• Contextual effects;
  • Education;
  • Ethnic differences;
  • Free school meals;
  • Multilevel models;
  • National pupil database

Summary.  The primary school population in England is becoming ethnically more diverse and differences in educational attainments between ethnic groups continue to be of interest. The paper applies multilevel modelling to an administrative database—the national pupil database—to assess the extent of these differences. It shows that the national picture hides considerable heterogeneity both within and between schools and that the models for attainment are complex. The analyses highlight the relative educational success of Chinese pupils and a cause for concern about the attainments of black Caribbean boys. The paper's most important message is that conclusions about ethnic group differences in attainments need to be related to individual, family, school and cognitive contexts. Methodological issues about model specification and the categorization of ethnic groups are discussed.