Amol Rajan: An educational landmark with striking implications

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An educational landmark has just been passed that has rather striking implications for our school system. Over the weekend, reports confirmed that pupils who speak English as an additional language (EAL) – that is, not their first – are now outperforming their native, English-speaking counterparts for the first time.

Government data, based only on results in England,shows that 80.8 per cent of EAL pupils achieved five A*-C GCSEs last year. That compares with 80.4 per cent of pupils for whom English is a mother tongue. Native English speakers are still just ahead on the five A*-C GCSEs if Maths and English are included – but EAL pupils have closed the gap since 2008, and will probably overtake them in the next couple of years.

On the surface, this will strike many people as extraordinary – the more so for people who only speak one language themselves. Think of those tentative words of French you speak on your August travels. Then imagine learning history, chemistry and all the rest in... French. Not easy.

But in fact, knowing what we know about immigrant communities, it is not really surprising at all. "In new populations, there is often a drive, a desire, in education that seems to push their children in a different way," Kevan Collins, an educationalist and former chief executive of Tower Hamlets, said. "Whereas, in white working-class communities you are dealing with intergenerational issues of low aspirations."

The other determining factor is that those fluent in a second language are just, in general, cleverer.

For all the caveats about the dangers of stereotyping, it is absurd to pretend that some ethnic groups don't excel, while others do. In 2009, 48 per cent of the poorest white boys met targets in English and maths, compared with 82 per cent of Chinese (the "tiger mum" effect, I guess). This suggests that initiatives designed to help ethnic minority pupils ought either to be scrapped, which might best, or redesigned to acknowledge some groups do better than others.

Above all, though, we should give up the silly pretence that high achievement in education has nothing to do with culture. Some cultures attached a greater moral importance to academic work. Multiply that by the determination of settlers to make the most of their new freedoms, and you have a recipe for success.

What is remarkable to me, and very worrying, is that the country with the best universities in the world is also now home to a culture in which academic achievement among natives is a diminishing asset.