Celebrating the GCSE Performance of the “Children of Immigrants”

Since 2005, I have shown here, here and here that pupils from ethnic minorities perform well in the crucial GCSE exams at the end of compulsory schooling. In particular, in terms of the progress they make through secondary school, some of the results are very impressive indeed. This is not due to any material advantages that these children have. Instead, the discussion is about aspirations, ambition and attitudes to school. Recently, Education Datalab have showed that in selective areas ethnic minority pupils are more likely to pass the 11+ too.

This post is a short follow-up to comments in a speech from Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw a few days ago. He said:

“And there is another successful aspect to our school system that has largely gone unnoticed. We regularly castigate ourselves – rightly – for the poor performance of white British pupils. Children of immigrants, conversely, have in recent years done remarkably well. … Our schools are remarkable escalators of opportunity. Whatever cultural tensions exist outside of school, race and religion are not treated as handicaps inside them. All children are taught equally.”

This echoes the 2014 analysis I made of London’s educational success, largely driven by the much higher fraction of “children of immigrants” in the capital (36% of pupils in London are White British, compared to 84% of pupils in the rest of the country).

Indeed, a focus on the ‘London effect’ has largely eclipsed the fantastic performance of ethnic minority pupils in the public debate.  In 2014, I said:

 “In this rush to hang on to the effects of a slightly mysterious policy [London Challenge], we are just marching past a demonstrable achievement of London. Sustaining a large, successful and reasonably integrated multi-ethnic school system containing pupils from every country in the world and speaking over 300 languages is a great thing. The role of ethnic minorities in generating London’s premium shows that London is achieving this. How many of those are there? I don’t know enough about school systems around the world to say, but I’d guess it’s probably unique.”

It is worth briefly revisiting the facts on how very well they do.

Of course, there is no data in the National Pupil Database on the immigrant status of children. However, we do have a rough approximation for this: whether English is the language spoken at home, or whether it’s another language. The latter group are said to have “English as an Additional Language”. In order to focus on progress through secondary school in a transparent way, I focus on pupils who all achieved the same level (level 4) in Keystage 2 maths tests (the same results arise if I use Keystage 2 English tests). For those who need such things, a full regression approach is adopted in the papers noted above.

First of all, simply the average performance across a range of different outcome measures of pupils with English as an Additional Language, and pupils for whom English is their first language. These gaps are strongly statistically significant, and very substantial. For example, for the headline benchmark score of percentage achieving at least 5 A*-C grades (including E & M) the gap is 50.5% to 62.9%. This is repeated across all the other measures shown.

GCSE Performance metrics:

Pupils with: Percent achieving at least 5 A*-C grades inc’g E & M Total GCSE Points GCSE grade in Maths GCSE grade in English Number of pupils
English as the First Language 50.48 339.2 4.92 4.93 227429
English as an Additional Language 62.88 358.0 5.39 5.23 24761

Only pupils with level 4 in KS2 Maths. GCSEs coded as A* = 8, A = 7, B = 6, …. U = 0.

(Note that this is data from 2013 GCSEs as that it what I have handy, but I seriously doubt anything has wildly changed).

In fact, if we look in a little more detail, the contrast is even stronger. The difference in performance between the two groups among pupils who are eligible for Free School Meals is huge, 28.5% and 55.8%. That poor pupils with English as an Additional Language score better than non-poor pupils with English as their First Language is indeed a remarkable achievement.

The percentage achieving at least 5 A*-C grades (including E & M):

  Eligible for Free school meals?   Gender
Pupils with: No Yes   Female Male
English as the First Language 53.7 28.5   60.9 39.1
English as an Additional Language 65.2 55.8   74.0 51.2


As Sir Michael Wilshaw rightly says, we urgently need to address the low GCSE attainment of poor White British pupils. But we should not let that stop us from celebrating the joint success of the “children of immigrants” and England’s education system.