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10 October 2017updated 05 Oct 2023 8:09am

Theresa May’s race audit shows the limits of a “good education“

Black and Asian students do well at school, but lose out in the jobs market. 

By Neha shah

Another day, another report about racial inequality in Britain. This one may have stamp of authority that accompanies a government publication, but ultimately Theresa May’s race audit is just a collection of existing data from public bodies, evidence that has existed for a long time and required action a long time ago. Black and brown people in the UK have been counted, assessed, weighed, analysed, measured more than any ethnic group in the UK. Now is the time for policy.

The report does successfully highlight one particular educational discrepancy between white people and those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Despite having lower-than-average school attainment, and the lowest university entry rate of any ethnic group in 2016, white British people still have a disproportionate advantage when it comes to entering the workforce. Last year, around one in 10 adults from a black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or mixed background were unemployed, compared with one in 25 white British people. This gap in employment rates between white people and ethnic minorities is significantly wider in the north (13.6 per cent) than in the south (9 per cent).

Much like the statistics, the reasons behind this disparity are not new. Measures such as anonymous exam marking work against implicit biases, and may help more students of colour move into higher education. Among teenagers in England on free school meals, in fact, almost every ethnic group did better than white British pupils. But this is where the attainment stops. Last month, a study published by Race Equality think tank The Runnymede Trust found that some 44 per cent of Brits felt that some races were “born less hardworking” than others. This one statistic illustrates how your life chances are hampered by structural racism from the moment you leave the classroom.

It starts at university. Black students are the most likely to receive a low ranking degree, while white students are least likely. While a higher proportion of black and ethnic minority students may progress into higher education as a whole, access to Britain’s prestigious universities is still vastly unequal. Black students are much less likely to be accepted into Oxbridge and other high-ranking Russell Group universities than their white counterparts.

When it comes to the types of jobs that people in Britain are doing, the evidence also correlates along race lines. Pakistani, black African and Bangladeshi men are the most likely to work in low-paid jobs including customer service and factory jobs, whilst Pakistani and Bangladeshi employees receive the lowest average hourly pay.

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The root of Britain’s structural racism problem lies in the collective effects of personal prejudices. It is about tens of thousands of people with the same biases who make up our organisations, both public and private sector, and act accordingly. The government may be able to monitor classrooms, but it only lightly polices workplaces – where the decision to introduce employment tribunal fees discouraged unhappy workers from challenging discrimination. 

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The audit is to be welcomed, because the data it provides cuts through easy stereotypes about race and class. But it is just a piece of paper. Universities need to expand outreach and scrutinise teaching. Workers must be able to hold discriminatory employers to account. The government must be open to ideas like blind CVs (Theresa May has already played down this idea). Then the audit will be truly one of a kind.