How can we close the BME attainment gap? Interventions with Impact December 2016

By Liz Austen

Event Report on an Interventions with Impact Development Event, led by Liz Austen, Stella Jones-Devitt and Alan Donnelly, Wednesday 7th December 2016

This development workshop invited participants to analyse SHU institutional data which outlines the attainment gap between UK domiciled BME students and White students by Faculty and Course. Where possible, key messages were to be reported and discussed.

This task presented a number of challenges. For many in the room, this was the first opportunity to scrutinise the local data and this prompted a number of questions, including; can this data be presented at a more granular level? (e.g. by providing entry points for each student) and what does this data really tell us about the experiences of BME students at SHU?

REACT conferenceWhilst further examination of the data is possible, the message that we were keen to convey was that we have enough analysis to justify both a strategic and an operational response. To this end, the workshop invited participants to discuss explanations and responses to BME underachievement.

This activity presented a number of ‘folk pedagogies’ (Bruner 1996) to the participants, alongside stories from BME students at SHU, and supporting evidence from sector. In this context, folk pedagogies can be described as implicit assumptions about how individuals or groups of students learn or should be taught. The examples cited below were generated from the evidence to prompt discussion.

“The really engaged students stay around afterwards asking questions but the BME students don’t seem that interested”

A range of themes have been identified from the literature that might negatively impact BME students’ approaches to learning (Singh, 2011).

  • A lack of support and opportunities to integrate with other students and feelings of isolation (Connor et al., 2004; NUS, 2011).
  • A reduced sense of entitlement to receiving additional forms of support (Stuart et al., 2011), a tendency to avoid specific help-seeking strategies (Stevenson, 2012) and a reluctance to ask questions in classrooms for fear of “reinforcing prejudiced expectations about lack of ability” (Cotton et al., 2010, p. 3).


“Making sure that the curriculum is more inclusive is very challenging. Most students want to hear about the movers and shakers in their subject area. If I start including some of the more obscure sources and people – just for the sake of it – then the learning skews”

  • In a survey undertaken by the NUS in 2011, 42% of Black respondents did not believe their course reflected issues of diversity, equality and discrimination.
  • The relationship between the lack of diversity among UK academics and student outcomes is not clear (Singh and Kwhali, 2015), however, Miller (2016) posits that this restricts the quality of mentoring and numbers of aspirational role models that BME students have access to.
  • Key recommendations in the sector outline the importance of inclusive teaching and learning (Alexander & Arday, 2015; Mountford-Zimdars et al., 2016; Singh, 2011) and the need to increase the representation of BME academics to provide more role models and a more diverse teaching perspective (NUS, 2011; Singh, 2011).

Colleagues were then asked to draft a needs assessment for their area considering the following:

Key Issues
Action Steps
Which issues need to be addressed? What task will be done? What do you need to complete this step? (People, money, tools, etc.)
Developing an understanding of own BME attainment data at Course and Institutional level Considers specific Departmental and Course level data and possible interventions for action Attend two hour workshop How can we close the BME attainment gap? and participate fully
Exploring why some courses in a local context have done better than others


Cross-referencing my formative Action Plan with an understanding of what works within own Departmental or Course context Requires Departments and Course teams to share ideas and critique key aspects appreciatively including: overall curriculum; underpinning pedagogic approaches; and course infrastructure (including staffing diversity); noting where there are differences
Undertaking a concise needs assessments


Implementing an evidence-informed BME Success Action Plan in which immediate needs and priorities have been supported by appropriate evidence and resourcing Draws on knowledge gleaned from Action Steps 1-2 above, in addition to applying local understanding and knowledge.

This workshop allowed participants to gain a deeper understanding of BME underachievement and promoted the social model (institutional responsibility) rather than the deficit model (individual student weaknesses) as a basis to proceed. The tangible outcome of the session was a means of assessing local needs and outlining the support which STEER can provide in evidenced informed responses.  In addition, the workshop provided space for participants to talk across Faculties in small groups, and then learn from others within the institution.

Sheffield Hallam is currently reinforcing its commitment to inclusive learning environments and addressing differential outcomes for students through a refresh of the Inclusive Practice Framework and the University Strategy. We are lifted by the interest of many staff within SHU who are eager to get involved in this work, and recognise that change is not easy, especially for ‘wicked problems’ that can appear unsolvable.  However, challenge does not excuse inactivity.  We hope that the BME Development Plan for Success (launched by STEER at our ‘Minding the Gaps’ Conference in November 2016) gains traction in the next few months and provides a framework for this action across all areas of the institution.

STEER is able to support staff to understand their institutional data, and to evaluate initiatives designed to impact positively on BME student experience and success. For further information, we highly recommend reading the Runnymede Trust publication Aiming higher: Race, inequality and diversity in the academy, edited by Alexander & Arday (2015). We are also interested in exploring the role of implicit bias and stereotype threat (Steele 2010) within teaching and learning in HE, and will be designing forthcoming development sessions which include some of the evidence in this area. Finally, our next workshop: Working with students as leaders, co-creators and ‘change agents’, explores strategies which have a proven track record of enhancing student belonging, and would be of interest to any staff working to improve BME attainment.


  • Alexander, C. E., & Arday, J. (Eds.). (2015). Aiming higher: Race, inequality and diversity in the academy.
  • Bruner, J. S. (1996). The culture of education. Harvard University Press.
  • Connor, H., Tyers, C., Modood, T. and Hillage, J. (2004) Why the difference? A closer look at higher education minority ethnic students and graduates. Research Report No. 552. London: DfES.
  • Cotton, D., George, R., & Joyner, M. (2013). The gender and ethnicity attainment gap research project.
  • NUS (2011) Race for equality: A report on the experiences of Black students in further and higher education. London: National Union of Students. Available from:
  • Miller, P. (2016). ‘White sanction’, institutional, group and individual interaction in the promotion and progression of black and minority ethnic academics and teachers in England. Power and Education, 1757743816672880.
  • Singh, G. (2011) Black and minority ethnic (BME) students’ participation and success in higher education: improving retention and success. A synthesis of research evidence. York: Higher Education Academy.
  • Singh, G., & Kwhali, J. (2015). How Can We Make Not Break Black and Minority Ethnic Leaders in Higher Education?
  • Steele, C. 2010. Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Stuart, M., Lido, C., Morgan, J., & May, S. (2008). What do students do outside the HE classroom? Extra curricular activities and different student groups.