Chinese pupils from disadvantaged homes are almost three times as likely as white working class pupils to get five good GCSEs, according to new analysis published by the Sutton Trust today. White working class pupils achieve the lowest grades at GCSE of any main ethnic group, with just a quarter of boys and a third of girls achieving 5 good GCSEs.

The new research brief, Class Differences, highlights how the academic attainment of disadvantaged pupils at 16 varies dramatically between different ethnic groups. Disadvantaged Chinese pupils perform above the national average for all pupils, while Bangladeshi, Indian, black African and Pakistani pupils from poorer homes all perform well above the national average for disadvantaged pupils.

The attainment gap – the difference in performance at GCSE between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils – is largest for Irish and white British teenagers; the attainment gap for Irish pupils stands at 46 percentage points while for white British pupils it is 32 percentage points. The gap is smallest for Chinese (3 percentage points) and Bangladeshi students (9 percentage points), with both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils doing well, on average.

Disadvantaged girls perform better than disadvantaged boys, on average, and the attainment gap between the genders is 8 percentage points. But the gender gap for black Caribbean pupils is widest at 17 percentage points, suggesting there might be particular attainment challenges for black Caribbean boys relative to girls.

These results also reflect big improvements in the performance of disadvantaged pupils from Bangladeshi, black African and Chinese backgrounds over the last decade. These three groups have improved by more than 20 percentage points since 2006 on the measure of five good GCSEs, while the national average has risen by 13.5 percentage points.

The research brief suggests that there are complex reasons behind the results. They may reflect improvements in urban schools – to which they have also contributed – which have been faster than in rural and coastal areas over the past decade. Stronger family aspirations and cultural attitudes to learning are also likely to play a part, as analysis has shown that parents’ desire for their children to continue in education post-16 and willingness to be involved in schooling, both positively affect attainment. Some communities also benefited from targeted funds – both from the state and their own voluntary endeavour – to improve their education.

In the light of today’s research, the Sutton Trust is calling for a renewed effort to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their better-off classmates. The Trust is recommending that:

  • Schools implement targeted improvement programmes for those students at particular risk of falling behind, including white working class children.
  • Schools use evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit to improve outcomes.
  • The government should consider incentives to encourage more highly-qualified teachers to teach in deprived schools.
  • Government and schools create more opportunities for disadvantaged ethnic groups to supplement core lessons, including through enrichment vouchers.
  • The government should introduce a dedicated fund to support highly able pupils, particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds who fall behind at school.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“The fact that Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese pupils from poor homes are performing better than the national average is in itself a great achievement.

“This may reflect a strong cultural appreciation of education from which we can all learn. But it is worrying that there is such a disparity in the achievement of different ethnic groups at GCSE and particularly concerning that white working class boys and girls continue to perform so poorly.

“Harnessing that same will to learn that we see in many ethnic minority groups in white working class communities should be a part of the solution to the low attainment of many boys and girls. We need a more concerted effort with white working class boys, in particular.

“This should ensure that every pupil, regardless of family income, gender or ethnicity has the chance to succeed.”


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 170 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  2. Ethnicity breakdowns are based on Census major and minor ethnic group definitions. Major groupings highlighted in capitals in the text.
  3. Data on ethnicity and free school meal eligibility is sourced from Department for Education published GCSE and Equivalent Results in England, 2006-2015.
  4. Data on university attendance comes from DfE ‘Destinations of KS4 and KS5 pupils 2015’ provisional report.
  5. Nearly two thirds (64.3%) of disadvantaged pupils entering GCSEs are white British – over 10 times the size of the next largest minor ethnic group, Pakistani (6.3%).

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