Bridging the achievement gap: The educational success of African students in the U.K.

By Henry Iberi

    Bridging the achievement gap: The educational success of African students in the U.K.

    About the Practitioner-Researcher

    Henry Iberi
    Wolverhampton, ENG, GB
    Henry Iberi

    I am a Math specialist of many years and my current role involves developing and embedding the principles and practices associated with teaching for Mastery as part of the Secondary Teaching for Mastery Development Work Group.

    My first foray into practitioner research was in a previous role, where I conducted Action Research to investigate how students used formative assessment in their learning of Maths. My research showed some interesting contrasts of students' perceptions of teacher, self and peer-assessment. Based on my recommendations, all three approaches became integrated into one formative assessment model, which helped students maximise learning.

    My recent experience as head of faculty, working with children from deprived backgrounds, with low aspirations and historically poor academic outcomes, presented a moral leadership challenge. This deep-rooted education equity issue became the motivation for the topic of my research for an MA degree in Educational Leadership and Management, which I recently completed.

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    Project Summary

    It is widely documented in the UK that white working-class children are underperforming academically compared to peers from ethnic minority backgrounds (House of Commons, 2014). Consequently, opportunities for higher education and well-regarded careers are often foreclosed for these young people. There is a perception, albeit contested, that this pattern of underperformance is rooted in low educational aspirations. High aspirations are cited as one of the reasons for increased achievement of ethnic minority students (Stokes, Rolfe, Hudson-Sharp, & Stevens, 2015). Differing viewpoints hold that this impact is not simplistic but needs mediation, and although high aspirations exist in deprived communities, there may be a lack of knowledge to harness them into tangible benefits (St. Clair et al., 2013).

    This article, drawn from a wider Master’s study, sought to explore how societal-cultural factors influence educational success, particularly the impact of parental and socio-cultural factors on the positive student achievement of African students. This study indicates that parental factors play a critical role in student achievement. For African students, it shows that the parental dimension has a significant impact on their increased academic attainment, influencing future educational behaviour in terms of higher education participation rates. This is a result of strong support and encouragement from home as well as high aspirations transmitted through parents, both of which could also support white working-class students. Although participants in this study also acknowledged that school and individual factors were important in achieving educational success, there was consensus among African families that the parental dimension was the overriding factor. The study also found that poverty and socio-economic status was not perceived as a significant hindrance to educational achievement (Stokes et al., 2015). Finally, the study explores the effects of societal ills such as racism and poverty and how these can act to motivate success.

    Project Context

    A large secondary school located in an area of significant socio-economic deprivation in the UK was the site for this research. Around half of the student population are white working-class children and a quarter speak English as an additional language, which is above the national average. The proportion of disadvantaged students is also higher than the national average. All of the participants in this study (students, parents and teachers) are part of the school community. Given the demographic profile of the school, the study is deemed relevant and well-grounded with respect to the persistence of academic failure which is currently an issue of priority and concern for both the researcher and the school. Investigating a socially-textured topic links the researcher inextricably to the subject. To address positionality, my own assumptions are placed in the foreground of the research study in keeping with Reviere’s (2001, p.714) submission that, “one’s life experiences influences all aspects of the research process.” Where this school is located a recognised pattern of educational underperformance seems to be limiting opportunities for social and economic advancement.  Other related factors like access, relevant jobs and affordable housing usually come into play, but all of these are linked to a lack of strong educational qualifications and skills. Therefore, this study was an attempt at intervention from a social justice and equality point of view.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Research Rationale and Goal

    The aim of this study was to investigate the role that family cultural influences play in the educational success of African students within the UK. Foregrounding this study with the performance of African students was significant for two main reasons. First is to spotlight the trend of strong academic accomplishment by this demographic, which seems to be going unnoticed. African students recorded the largest improvements in two national performance reviews analysed over ten-year spans (Kirby & Cullinane, 2016; Strand, 2002). The second and perhaps most crucial reason is to underscore the formidable obstacles (including poverty and racism) that these students have had to overcome to achieve these successes. Several studies have demonstrated that institutional forms of racism that flow from school arrangements severely harm black students (e.g. Gillborn, 2008). This is further intensified by high rates of poverty amongst Africans (Weekes-Bernard, 2017) and experiences of racism in mainstream society. The intention is to understand how certain factors that have proved successful with African students, can be leveraged for the benefit of other underperforming groups such as white working-class students.

    This work will therefore examine the underlying factors that have resulted in these positive achievements and will attempt to address the following research question: What cultural factors have enabled the educational success of African students that may also benefit other student groups?

