Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility: New report


28th December 2016

We are delighted to announce the publication of our latest report (download here) for the Social Mobility Commission in collaboration with Education Datalab

It explores how ethnicity, gender and poverty interact to support or constrain young people’s social mobility. It is unique in exploring the ‘intersectionality’ of these different factors and in using brand new analysis of the National Pupil Database to identify trends, before providing a comprehensive review of the evidence on what gives rise to these trends. 

Amongst other things the report finds that:

  • In the early years the socio-economic attainment gap is larger for white British and white other groups than other minority ethnic groups.
  • White British and white other children from low income homes are the lowest performing groups at primary school. White British pupils also make the least progress throughout secondary school resulting in a worsening in their performance by key stage four.
  • Disadvantaged young people from white British backgrounds are the least likely to access higher education, with only 1 in 10 of the poorest attending university, compared to 3 in 10 for black Caribbean children, 5 in 10 for Bangladeshi and nearly 7 in 10 amongst lowest income Chinese students. Despite this, ethnic minority groups experience higher unemployment rates compared to white British groups.
  • Black children now enter school with levels of literacy and numeracy that are largely in line with the average child in the UK – 67 and 75 per cent achieving a good level at age 5 in literacy and numeracy respectively, compared to the national average of 69 and 76 per cent.
  • Yet by the end of primary school, black pupils are beginning to fall behind the national average in maths, particularly boys. While 77 per cent of pupils achieve expected levels nationally, for black pupils this is 74 per cent and for black boys, only 73 per cent.
  • Secondary school is where black pupils’ attainment falls behind substantially and by age of 16 black students are the ethnic group least likely to achieve a C in their maths GCSE – only 63 per cent attaining this level, compared to a national average of 68 per cent. For black boys this is worse, at 60 per cent. This translates into strikingly low attainment in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) A levels at key stage 5.
  • There has been an increase in educational attainment for Pakistani/Bangladeshi pupils and their performance has improved at a more rapid rate than other ethnic groups in recent years at almost every key stage of education. Almost half of Bangladeshi and over a third of Pakistani young people from the poorest quintile go to university.
  • However, this is not reflected in labour market outcomes, particularly for women, where researchers find that British Bangladeshi and Pakistani women earn less than their counterparts from other ethnic minority groups
  • Despite achieving higher qualifications at school than their male counterparts, researchers find that female Bangladeshi graduates are less likely to gain managerial and professional roles than male Bangladeshi graduates.
  • For maths and english, girls outperform boys throughout primary and secondary school apart from in maths at Key Stage 2, where poorer girls in particular lag behind boys.
  • Females and males now perform similarly in STEM subjects with boys increasing their performance over recent years. However, girls are less likely to take these subjects.
  • At all key stages in maths and english, attainment has increased the most amongst FSM pupils, particularly amongst FSM girls in maths.

Key recommendations include:

  • Schools should seek to involve and work with parents and should particularly target those from the groups that are least likely to engage in their children’s education, such as poor white British and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) groups.
  • Schools should avoid setting, particularly at primary level, and government should discourage schools from doing so.
  • Schools, universities and employers should provide targeted support to ensure Muslim women are able to achieve their career ambitions and progress in the workplace.
  • Universities should implement widening participation initiatives that are tailored to the issues faced by poor white British students and address worrying drop-out and low achievement rates amongst black students.

Download the report here or read the full press release from the Social Mobility Commission

Press release

  • Poor white boys do worse in schools but black and Asian Muslim youngsters, girls especially, do worse for jobs
  • New report finds stark ethnic and gender divide in education attainment and labour market progress
  • Milburn: achievements at school not being translated into labour market success is a broken social mobility promise

Young people from black and Asian Muslims communities are more likely to be unemployed and face social immobility later in life than working class white boys despite doing better at school, according to new research by the Social Mobility Commission.

The report, which uncovers stark differences in the educational and labour market outcomes of different groups in society by ethnicity and gender, prompted the Commission to call for renewed efforts to uphold the British social mobility promise that working hard should be rewarded.

