Leona Richards attended the annual GMC and medical school student conference in London on 6th November. A wide variety of issues were discussed such as the new finals exams, considering how reflection e-portfolios are used and looking at the BME attainment gap in higher education (HE), especially in medical schools. Kath Woolf, an associate professor specialising in medical education at UCL, has been researching this topic since 2003. She was tasked with explaining what the BME attainment gap is, why it exists and how to tackle it.
When we think of the reasons for the BME attainment gap, things such as lower socioeconomic backgrounds, cultural barriers, English not being the first language, class divide, etc are usually what comes to mind. Interestingly enough, her research suggests that none of these are solely responsible. In reality it is all due to the BME experience. This refers to the way BME people navigate through school, HE and later life and how people, society and their environment treat them. What do we mean by this? For example, knowing that there are stereotypes that they either have to live up to or disprove puts a mental burden on some BME students. Additionally, the microaggressions and harassment that they face and are more likely to detect have been found to contribute to their mental stress. In essence, her research has disproved the deficit model, which states that BME students are lacking in some way compared to their white counterparts and thus the reason for the attainment gap.
So, what can we do to reduce and close this gap? Her research points to two things. Number one is integration and number two is training. She has found that BME students tend to feel isolated amongst their peers and from staff members so when a situation/problem does arise they are less likely to report it and find a healthy solution. Also, in HE centres such as universities, students befriend those that are similar to them. What you end up with is a divided year group where the white students stick together and the minorities stick to themselves. Other studies have shown time and time again, in many different settings from banking to engineering, that diverse teams have better outcomes. This integration needs to be encouraged and facilitated actively in institutions. If students have a good rapport with staff, we can begin to break down the barriers to reporting and finding solutions to the problems.
Secondly, many people are either unaware of the BME experience or simply feel uncomfortable talking about it and so avoid having these discussions. We need to open up conversation. This is what all the research in this field points to - if you know about something, you are more likely to recognise it and do something about it.
In summary, some of the methods to tackle the BME attainment gap are:
Providing time and opportunities for staff to get to know students, especially the BME students
Supporting BME students with opportunities to stretch themselves
Actively encouraging students from different ethnic groups to work together and get to know each other
Training for staff and students alike in dealing with discrimination and harassment
Increasing diversity teaching in the curricula and amongst staff members especially at more senior levels
As told to Khadijah Ginwalla, attended by Leona Richards