    Despite dominant negative perceptions, it is acknowledged that children from culturally diverse backgrounds enrich the classroom (George, Meadows, Metcalf, & Rolfe, 2011). It is also apparent that the increased numbers of minority students in England over the last twenty years has resulted in a huge shift in improved attainment for some of these groups (Strand, 2012). Given the increasing number and high attainment of African students, a more focused approach is required to analyse the factors behind their educational success. It is also an important shift in focus to redress the imbalance in the discourse on ‘black’ underachievement.   

    Research Method and Design

    A mixed method case study approach was adopted (Cook & Kamalodeen, 2019) using questionnaires, interviews, and performance data to gain in-depth understanding of the case, i.e., high achievement of African students. A descriptive research design was adopted to collect and describe information regarding the differential patterns of academic achievements for African students and their underlying factors.

    Questionnaires. The survey participants comprised two different groups of students in key stage 3 and 4) (n = 32) and a sample of 7 teachers. Purposive sampling was used in the selection of students to achieve some balance in age, gender and ethnicity. The questionnaire design followed the format of the Likert scale to establish if there were any emerging themes that connect to the insights explored in the literature. The questions asked what factors such as school support, personal qualities, and parental support, students with low socioeconomic status considered most important to educational success.

    Interviews. Email interviews were conducted with another set of participants to provide depth and context to the survey responses. This group comprised a sample of parents (n = 5), teachers (n = 4) and students (n = 2). As a result of limited primary data sources for the specific demographic context of the study, selection of participants was also based on purposive sampling. Aside from two individuals of Caribbean and Turkish origin, the rest of the participants were Africans.

    Examination scores. As the study is focused on student performance within a school, a review of exam data over a three-year period was undertaken using officially published data broken down by ethnicity.

    In this case-study school, the demographic profile for students who identify as ‘black African’ captured a very small sample. 

    Results and Discussion

    The most salient themes from the findings are discussed under four main headings: School factors, Individual factors, parental and home factors, and social factors. 

    School Factors 

    Although the most significant factor from the survey was school factors, it was not the most significant finding overall. Notwithstanding, the high rating for school factors, i.e., school support and effective teachers, is in line with existing literature indicating that high standards of educational provision in many schools is leading to improved outcomes for students (OFSTED, 2018), and this is underpinned by effective teaching (Education Endowment Foundation, EEF, 2017). The inference from these documents is that, the better the quality of schools, the more likely it is for students to progress well educationally. This position seems to be borne out by the London scenario where a very large majority of schools have positive inspection ratings and high achievement is evident. However, it is prudent to refrain from overly-hasty conclusions as there are similar remarkable schools across the country as well as high-achieving students in poor-performing schools or areas. Nevertheless, most participants in this survey are unanimous on the pre-eminence of school factors despite their varied conceptions of the constituting elements of a ‘good school’ and an ‘effective teacher’. There was general agreement that school variables which include teacher quality perform a critical role in educational achievement. Responses about ‘effective teachers’ appraised how teachers should perform in their roles and the qualities that are considered relevant. 

    ‘Teachers are meant to be knowledgeable in their fields and also dedicated in order to provide effective educational guidance to the students. If teachers are not able to interact, communicate and transfer skills to students, then it becomes difficult for the students to excel in subjects.’ (Parent B5)

    Invariably, it follows that where teaching is ineffective, academic progress suffers. This perception is corroborated by evidence from research that teachers play a pivotal role in students’ education experience and the aggregation of school support is essential to attaining good qualifications (EEF, 2017). Despite the importance of school factors, there is evidence too that its impact on achievement is smaller relative to other factors (Hirsch, 2007). This point is worth emphasising as it signifies that students are still likely to succeed academically where other factors are secure and school factors are weak. Regardless, the implication for school leaders is to recognise the enormity of expectations from all stakeholders, be conscious that teacher quality matters and to leverage on other contributory factors to improve educational outcomes for all students.   

    Individual Factors

    The importance of individual factors (peer influence and personal qualities) was recognised in this study. For peer influence, the findings give weight to this factor as a determinant of educational achievement. It can be construed that the investment students put into their peer relationships translates to impact in their educational performance. This thinking aligns with recent research that establishes causal effects of peer influence on both aspirations (Dickerson, Maragkou, & McIntosh, 2018) and achievement (Mendolia, Paloyo, & Walker, 2018). However, it is accepted that peer influence can have either positive or negative effects. For example, the research on achievement reports that peer influence manifests in educational underperformance for peer groups of low attaining students (ibid).  As a result, it is necessary to point out the ‘detrimental effects of peer quality on the most vulnerable students’ (ibid, p.632). On the other hand, peers are shown to have a strong influence on aspirations (Dickerson et al, 2018) implying that positive peer effects are gained from association with high-achieving peers. Although students in this study report strongly in favour of peer influence, within the design of this study it was not possible to substantiate the reasons for these views.