The ‘Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility’ report was commissioned by the Social Mobility Commission with research carried out by academics from LKMco and Education Datalab. It examines student’s trajectories as they progress through the early years, primary and secondary, through to sixth form and university. Finally, it looks at how attainment at school translates into the labour market.

The report supports recent findings that poor white boys perform badly throughout the education system and are the worst performers at primary and secondary school.  It also finds that black children, despite starting school on a par with their peers from other ethnic groups, are most likely to fail maths GCSE, have the lowest outcomes in science, maths and technology A-levels, and are the least likely ethnic group to achieve a good degree at university. Black boys face extremely high levels of school exclusion and overall do substantially worse than their female peers.

But it is disadvantaged young people from White British backgrounds who are the least likely to access Higher Education, with only 1 in 10 of the poorest attending university, compared to 3 in 10 for Black Caribbean children, 5 in 10 for Bangladeshis and nearly 7 in 10 amongst lowest income Chinese students.

Despite this, ethnic minority groups experience higher unemployment rates compared to White British groups. The research uncovers a broken social mobility promise for Asian Muslims, particularly women. Young people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds are more likely to succeed in education and go to university. But they are less likely to go on to find employment or secure jobs in managerial or professional occupations.  Pakistani and Bangladeshi women earn less than their counterparts from other ethnic minority groups.

The report finds that parental expectations and engagement – such as involvement with schools, support with homework and investment in private tuition – play an important role in explaining the high attainment of some ethnic groups. Poor white British families tend to be less engaged in their children’s education than other ethnic groups, and this may play a role in explaining attainment gaps at school.

In the workplace, the researchers find that factors such as geography, discrimination and cultural expectations may explain why some ethnic groups – particularly Asian Muslim women – do not do well in the labour market despite performing highly at school and university.

The Rt Hon Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said: “The British social mobility promise is that hard work will be rewarded. This research suggests that promise is being broken for too many people in our society.

“It is striking that many of the groups that are doing best at school or improving their results the most are losing out when it comes to jobs and opportunities later in life.

“It is deeply concerning that poor white British boys are doing so badly in education, from the early years through to university. Yet they are less likely to be unemployed and face social immobility than young people from black and Asian communities, Asian women especially.

“Britain is a long way from having a level playing field of opportunity for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity or background.

“Action is needed across the education system and labour market to better understand barriers to success. Renewed action is needed by Government, educators and employers to dismantle them.”


Loic Menzies, Director of LKMco, said: “Our unique research aims to inform the research on how ethnicity, gender and background combine to impact on social mobility and further the debate by providing new insights and conclusions. Achievement of a good degree has a profound impact on long term social mobility, but there are huge differences in attainment between ethnic groups and men and women.”

Lead author Bart Shaw added: “A range of factors give rise to these differences and some require further research to understand specific issues. However, with regards to participation in the labour market, key factors include cultural, family and individual expectations, geography and direct/indirect discrimination. Meanwhile in education, differences arise from access to schools, teachers’ perceptions of behaviour and practices such as tiering and setting. Out of school factors such as parental expectations and support also play a critical role.”

The research contains a number of key recommendations for Government, universities, schools and early years’ providers to address the barriers faced by certain groups in society.


Notes for editors  

The Social Mobility Commission

  • The Social Mobility Commission is an advisory, non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010 as modified by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the United Kingdom and to promote social mobility in England. It currently consists of four commissioners and is supported by a small secretariat.
  • The commission board currently comprises:
    • Alan Milburn (chair)
    • Baroness Gillian Shephard (deputy chair)
    • Paul Gregg, Professor of Economic and Social Policy, University of Bath
    • David Johnston, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation

The functions of the commission include:

  • Monitoring progress on improving social mobility
  • Providing published advice to ministers on matters relating to social mobility
  • Undertaking social mobility advocacy
  • Twitter – @SMCommission