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How South Asians achieve education: a comparative study of Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis in Birmingham schools and colleges

By Tahir Abbas


The educational achievements of South Asians have been shaped by economic, social and political developments in the post war history of British race relations. Social class background of individual students and the school effect have been shown to be the major determinants of achievement but the precise characteristics of differences at the ethnic minority sub-group level have remained uncharted. In addition, past research has primarily relied on large-scale quantitative methods to develop comparative knowledge of South Asian educational performance.\ud This research is an attempt to understand wider variations of difference in the educational achievement of South Asians. The research is unique as it explores differences between Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani groups, additionally distinguished along lines of social class, ethnicity and gender. Six schools, three of which were selective and three comprehensive, and three further education colleges, were used to obtain samples of South Asian pupils and students. The methods used in this study were principally qualitative. Face-to-face in-depth interviews with school pupils, parents and teachers accounted for the main part of the empirical research, which was also supplemented by a survey of college students and a survey of teachers.\ud The research explored the achievements, aspirations and motivations of pupils, students and parents to analyse educational life histories, interpreting and evaluating differences between South Asian groups by social class, ethnicity and gender, as well as religion and culture. Teachers were interviewed and surveyed in order to determine their perceptions of and actions in relation to South Asians in education. Altogether, 137 respondents (89 school pupils, 25 parents and 23 teachers) were interviewed by the researcher and 176 respondents (109 college students and 67 teachers) participated in the two postal surveys (313 altogether). Questions asked were about secondary school entry, 13-plus subject choices, GCSE and A level achievements, and potential higher education entry. It was found that all South Asians that entered `effective' schools performed competently.\ud Furthermore, the factors which led to the positive educational outcomes for Indian (Hindu and Sikh) groups were oppositional to those which led to the educational underachievement of South Asian Muslim groups and, here, rather more Pakistanis than Bangladeshis. The educational success of Indian groups was attributable to educational norms and values relative to social class. The educational experiences of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis were problematic, largely because of factors in their lives outside of school: such as the limited education and occupational levels of parents, parents' inadequate understanding of the education, and insufficient use of English within the home. Teachers interviewed from the sampled schools and colleges were inclined to advocate positive approaches for managing issues relating to South Asians in education.\ud In conclusion, therefore, it is argued that the educational achievements of South Asians in schools and colleges in Birmingham are closely related to social class background and the school effect. Factors associated with religion and culture are more likely to affect South Asian Muslims. The increasingly competitive nature of the education system has led to a divergence between South Asian groups: with Hindu and Sikh Indians (including some East African Asians) firmly established as educational `successes' and Pakistani and Bangladeshi South Asian Muslims, in contrast, routinely considered as educational `failures'

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