limited.

Thus, while the research findings provide valuable insights into the experiences of black Caribbean students, they do not necessarily reflect the experiences of all black students. Furthermore, research on the educational disadvantage of black students tends to focus on a small number of rare success stories.

These stories can provide valuable insights and recommendations for policy and practice, but care must be taken not to fall into the trap of the “model minority” myth. This myth can lead to policies being devised on the basis of the exceptional success of a few individuals, rather than broadening the scope of policies to help the whole community.

Finally, it is important to note that education is only one element of the social inequality experienced by black people in the UK. Other factors, such as socio-economic background, institutional racism, and the effect of colonialism, all play significant roles in shaping the educational experiences of black students.

A-Level Sociology students need to be able to consider the intersectionality of these issues and broader social inequalities to gain a fuller understanding of the educational disadvantage of black students.


The educational disadvantage of black students in the UK is a complex issue that needs to be considered at various levels, from the macro-level of policy to the individual experiences of students. While progress has been made in reducing the attainment gap for black Caribbean students, more work is needed to achieve equity in academic outcomes.

The representation of the perspectives of a range of black communities must be ensured to give a fuller picture of the challenges and opportunities of all students. Assessing the relevance of research and considering issues of representation is important to establish a clearer picture of the lived experiences of black students, and to devise policies and practices designed to mitigate educational disadvantages.

In conclusion, the issue of educational disadvantage for black students in the UK is a complex and multifaceted issue that needs to be examined from multiple perspectives, including macro and micro factors. This article has explored various factors that contribute to educational disadvantage, including structural barriers, such as marketisation policies, and individual factors, such as teacher attitudes and student experiences.

Sociology students must consider the intersectionality of these factors to understand the broader social and cultural context that contributes to the educational marginalisation of black students. By doing so, we can develop effective policies and practices to reduce educational disparities and promote equitable educational outcomes for all.


1. What is the educational disadvantage of black students in the UK?

The educational disadvantage of black students refers to persistent underachievement in academic performance in comparison to their white peers. 2.

What are some factors that contribute to the educational disadvantage of black students? Factors such as marketisation policies in education, teacher attitudes, student experiences of discrimination, and low expectations can contribute to the educational disadvantage of black students.

3. What is the significance of addressing the educational disadvantage of black students?

Addressing the educational disadvantage of black students is essential to promote equitable educational outcomes that can provide equal opportunities for students of all backgrounds, thus tackling the broader issues of social inequality within society.

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