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The underachievement of British-Pakistanis – a critical analysis

“I feel like a man who has been asleep somewhat and under someone else’s control. I feel that what I’m thinking and saying is now for myself.” – Malcolm X

On July 3rd I had the honour to take part in the NTLD Bucks CPD day. The wonderful Emma Kell invited me to speak about race and privilege. After two blogs (Nothing New and My Open Letter to Educators), Emma asked me to join her. The nerves and excitement prior were calmed by listening to Sanum Khan’s ‘Underachievement of Pakistani British boys: How do we prevent this?’ I nodded along and even shed a tear by the end of this session. ‘Tis the season for difficult conversations and this topic is close to home. Well, it is actually within my home too. When Sanum said “I don’t think that we should have a gap that is grouped by ethnicity. That seems to be a really strange thing to be comfortable with”, the time for silence was over.

I am not a champion of my community or a leader. However, I am a by-product of my community and you know what, it’s taken 28 years to say this but I’m actually proud of my heritage. We are at a sensitive time as the wounds of historical oppression have been reopened, with equality movements gathering and losing pace. Watching the police killing of George Floyd evoked such a strong sense of injustice but an injustice that is the reality of so many every day. The fight for equality will never end and as those holding gates and providing ‘intellectual’ spaces for racial prejudice and denying white privilege also live amongst us. Today I want to talk about Pakistani British boys. From lived experience, to personal reflections, research and CPD, the underachievement of British-Pakistani students should cause national outcry but it does not. The time for silence is over.

The national outcry tends to always be around the underachievement of Black students. One of the many issues I have with this discourse is the proportion of time spent discussing ‘BAME’ underachievement and solely focusing on singular groups or issues. I will later talk about the BAME community and the idea of it being pictured as a homogenous and monolithic grouping. My interest in the underachievement of British-Pakistani boys does not lessen my energy forwards Black Lives Matter, however the former is one of Britain’s biggest taboos. I do believe we need to differentiate and create equality and unity for all groups. I will not go into depth about the stereotypes, media misrepresentation and Islamophobia, there will be a time and place for that. If the underachievement of Black students is a national emergency then so is the underachievement British-Pakistani students. The time for silence is over.

If the 2017-18 data is anything to go by, when are we going to challenge the poor attainment of our disadvantaged BAME pupils. Image: DfE

The story of Isma’il

Isma’il has just completed his GCSEs and will be studying for his A-levels. His mum is born and bred here in Britain and his father is from Pakistan. Isma’il is a towering young man, approach 6ft and has dreams to open his own accountancy firm. At sixteen, this lad has experienced stop and search, been racially abused many times and already knows his ‘place’ in British society. The doe-eyed lad is fully aware of structural racism and after spending the entire summer volunteering to gain experience, dozens of job applications all came back with no reply. His peers dress well and eat well but Isma’il understands the precarious nature of his parents employment (Mum is a TA and Dad is a Taxi Driver). Amongst five siblings, he still retains an undeniable belief in meritocracy and continues to pursue the route of success by means of the already polarised education system. He has been in trouble at school, felt discriminated against by being one of the only British-Pakistani boys in top sets but still aspires to dream and achieve like every other child. The education system has many children like Isma’il. I am Isma’il. We are Isma’il. Ultimately, we all just want the same opportunities as everyone else but as we also know, this rhetoric may never meet reality. It is children like this we have to protect.

The statistics are devastating

The underachievement of BAME groups in education is a historical injustice and the complexity of such a discussion cannot go understated. Again, it is fact that Black students have the lowest rates of attainment, across almost every stage in academia. If we, for example, expected reading ages for Black groups is the lowest. The progress eight attainment is also the lowest, with Black Caribbean pupils being the biggest underachievers. However, just as we differentiate between Black students (Black African, Black Caribbean and Black other), we also need to use this same veneer to look at the rather homogenous ‘Asian’ subcategory. Around 4.5billion people are from Asia, thus to assume homogeneity is woefully misleading.

