26 Apr

Ethnicity and educational barriers in Wales

Poor education and skills are key predictors of poverty. But people from ethnic minority groups are often well qualified, or over-qualified for their jobs – so why are poverty levels linked to ethnicity still high in Wales?

In a roundtable held in Butetown, Cardiff’s most diverse community, national and community organisations and academic experts debated problems within education that reinforce the links between ethnicity and poverty in Wales. The event was part of a series organised by Egino and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to discuss  the JRF Viewpoint Breaking the links between poverty and ethnicity in Wales.

Educational achievement: a mixed picture

Presenting the Viewpoint’s analysis and proposals Dr Duncan Holtom, one of the authors, noted that educational attainment in school varies across ethnic groups, with some, such as Gypsy and Traveller children, notably underachieving. But there has been progress: the educational attainment of children from the Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups, for example, has now risen to the average in Wales. And educational attainment is not the main cause of higher levels of poverty among ethnic minority groups.

Over-qualified and under-paid

Often, ethnic minority groups and immigrants cannot convert their educational attainment into higher wages as well as the White majority can; and they’re more likely to be over-qualified for their jobs.

One reason is the quality of careers advice, criticised across ethnicities. Other problems relate to parental engagement and the relationship between schools and parents.

There’s a strong association between being entitled to free school meals and educational achievement,but the data isn’t available in a way that allows a clear understanding and targeting for impact.

“A national disgrace!”

Participants echoed these and other Viewpoint findings, sometimes expressing them more graphically!

  • 70% of those in poverty leave school without 5 good GCSEs – “a national disgrace”, said one contributor.
  • Another claimed there is no evidence ethnicity is being taken seriously by the schools inspection system.
  • One described the careers service as “a basket case”.
  • And there was the heartfelt if rhetorical question: “if you can’t see your culture reflected in the system why would you buy into it?”

Role models

A lack of role models was identified as a serious deficit in Welsh schools, even in those with a high proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities.

Participants called for schools to recognise the need for more ethnic minority teachers, and for the Welsh Government to develop an action plan to encourage people from ethnic minorities to become teachers, with appointment targets for schools.

Follow the evidence

Professor David Egan, Director of the Wales Centre for Equity in Education, highlighted three areas where there’s ample evidence that intervention works:

(1) Early years investment;

(2) Early and purposeful intervention as soon as pupils start to fall behind;

(3) Access to the labour market.

Commenting on the roundtable debate Prof Egan said:

“I think what we’ve recognized is two things in particular. One, that there is progress in this area in Wales (but) in terms of the achievement of certain ethnic minority groups, not all. But I think we’ve also realised that there’s much more that we need to know about this area, both in research terms and policy terms.

It’s quite interesting that we feel – we’ve been quite honest with one another – that there’s too much, let’s call it tokenism, about this perhaps in Wales at the moment; that we’re signed up to the issues around equality (…) and we still don’t know enough about this area of education.”

Family + community + schools = success?

Participants agreed about the importance of family engagement in education and, as Prof Egan stressed: “… schools certainly need to pay more attention to these issues, all schools, not just schools in our most ethnic minority intense of areas… And we need almost certainly to get a better representation within our teaching force of ethnic minority achievement groups…”

Welsh Government policies

Prof Egan noted the need for a holistic approach by the Welsh Government across its education policies, ensuring that ethnicity is reflected in all the major education policies that are currently being developed, and in others that might come in future, and “bringing this together within a holistic strategy and action plan”.

The latter point echoed a feeling which arose again and again in the series of roundtables discussing the JRF Viewpoint Breaking the links between poverty and ethnicity in Wales: the importance of bringing together Welsh Government policies within a holistic strategy, with an action plan to break the links between poverty and ethnicity in Wales.

You can hear more in this podcast:


JRF Viewpoint: Breaking the links between poverty and ethnicity in Wales
Viewpoint authors: Anna Nicholl, Chris Johnes and Duncan Holtom

Print copies are also available, in English and Welsh, from [email protected]

Blog author: Lila Haines

Note: This represents the author’s views and interpretations and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation or any other organisation or individual cited.