    By giving strong ratings to individual factors such as personal qualities, students draw attention to their own agency in the education process. This is in contrast to De Fraja, Oliveira, and Zanchi’s (2007) conclusion that student’s personal exertions in their education are not instinctive but are mediated by parent’s own actions. Individual factors here refer to student’s personal qualities and the application of these qualities to accomplish set goals. This is sometimes encapsulated within the concept of self-efficacy, which is the belief in one’s own ability to be successful at a given task (Bandura, 1997). Proponents of self-efficacy have signaled its link to behaviour and motivation (ibid). This study highlights that affective factors like self-motivation and self-belief are desirable attributes that enable educational success. The responses from the interviews reflect strong views in support of this. Words like ‘self-motivation’, ‘self-discipline’ and ‘hard-work’ featured in most responses.

    ‘I believe that this is very important because a student needs to have the motivation to strive and do their best. If a student doesn’t have this quality, it will cause a lack of work ethic and reduce their success as they don’t care to work hard.’ (Student C8) 

    This result demonstrates that students recognise their own individual agency and responsibility in the educational process. However, research also showed that self-efficacy is linked to a parental factor which ‘positively correlates with academic achievement’ (Banerjee, 2016, p.5). So, it is worthwhile for teachers to focus attention on the role of parents as a source of these attributes and their contributions to developing and nurturing self-efficacy. 

    Parental and Home Factors 

    The overall view that emerged from the interview data indicated that parental and home factors were the most dominant factors in educational achievement. The importance of parental involvement, engagement, and support was consistently recognised, as well as the educational values transmitted by parents. In a broad sense, the parental dimension was shown to strongly correlate to educational achievement (Burgess, 2014; Kirby & Cullinane, 2016). The impact of the parental behaviours identified in this study was also corroborated by other evidence (Harris & Goodall, 2007; Stokes et al., 2015). At the micro level, the study confirms the strategic interaction of different aspects of parental behaviours with high aspirations at the centre of it. It shows that whilst having high aspirations is a fundamental prerequisite to educational success (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003), it must be complemented by other equally important values (such as resilience and a strong work ethic) that derive from parental influence (Demie, 2013). This is a crucial point and one that goes to the heart of criticisms of high aspirations (St. Clair et al., 2013).

    Since high aspiration by itself is not sufficient to raise school achievement, then raising aspirations alone would not make much difference. Consistent and painstaking support at home and active and constructive engagement with school have to operate optimally to produce fruitful outcomes. In other words, the parental dimension at the home and school levels must function in mutually reinforcing ways and act as an essential force to produce the desired results. For example, when parents engage and develop relationships with the school, they are likely to be abreast of their children’s progress and are able to resolve issues that may arise or tailor the support that is provided at home. Within the school context, it means that students who do not exhibit these values are at a higher risk of educational failure. For African students, these values, as encapsulated within the parental dimension, represent the most significant variable in their educational success. From most responses, there was a presumption that African parents actively support their children’s education.

    ‘African parents are normally very supportive and encourage their children to do well and aspire for education accolades. This normally means students are more likely to focus in school and work hard.’ (Teacher L15)

    The study reinforces a family culture that places a high value on education where parents mobilise all their resources to this end. Overall, the strong allusion to parental and home factors as impetus for the success of African students is consistent with a growing body of evidence (Burgess, 2014; Demie, 2013; Stokes et al, 2015). This study further highlights that school and individual factors are inextricably linked to values and behaviours that derive from home. For example, students who demonstrate an intrinsic interest in academic pursuits may be exhibiting high self-efficacy honed by parental guidance. This is a significant point and should not be underestimated. This study also affirms that parental engagement is much more productive when it is devoid of rigid beliefs about the distinction of roles between the home and school. It is demonstrated in the attitude of African parents in this study towards the education of their children where the prevailing view is one of shared responsibility rather than sole reliance on the school. As such, where parents see a gap, they fill it themselves or invest in other sources of remediation such as private tutoring. This is also reflected in their hands-on parenting style and the single-minded dedication to the educational success of their children. 