I once heard a Head say, “Shuaib, all the Asians are doing great” as he glad-handily placed a multi-coloured spreadsheet in front of me. “All Asians”. In fact, the Chinese and Indian students were flying high (there are various socio-cultural reasons for this) but Bangladeshi and Pakistani students were lagging. I was utterly appalled when this Head justified his comments by stating, “some groups do better than others but overall, it equals out.” This perspective fails to assess the deep intricacies of underachievement for many groups and homogenises their experiences in one universal pool of pedagogical language.

The statistics are devastating and again, for the purpose of this article, I am focusing on British-Pakistani students. British-Pakistani pupils, according to DfE data are tied sixth lowest for expected reading age standards. At GCSE, national progress 8 data also provided by the DfE states that Pakistani students are the lowest achieving Asian ethnic group. My frustrations also grow with the homogenous ‘Asian’ category that tends to supersede national data thus preventing us from seeing differences between subgroups. We haven’t even touched the data from higher education!

The statistics are devastating and the generational underachievement of Pakistani British students should be on the national agenda. Sadly, I believe a concoction of systemic racism and social exclusion means the one ‘P’ on the agenda for the underachievement of Pakistani British students is, well, ‘Prevent’.

If a book can change your life, it is this masterpiece by Suma Din.

Safety net

Another argument that I have and to an extent I can validate through personal experience is the notion of the ‘safety net’. The British Asian/Pakistani have pockets of deprivation and also pockets of affluence. The self-employed sector made up relatively low-paid roles such as restaurants, takeaways and taxi services, they are dominated by South Asian folk. For many, the heredity succession into family businesses should be applauded but also assessed critically. British-Pakistani Sociologist Tariq Modood was amongst the first to stress how self-employment amongst British Asians was the response to racially segregated labour markets. For many, these safety nets in the community were created by older generations as a response to structural and systemic racism.

Many of my friends have left school as underachievers and become incredibly successful. This deserves to be celebrated but let us be clear, safety net or not, success or failure, the disadvantage of our British-Pakistani students is a national injustice.

It is also really important to remember the lost histories of both Pakistan and Britain. Image: QTbulletin

Three areas of concern

I have three real concerns about the disadvantaged British-Pakistani students. These are not all encompassing but a means to start dialogue in the hope to sustain conversations about the topic.

BAME community is not homogeneous – There is even variation between Pakistani students and their cultural upbringing. I remember back in Year 8, as a shy but outspoken boy, I was left utterly confused. Our head of year called for a meeting for us Asian lads and Kobe, who happened to be Chinese rocked up. He did fit into this ‘Asian’ category but I was left stunned when our head of year looked at Kobe and said, “not that type of Asian” before turning him away. It dawned upon me at that age that the BAME community is not homogenous at all. The community itself is stratified between races and ethnicities, later by religion and sects, to localities and even sadly by colourism. There is not one big BAME community and for anyone to claim to be the mouthpiece of all BAME concerns, this is implausible and misleading. The British-Pakistani community is a complex intellectual world. The 2011 UK census found that 1,174,983 people classified themselves as ethnically ‘Pakistani’. My family are from Kashmir, our values are different from those from Lahore or Islamabad, Mumbai, Tokyo or Beijing! When addressing ‘Asian’ students as a sub-category, we must be careful and not assume homogeneity as I have previously said, there are different shades of BAME. With these different shades comes different experiences of systemic racism and structural inequalities that are particular to individual groups. The British-Pakistani experience in Britain is also diverse and must be delicately unpacked to understand the true extent of social inequalities. I would love to see a stream of data which differentiates between different sects of British-Pakistanis so that schools could really target the most disadvantaged and disengaged pupils. ALL Pakistanis are not underachieving and such a statement is very misleading.

