Notes on : Francis, B. & Archer, L. (2005) British – Chinese pupils' and parents' constructions of the value of education. British Educational Research Journal 31 (1): 89 – 108.

Dave Harris

British Chinese pupils are prominent high achievers within the British education system, but their perceptions and experiences of education have not been so well explored. There is a need to see how they construct education as valuable and how this leads to pupil achievement.

They outperformed children from other ethnic groups in compulsory education [citing the DFEE study of 2001]. 90% of them continue into post-compulsory education and they are more likely than any other ethnic group to enter HE, which is a recent change from the 1980s. Boys' achievement matches the educational performance of female counterparts
[one reference here  is GILLBORN, D. & GIPPS, C. (1996) Recent Research on the Achievement of Ethnic Minority Pupils (London, HMSO)]

There have often been stereotyped conceptualisations, including being hailed as an economic success story which omits difficulties and inequalities. Research shows that they face both discrimination and problems accessing public and social services, and their success is 'based on broader ill-conceived stereotypes of the Chinese as collectivist, conformist, entrepreneurial, deferent and conforming to Confucian values' rather than British Chinese. One study did not observe pupils in the classroom, omitting the possibility that they constructed themselves 'differently in their questionnaire responses' (3). This has been amplified by the dominant compensatory notion where ethnic groups are seen in deficit terms.

Different ethnic groups place different degrees of emphasis on educational success and teachers and scholars have 'traditionally been highly respected in the Chinese community' (3). Parental emphasis on educational success is seen in the stress placed on it in personal testimonies, even if parents were often not formally educated themselves, and even if the Chinese do not just reproduce levels of education through generations.

The data is drawn from an ESRC funded study looking at British Chinese constructions of 'gender, education and achievement' (4). It faced the usual problems of essentialism when working with terms like ethnicity. Respondents themselves identified as Chinese and or British Chinese, although some were half Vietnamese and others ethnic Chinese who had lived in Vietnam. The research was carried out in London which has almost half the total Chinese population in Britain. They did semistructured individual interviews with pupils, parents, and teachers. There were 80 British Chinese pupils, 48 girls 32 boys, 14 to 16-year-olds, and they were compared with the authors' previous investigations of the constructions of gender. For convenience, schools containing more than 5% of British Chinese students were approached, mainly state schools, but also some independent schools. Social class membership was 'highly diverse', judged by parental occupation of both parents. [Table not included but one third of the parents worked in catering, 25 owned or managed the restaurant, although pupil answers were vague. 31 mothers were at home. This and the relatively high number of other professionals 'suggests a significant proportion of middle-class families', although their educational trajectories are not orthodox middle-class, and indeed 'defy' the usual definitions (4).]

Most of the pupils were second generation Chinese, with parents from Hong Kong. Some were third generation whose parents had been born in Britain. Others were from mainland China or Chinese communities in other countries. They were questioned about their perception of gender, their educational preferences and experiences, attitudes to learning, and educational and occupational aspirations.

Parents were also interviewed about their views of education and their expectations. Most were Cantonese speakers and first generation ones spoke little English so they used a British born interviewer fluent in Cantonese and Hakka. All originated from Hong Kong, all came for a better life. They are diverse in terms of social class and education. Nearly all had worked in catering although many mothers were not working. Over half had come from families in catering businesses. Some spoke English fluently and had been educated in Britain, but many were raised in Hong Kong having little education. Most have no post-compulsory education except for two men.

There may be a '"standpoint perspective"' at work here affecting the responses given by ethnic minority respondents to white interviewers as compared to those given to interviewers of the same ethnicity, but they do not see the need for a complete match — it is impossible to match all factors of identity, and it does not by itself eradicate power relations. There is a risk that researchers may 'conflate experiences or distort responses' and interactions between gender and race are 'not experienced in unitary or predictable ways' (5). It is enough to recognise power relations and potential effects or to be sensitive to them and they consulted with three British Chinese advisers throughout. They used Nvivo. They used social constructionist perspectives and some quantification especially of proportions giving particular responses.

They asked is education important and all 80 pupil said that it is, although there were qualifications, for example over some subjects and how useful they were. Three quarters of them saw 'education in terms of credentials for employment' (6), and references to the future became a motif — it may be a 'particularly British Chinese expression or preoccupation'. It seems to be associated with hard work as a particular characteristic. It is associated with a willingness to defer pleasure in the present, which made the authors think of the academic earoles in Willis and the possibility of a shared ethos.

