Multiculturalism promotes better exam results

November 18, 2014

Caroline Howarth

Caroline Howarth

Dr Caroline Howarth, of the London School of Economics, argues that multiculturalism itself is part of the reason for good exam results in London:

Recent research discussed in The Guardian last week shows that schools with higher numbers of ethnic minority pupils do better than more mono-cultural schools. While some commentators and politicians seem miffed that these recent good results in London schools cannot be attributed solely to The London Challenge (an initiative to improve exam results in London, now being rolled out in other British cities), we should acknowledge that this is in part due to some thoughtful educational practice.

Namely, practices of multiculturalism. Rather than multiculturalism having ‘failed’ as Cameron, Brown, Blair and others have claimed on different occasions, multiculturalism is alive and well. Moreover, it is extremely valuable in producing healthy, successful and ambitious schools.

So it is not just that ethnic minorities pupils and parents may be more ambitious and more engaged in schooling, although this is often part of the explanation; it is that diverse schools can create a culture of ambition, interest in education and motivation to succeed among all their pupils.

Why is this? The answer is to be found in our psychological development – our development as a species and also our development as individuals. We only develop our peculiarly human capacities for language, empathy, identity and critical thought in a social relationship.  In social interactions we develop a sense of commonality, what we share together and have in common – but this shared identity only emerges through the recognition of difference: how others are different to me; how I am different to others; how these ‘other’ groups and communities are themselves very diverse.

Commonality, and our capacity to connect with others, is built through the social recognition of difference. Hence diversity is not beneficial simply because it highlights different points of view, perspectives on the world and approaches to science, religion and the world – it is absolutely essential if we are to develop our own position within systems of knowledge, our own sense of who we are, our own perspective in a discussion or debate. Without diversity it is hard to have a debate at all, but particularly hard to debate in a way that acknowledges the validity of different positions and provides the context for critical thought and critical knowledge to emerge.

Hence diversity itself is a powerful resource in schools. Research carried out by myself and others shows that multicultural approaches to schooling can lead to: more engaged pupils and parents who see that their own cultural heritage reflected in the curricula; a richer sense of the diversity of knowledge and competing claims to truth and understanding across different contexts; and the ability to debate, critique and develop one’s own position while recognising the legitimacy of other points of view.

Hence schools with the resources to develop constructive approaches to multiculturalism (which includes those that do not over-emphasise difference or exclude majority white cultures from the discussions) can do very well – as these recent GCSE results show. Diversity is good for education, just as diversity is good for the production of knowledge and the development of critical and engaged citizens.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.