Engaging British-Pakistani boys – I have heard this many times and perhaps it is the overspill from the disadvantaged White British boys movement. How do we engage British-Pakistani boys? Before we begin learning Urdu and wearing Saris to non-uniform days, I want to bring the late Criminologist, Jock Young into this discussion. Many of the British-Pakistani students we teach are 3rd or even 4th generation. All they know is Britain and ‘back home’ is the sporadic family vacation. Britain is their home. Jock Young analysed the 2001 riots in the Northern towns of Britain which happen to have large Pakistani communities. Young believed that these were the riots of the ‘over-assimilated’ and not as we were led to believe those who fail to comply with British values. I’m going to play devils advocate and say, perhaps the underachievement of British-Pakistani students has more to do with over-assimilation rather than a lack of it. Cultural goals of many Pakistani British students match those of their White British peers. The prospect of success through the means of education is sold to every child. Britain is a meritocracy and the BAME ‘influential people’ who are in positions of power help reinforce this message. However, Young eloquently notes that there is a tension between culturally aspired goals of majority and those attainable by the minority groups. Young believes that historically disadvantaged groups like British-Pakistanis are living in what he refers to as the ‘the vertigo of late modernity’ which is characterised by the blocking of cultural norms and values through systemic discrimination. Despite constant attempts by the host nation other BAME communities, when the Prime minister himself refers to Muslim women as ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’, with Islamophobia also being rife, why isn’t more being done? Buying into the country you call ‘home’ and its values but then to feel the weight of discrimination; a dangerous dichotomy is being formed. If we use Young’s theory, perhaps instead of othering our British-Pakistani pupils, we should be looking at similarities rather than differences in their goals and aspirations with those of the host population. We are British before we are Pakistani, right?

Imperialist view of success – I found myself in the company of a fantastic British-Pakistani educator, Ahmed Hayat. Ahmed and I completed a podcast on life as a British-Pakistani teacher and I am still taking notes from it! When we assess ‘underachievement’, how are framing it? Is ‘success’ achieving five 4-9 grades at GCSE or graduating from a red brick university? Ahmed and I spoke at length about the cultural relativity of success and how, through systemic racism, ‘success’ is not so easily defined. It is clear and informed by empirical research that some ethnic groups are underachieving in education. However, success in terms of examination results does not fully conceptualise the complexities of social mobility and life chances. The universal view is that education is the best route of success and that a good education can be a key determinant of how our future is shaped. I have friends and relatives that are entrepreneurs, real life success stories and incredibly wealthy. Many of them struggled at school, massively underachieved but this has not derailed their own aspirations and success. When we are referring to the underachievement of British-Pakistani students, are we using an imperialistic success criteria? Is the yardstick of success at loggerheads with the cultural yardstick of success within the Pakistani community? How can we bridge this disconnect? Is it correct to convey imperialistic views on others?

Steps forward

We do need strategies and steps forward. British-Pakistani boys in particular are underachieving but what can we do? I have three ideas that I have personally tried, tested and reflected on. Again, I must stress these are not exhaustive but I know there are teachers out there who are aware of this disadvantaged group and want things to change.

Bridging the disconnect – Engaging British-Pakistani parents is absolutely imperative. The number of times I have heard teachers say, “they don’t speak English” before opting not to call parents is astounding. A. this is an assumption and, B. ask me! The number of British-Pakistani parents that are left out of the loop and alienated as well as left disconnected from their child’s education is appalling too. We need to be improving dialogue with all stakeholders and this really begins with parents. I can still recall parent crying because her son was sent home for an alleged fight. She spotted me and didn’t know a word of English but I understand Punjabi and consoled and reassured her. She later found out through me that her son was not the aggressor but rather the victim which spared the poor lad weeks of being grounded. I did not save the day, I just bridged that disconnect. Reaching out to parents, getting them on side and building a partnership found on trust is how we reconnect with our British-Pakistani students. Sanum Khan recommended Suma Din’s excellent Muslim Mothers and their Children’s Schooling during her NTLD Bucks CPD session. This book has changed my life and is a real must read for us all.