    Social Factors 

    The intersectionality of two social elements echoed resoundingly in this study. One was the quest to attain social mobility through education and the other was the pernicious effects of racism to curtail this ambition. With respect to social mobility, the study conveyed the determined efforts of African families to improve future prospects for their children by supporting and encouraging them to achieve good grades in school. The expectation is that high academic attainment will open the door to university and subsequently good jobs. These efforts represent a rational attempt to break out of the high rates of poverty and unemployment prevalent within this community (Weekes-Bernard, 2017). In this sense, poverty was shown to be a key driver for educational success. One participant offers a succinct view on this.

    ‘There is also the accepted notion that education is key to breaking out of poverty. Thus African students are compelled to perform better in academics so as to secure high paying job roles in future.’ (Teacher K10)

    Admittedly, there is a recognition that employment opportunities are significantly enhanced through the acquisition of a good university degree. This is buttressed by the high participation rates of African students in higher education (Shaw et al., 2016). Also, having moved from countries with less socio-economic opportunities, African families understand that social mobility is more attainable in the UK and are capitalising on this to propel themselves forward. However, despite huge strides in education, Africans have yet to ‘translate educational success into labour market outcomes’ (ibid, p.49), due to the other social element that arose in this study: racism.

    This study reinforced the harm caused by experiences of racism and prejudice in society. It specifically highlights the obstacles faced by Africans to attain equality in society. The word ‘stigma’ was used by a few respondents to describe their perceptions of racism towards them and their communities.

     ‘As migrants, there’s that stigma in the society that a black man has to work harder to earn a living compared to a white man. African parents build on these concepts and more to push their children to work hard to be able to fit in the competitive society.’ (Parent B5)

    In a somewhat perverse sense, this is spurring African students to higher levels of achievement. There are two motivators that explain this phenomenon: (1) the need for equality, respect and dignity; and (2) the demand for strong qualifications required in a competitive job market. These pressures place an enormous burden on Africans to continually strive for excellence in their educational careers. Participants in this study justified this push as necessary because parents understand their children will struggle to make it in this society. In a strictly pragmatic sense, this was viewed as a survivalist strategy. At the same time, social mobility is being impeded for young Africans as a result of barriers on entry and progression in the workplace (Weekes-Bernard, 2017). To create congruence between high levels of educational achievement and upward social mobility, urgent action needs to be taken to tackle racism within the labour market and wider society. 


    The main significance of this study comes from the new evidence it renders on the motivations for the educational success of African students, and how this evidence resonated with resilience. While research is consistent and emphatic on the negative impact of poverty on educational outcomes (Banerjee, 2017; OECD, 2016), the findings in this study provide a progressive counter view. Through the transmission of certain parental behaviours, the mediating actions of parents, coupled with school support, African students are able to develop resilience to overcome major obstacles in their lives. Consequently, this study argues that for some ethnic minority students, experience of poverty, deprivation, and racism may be the catalyst for educational success.

    The findings in this study call for school leadership to pay attention to the mechanisms of how parental and home factors can be better leveraged for the benefit of a wider number of students. It will no longer do to conceive of education as the sole responsibility of schools while confining parents to a marginal role. The awareness that school factors, though critically important, do not account for the greatest impact on student outcomes, creates significant scope for schools and parents to work together more closely to improve educational achievement for all students. It was shown that the effort of students, schools and teachers, though important on their own, function optimally when parental and home factors are strong. Therefore, the role of parents must be prioritised as essential to the educational process. Furthermore, although there is evidence of a relationship between socio-economic status and educational achievement, the impact is less obvious for African students. To overcome formidable obstacles, African parents are able to draw on cultural norms to bolster the academic performance of their children. As such, it is the behaviours and actions of parents that have the strongest influence on student achievement for these families.

    Based on these findings, this study suggests that socio-economic status be de-emphasised and instead, focus be brought on what motivates effort in these circumstances. Answers to what specific actions motivate effort are subject to future research. However, in view of what is already known, schools need to look at how they can work with families to raise aspirations, where this is lacking, and find ways to motivate effort through parents so that aspirations can be harnessed into concrete results. For all stakeholders in education, this study highlights the huge barriers faced by some disadvantaged students while offering lessons on where to look for improving outcomes for others. Altogether, the findings in this study provide some obvious levers for school leadership in the efforts to close the achievement gap for all disadvantaged students.         


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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Iberi, H. (2020). Bridging the achievement gap: The educational success of African students in the U.K. Retrieved from

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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