Religion and nationality – the new 'race'?

25 November 2008

Educational performance tables comparing exam results of pupils from different ethnic groups are fuelling a new kind of racism, a leading academic has warned.

The tables, produced by the government, encourage schools to view some ethnic groups as natural high achievers – the "model minorities" – and others as the "failing minorities", always at the bottom, Professor Heidi Safia Mirza, from the Institute of Education, London, will argue in a lecture on 25 November.

"We have moved from biological notions of innate differences in the 19th century to religious, national and cultural notions of inborn differences now," she will claim.

"For example, people say: 'Blacks are good at sport; Chinese are good at maths and make good food; Indians have good business sense.'"

Professor Mirza will criticise "superficial" attempts to teach pupils about different cultures for skimming over the real issue, which is entrenched racism. "Bringing food, dressing up and listening to music are all good for sharing and learning about other cultures, but racism runs deeper and needs a more sustained and direct approach," she will say.

"The pressures of educational policy (such as league tables) cause the sifting and sorting of pupils into tiers and streams by perceived ability. The patterns are often racialised, with black children locked into the lower streams."

Pointing to the lack of anti-racist training for new teachers, she will cite statistics from the Training and Development Agency for Schools in 2008 showing that 70 per cent of newly qualified secondary teachers in England do not feel well equipped to teach pupils from different ethnicities. "They may only get an hour-long class on diversity in their whole training," she will say.

Despite this, research shows that minority ethnic teenagers are more likely to be in higher education than their white counterparts.

"They are driven by what I would call 'educational urgency' – a desire to succeed against the odds," explains Professor Mirza. However, she warns that this form of success may be even harder to achieve in future: "With the scrapping of grants, increasing tuition fees and the realities of long-term debt, the sheer motivation to succeed is not enough if the structures and systems militate against you."

"Race, Gender and Educational Desire" takes place at the Institute of Education on Tuesday 25 November at 6pm. Professor Mirza's new book, Race, Gender and Educational Desire: Why black women succeed and fail, will be launched at the same event.

Notes for editors

Further information from Helen Green, press officer, +44 (0)20 7612 6459,

The lecture and Professor Mirza's new book are available from the Institute of Education bookshop, +44 (0)20 7612 6050,

Heidi Safia Mirza is professor of equalities studies and director of the Centre for Rights, Equalities and Social Justice at the Institute of Education. She is also author of Young, Female and Black (Routledge).

The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London, specialising in teaching, research and consultancy in education and related areas of social science and professional practice.