'Educational instrumentalism is directly espoused and perpetuated by government policy'. Interest in credentials is also 'not so very different from other ethnic groups'especially among working class respondents. The British Chinese pupils were more consistent, however and this affected subject choice. Of the alternative goals, the most frequently was wanting a good job. Some mentioned things about increasing their knowledge, making yourself clever and avoiding being stupid. Qualifications were seen as 'unproblematically ensuring passage to a good job via a discourse of meritocracy' (7).

There was 'little articulated recognition of the impact of issues such as racism and cultural constructions' intervening with ideas of meritocracy, although that did occasionally arise when discussing the impact of being Chinese. In general, good education meant a good job, credentialsm, 'applied with somewhat naïve simplicity', and unawareness of structural discrimination and exclusion which does affect the Chinese in Britain (citing research by Cheng and Heath).

Few pupils argued that education is beneficial for intrinsic reasons. References to lots of money or a nice house were more common. This might reflect 'an immigrant perspective expressed by their parents' (8) and this is sometimes combined with a view of Chinese parents as disciplinarian, to mean that Chinese pupils hold the same values as their parents — four girls did reply that they valued education 'because their parents say they should' and others acknowledged parental views and directions as important, although complaining of pressures.

Parental explanations about education were actually 'quite different to those of their offspring'. They all said education is important, and some were surprised that the question was even asked. One saw education as 'absolutely essential to humanity'. His own lack of education seems to have  'heightened his value of it' (9) — he was glad of the opportunities.

Some parents talked of economic constraints limiting their education, and one referred to gender having a personal impact because her parents did not see the education of girls as important. Nowadays the family do encourage females including persuading them to do their homework. She revealed that some gender differences still persist in her family, but not so much.

'This constructed value of education for children, set against their own context of being deprived of education… Featured strongly in many of the parent interviews'. They talked a lot of loss and hardship, the difficulties of surviving without a good education, having no choice in the bad old days, the pressures that force them to seek better lives and to endure struggle to survive. Aspirations for children's education were juxtaposed and led to a 'determination for their children to be educated'. This is different from Bourdieu where levels of educational participation were often just reproduced and social class boundaries perpetuated — 'the Chinese parents were passionately committed to providing children with what they had lacked' (10), a combination of a general valuing of education 'as well as of a migrant outlook'.

Some parents wanted to protect their child from the lifestyle they had had to endure in catering work, for example. The stereotyped view says that there is an aspiration only for professional jobs, and that this is only about status. Of course, there is a desire for establish professions to overcome precariously, and the professions are preferred to the sort of work that parents have had to take. This may lie behind the interest in social mobility, and is shown in a rate of social mobility higher for those who have had to work in family catering.
Parents also see a dilemma in encouragement without applying too much pressure. Some sent their children to Chinese school at the weekend, and some had attended themselves. Some regretted that their offspring no longer attended. Extra learning which seems important, in this case rather than credentialism. A number were paying for extra tuition as well, including some of the working class parents [related to the conventional school curriculum?].

However parents had more diverse views of the importance of education than pupils did — only half gave getting a good job as the most important explanation, for example, with over 1/3 stressing the value of education for its own sake, children's development, morals and helping to fit into society. This indicates 'subtle generational differences' (11).

Both pupils and parents value education 'extremely highly' and this is helped by the importance of the family. This may be 'a particularly Chinese preoccupation', but this might be a part of 'the construction of ethnic boundaries on the part of the white majority and by the minority ethnic groups themselves'. Some suggest that Chinese children are not more deferent to their parents than are others, that this is an 'Orientalist attitude', Attitudes might be emergent from both British and Chinese values. This data does suggest that the majority consider family to be 'extremely important', and this was supported by the children often referring to their parents during the interview.
There is a racist stereotype that Chinese children are oppressed by their parental culture, especially middle-class families. The same argument is sometimes made about white middle-class families who have high expectations, although this is less often pathologised. Many of the children in their sample did 'discuss high levels of "pressure" from parents. Some of these portrayed it as positive and others complained bitterly about it' (12). The researchers still suspect that these accounts 'to some extent represent a reproduction of Eurocentric discourse' [why — they've gone native].