Recruitment and outreach – I once did a day of supply at school that was 95% British-Pakistani. I was greeted with handshakes and nods of approval by almost every child and this wasn’t because of my incredible choice cardigans! Later I taught a Year 10 ICT lesson where a group of lad, who were so polite and loving revealed that I was the first Pakistani teacher to have taught them. I was gobsmacked. A school should always reflect its cohort, either through staffing or in terms of its ethos. Within two days I was asked if I would consider a permanent role at the school by the Head who openly admitted that I, “just knew what to say” with the students. The notion of cultural sensitivity has to be embedded and to think that such an ethnically diverse school didn’t even have an EAL base let me so cross. If we are in dialogue about anti-racism and radically reforming the curriculum, we must also assess the recruitment process of our staff. The outreach work comes from empowering our young people by enabling them to see visible and real life representations of those who have prospered from the dream of meritocracy. Alarmingly, national data paints another frightening picture. As of 2018, 1.1% of teachers are Pakistani-British males and 1.2 are females from this same ethnic group. This is a pool of 5,500 and we are a precious commodity and can help outreach and bridge disconnects with our intimate knowledge of the communities we identify ourselves with. This is a small but select pool and we must work harder to avoid alienating another generation of British-Pakistani children. Community teachers are a valuable resource! Recruitment of BAME teachers across the board needs to be radically reassessed as we continue to hold difficult conversations. With token staff fasting and Eid celebrations being totally abolished in favour of giving BAME teachers the time and space to prosper and grow.

Alleviating stereotypes – Where do I start? Subject stereotypes where Business, Maths and Economics were all ‘Asian’ subjects at school! Where I was told the Social Sciences “required depth and analysis”. Stereotypes in textbooks where we have the odd Ali or Abdul in our Maths exercise books picking sweets but Ishrat Afreen’s poetry never makes it into our English lessons. How do we challenge generations of established and banal stereotypes? Ultimately, as educators we need to continue differentiating, celebrating diversity and allowing a multiplicity of world views. I was once asked by a senior leader, “Khan, hey? Your dad must be Citizen Khan!” As he chuckled and waiting for me my ethnic approval, I point blank called him out. As, yes, clearly a British Indian actor who dresses up to mimic and ridicule my community and religion is my father. As cheap and tasteless ethnic ‘banter’ for the license fee paying public represents my family life. This is just one example and when we hear the phrase “challenge your own biases”, this what we mean. By using these crass stereotypes and then seeking gatekeepers to cement your own biases, this is dangerous. How do we begin alleviating stereotypes – we start by reconnecting with one another and if we are not sure, we ask and don’t assume. We also need to be teaching the uncomfortable but also sophisticated histories how the world came to be. This includes adding colonialism and the British empire to our curriculum and providing our young people with the knowledge of self.

In summary

Being a British-Pakistani educator is the ultimate honour and privilege. I am the by-product on my community and it is a community I wish to serve, understand and work alongside. I urge our school leaders and teachers to move away from homogenous assumptions and stereotypes, to form context-driven curriculums and to continue reflecting. The underachievement of any group should be a national outcry and emergency but collectively we can form an ethos to tackle this disadvantage and disconnect.

Finally, I am on a very personal journey and writing this article has reinforced my view that EVERY child deserves to an education that enriches them, a democracy that empowers them and a society that celebrates them. We will get there as in unity we are healing.

Thank you to Emma Kell, Sanum Khan, Ahmed Hayat, Aini Butt and the Voice of Islam radio channel. Your ideas inspired this article which took me two months to actually write!Thank you.

Shuaib Khan

DfE – Reading Age results -2020 – available at – https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/education-skills-and-training/7-to-11-years-old/reading-attainments-for-children-aged-7-to-11-key-stage-2/latest#by-ethnicity

DfE – Attainment 8 Scores by ethnicity – available at – https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/education-skills-and-training/11-to-16-years-old/gcse-results-attainment-8-for-children-aged-14-to-16-key-stage-4/latest

DfE – Teacher Workforce – Available at – https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/workforce-and-business/workforce-diversity/school-teacher-workforce/latest#by-ethnicity-and-gender

Suma Din (2017) Muslim Mothers and their Children’s Schooling, Trentham Books

Sanum Khan – Underachievement of Pakistani Boys: How Do We Prevent This? – available at – https://www.connectingbucksschools.com/sanum-khan/

A Conversation about Inequality with Ahmed Hayat – available at #antismalltalk podcast – on all leading platforms

Jock Young (2007) – The Vertigo of Late Modernity, London, Sage

Tariq Modood (2007) – Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea, Cambridge, Polity Press

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