Why Your Minority Students Need Role Models - And Where to Find Them

23/09/2015 11:40 BST | Updated 21/09/2016 10:12 BST

There is a growing mismatch between the diversity of students and teachers in schools across England. In 2014, nearly 30 per cent of pupils in state-funded primary schools were black or minority ethnic (BME). But only 12 per cent of new trainee teachers and only 2.4 per cent of head teachers were BME. This gap between teachers and pupils is only going to get wider. There has already been a 60 per cent increase in BME students over the last decade.

Many BME students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, lack role models and mentors they can identify with and look up to in the classroom. This deficit of BME role models could be one of the factors that helps explain why despite recent improvements across some BME groups achieving higher GCSE results GCSE attainment hasn't led to improved employment outcomes. It may also explain why BME students are less likely to get into to Russell Group universities than their white British peers despite having equivalent A-level results.

How should schools address this deficit? Over the long term, school leaders should hire more diverse teachers, and there have been some grants to promote more diverse school leadership. In addition, IPPR research out last week argues that schools should take advantage of high quality, non-faith-based supplementary schools in their local area to fix this gap.

Supplementary schools are community-led, out-of-school education programmes, typically run on weekday evenings or Saturdays. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 supplementary schools across the country that provide a variety of services. Typically set up by ethnic minority communities to help children learn their language of origin and understand their culture and heritage, supplementary schools increasingly offer core curriculum support and GCSE tuition. IPPR research shows that partnerships between mainstream schools and exemplary supplementary schools are a cost-effective way to provide role models and support for pupils and integrate mainstream schools into their local community. However, mainstream schools should only partner with supplementary schools that have high quality provision and have rigorous child protection standards to ensure their students are in safe and productive learning environments.

By partnering with supplementary schools, mainstream schools can benefit from the diversity of teachers in supplementary schools and support peer-learning between children of similar BME backgrounds. Studies show that when children learn with others who share their background, it can have a significant impact on attainment. Other benefits include enrichment and extracurricular activities that are important for improving career outcomes and boosting chances of getting into top universities. Exemplary supplementary schools can also offer high-quality community language teaching, especially for schools struggling to meet new Key Stage 2 requirements, and can help mainstream schools engage with pupils' parents, especially from typically hard-to-reach migrant families.

At £150 per pupil per annum for a mainstream school to refer students who need extra support to supplementary schools, setting up partnerships is an inexpensive way to extend schooling and offer additional after-school activities. Moreover, up to 30 per cent of BME students already attend supplementary schools, so building links between mainstream schools and supplementary schools takes advantage of programmes that already have buy-in from parents and the wider community.

What would mainstream and supplementary school partnerships look like? IPPR's report Saturdays for Success outlines a number of partnership models. For example, mainstream schools could set up referral programmes for pupils, both those that need extra support as well as others interested in learning a new language or participating in extracurricular activities. Partnerships are also a particularly useful way to extend the benefits of supplementary schools to students who may lack the assistance of community-led supplementary education such as white working class and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students. Mainstream schools could also share facilities and services with supplementary schools, bringing in teachers to teach Key Stage 2 languages, as with the Hua Hsia Chinese School in Brent, or letting supplementary schools use classrooms after-hours.

Ultimately, head teachers hold the power to build partnerships with supplementary schools. But also parents through Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) and community groups can encourage their school leaders to partner with supplementary schools so all students have the opportunity to benefit from the diverse mentors, additional tuition, and opportunity to learn about different cultures and languages that supplementary schools have to offer.

Tatiana August-Schmidt is a research intern at IPPR.