Even when pupils complained of pressure, they often acknowledged that it was for their own good and they could support this approach. They rarely saw it is simply oppressive, they more often criticised laissez-faire attitudes of British parents.

Verbal encouragement or pressure may be the only option anyway, since long hours in the catering industry prevent help with homework or activity in the evening, lacking good English or basic levels of education also restricts other forms of intervention in '"hands-on" ways' (14).

However, the high value of education is a feature of Chinese culture, and this was acknowledged with pride by some of the parents, and maybe even was being used 'to construct a diasporic cultural boundary for the first and second generation Chinese in Britain'. Some parents realise that this led to a favourable view from teachers, even though it is 'a racialised discourse' which is used to 'position "the Chinese" in a particular way', which includes and being diligent and conformist. The Chinese themselves can make something positive out of this, 'the construction of attributes in racialised boundaries'.

Race did appear as a motivator as well, including 'the issue of "giving good face"' which is still important in Chinese interaction, with the success of the child as a 'key currency'(15), used in comparisons with other Chinese people. There is a competitive element which helps in 'aiding learning for British Chinese pupils' and this is seen as '"a good thing"' [by one of the pupils].

So, overall the value of education is strongly apparent in British Chinese pupils and their parents. There is a discourse about the value of education and it is used to 'fashion a positive and proud construction of "Chineseness" in Britain'. It is a racialised narrative used by the white population and there is 'a wider pernicious discourse that positions the Chinese as diligent, conformists, and self repressed'. Yet the Chinese use it to create a positive identity. To some extent it is the result of the diaspora. It is already strong in Hong Kong and mainland Chinese, but appears among the Chinese in Britain in particular ways, for example when they compare themselves with the others' apparent lack of value of education in a form of boundary maintenance. This is a form of 'ethnically particular cultural capital the progress social class mobility'.

There may be other factors in educational achievement. Teacher expectations of Chinese pupils might be helpful. Gillborn says teachers stereotype them, but as conformist and diligent, behaviours and achievers. It is coherent with the parents and pupils own conception that is useful.

Other studies show that gender and social class have a negative impact on the educational success of ethnic minority groups, but social class at least has a different impact, through the value placed on education. For example Reay has argued that cultural capital endows middle-class parents with the ability to ensure educational progression and success for their children compared to white working class mothers. Afro-Caribbean working class mothers, she argued [in 1998] 'still held the wrong "cultural currency"' (16).

By comparison the Chinese community often had little education themselves and could not be seen as middle-class, despite becoming affluent as a result of entrepreneurship especially in the catering trade. They have linguistic difficulties. Long hours meant that they could seldom provide practical help with schoolwork nor could they amass resources contributing to cultural capital including educational materials, trips and liaisons with school. Yet their children have succeeded, even in the face of 'continuing racial discrimination in the education system… And racist abuse in the classroom and playground'. This is partly a testament '"to their resolve and determination"', but other ethnic groups have also striven without the same results, so there must be some 'ethnically specific construction of identity as alternative resource of cultural capital… [An] ethnically in location-specific construction… [Which]… Has provided them with the outlook and approach which enables this generally high educational performance' (17), the right cultural currency.

They argue it is not just a matter of the high value placed on education coupled with respect for elders, so Reay's  Bourdievian analysis may not be applicable [don't see why]. The Chinese approach 'does not guarantee access to and approval by British educators… [And]… Is far from universally admired by white middle-class teachers and commentators', who see Chinese kids as under pressure, over conformist, impeded in their growth, on a parallel track with parents at open evenings [unhappy with progressive methods?]. From Western liberal and 'certainly from a Eurocentric child development perspective' [aha!] 'The Chinese practices regarding education are problematic and even pathological; meaning that their cultural currency is not valued equally in the West'. Nevertheless, there is a high valuing of education, 'a slice of migrant determination' and 'other cultural factors' which may combine to produce 'a particular Chinese form of cultural capital' which can confound the usual discursive positioning as passive. And 'the socio-economic position is working class'. Educational success and upward social mobility confounds both.

They are not saying that everyone can succeed with the right attitude. Chinese constructions are specific. First generation Chinese have 'endured incredibly high costs… Hardships, struggles and psychological wounds'. Pupils pay a high price for success — hard work and their positioning by other pupils, pressure, fear if they do not produce excellence, fear of failure. Nevertheless, overall, Chinese value for education is positive for educational performance and for social mobility.