While the whole world is passing through the age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance.
The Romanians, Bulgarians and Syrians are among the ethnic groups who are now seen to be a burden on the society. They are poorly educated and with few in good jobs, if in work at all.
However, a generation ago the same statements were made for the Bangladeshi community in Britain.
Tower Hamlets, which has the highest concentration of Bangladeshis, was the worst performing local authority in England until 1998.
Until 2009, British Bangladeshis in England performed worse than the national average.
Now the Bangladeshi population is thriving: 62% got five good GCSEs, including English and Maths; in 2015, 5% were above the average.
The improvement among the poorest Bangladeshis has been particularly spectacular: the results of Bangladeshis on Free School Meals (FSM) improved more than any other ethnic group on FSMs in the last decade, according to the analysis of Department for Education figures.
According to a report published in the New Statesman, London’s schools have benefited from motivating the Bangladeshis but the story is partly about London, because Bangladeshi students have also benefited from the attention given to the capital and especially Tower Hamlets; 70% of Bangladeshis in Britain live in the capital.
Even outside the capital, Bangladeshi students are doing very well and have outperformed Pakistani students, which was not the scenario in the recent past, says Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol.
The Bangladeshi girls outperformed the boys by 8% in 2015 and their success is particularly striking.
Bangladesh High Commissioner in the UK Abdul Hannan said the gender equality in Bangladesh has increased as the gender pay gap fell 31% between 1999 and 2009, and this has led to Bangladeshi parents in England taking female education more seriously.
He traces the development back to 1991, when Khaleda Zia became the first female prime minister in Bangladesh’s history; the country has had a female prime minister for 22 of the last 25 years.
Younger British Bangladeshis have benefited from how their parents have become integrated into British life
There might be another factor for the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain. The majority of Bangladeshis living in Britain hail from the Sylhet city, which is central to Bangladesh’s economy and politics and renowned for its food.
“Our forefathers were the pioneers of the curry industry and we have followed in their footsteps,” says Pasha Khandaker, owner of a small chain of curry houses in Kent, who was born in Sylhet. Brick Lane alone has 57 Bangladeshi-owned curry houses; throughout England, around 90% of all curry houses are owned by British Bangladeshis, according to the Bangladesh High Commission.
Other ethnic groups are less lucky. The skills and social and cultural capital of the British Pakistanis who originate from Mirpur, less integral to Pakistan than Sylhet is to Bangladesh, leave them less able to succeed in Britain, says Dr Parveen Akhtar, from the University of Bradford. The Bangladeshi population is also less constrained by kinship ties, Akhtar believes. In some British Pakistani communities, “individuals can live their lives with little or no contact with other communities.”
Younger British Bangladeshis have benefited from how their parents have become integrated into British life. “The second generation of Bangladeshi children had better financial support, better moral support and better access to education,” Hannan says.
As Bangladeshis have become more successful, younger generations have become more aspirational. “Before you were an outlier going to university. As more people did it started to open the doors,” says Rushanara Ali, who became the first MP born in Bangladesh in 2010. She has detected an “attitude change about university for boys and girls.” Nasim Ali, a Bangladeshi councillor in Camden believes that “the focus was on young people getting jobs when they turned 16” a generation ago, but now parents are more willing to spend extra money on tuition.
Huge challenges remain. While the employment rate of Bangladeshis has improved – the proportion of women in work has risen by one-third in the last five years, according to research by Yaojun Li, from the University of Manchester – it still lags behind educational performance. Around 9% of working age Bangladeshis are unemployed, almost twice the national average, Li has found.
It does not help that the 12,000 Bangladeshi curry houses in Britain are closing at a rate of at least five a week. This does not reflect a lack of demand, says Khandaker, who is also president of Bangladesh Caterers Association, but the government’s immigration restrictions, making it harder to find high-skilled chefs, and the increased ambition of young Bangladeshis today, who aspire to do more than work in the family business.
But, for all these concerns, as the soaring Bangladeshi children of today progress to adulthood, they will be well poised to gain leading jobs. David Cameron has said that he wants to see a British Asian prime minister in his lifetime. Hannan says he is “positive that one day we will see someone from Bangladesh in the leadership.”
Nothing would better embody the sterling rise of the 600,000 British Bangladeshis. In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance. It shows that, with the right support, migrant communities can overcome early struggles to thrive.
The article by Tim Wigmore originally apeared in newstatesman.com