Bill Gardner, The Telegraph, December 15, 2020
The Royal Air Force has admitted for the first time that black applicants are significantly more likely to fail its selection tests than their white counterparts.
Documents seen by The Telegraph reveal that white and Asian applicants to the RAF consistently score up to 36 per cent higher than black candidates on tests of technical skills and spatial awareness.
Defence chiefs have insisted the Airwoman and Airmen’s Selection Tests (ASTs) had been proven not to be biased against any ethnicity, and blamed the disparity on “underlying inequality” in education.
“It is also important to recognise there can actually be true differences between groups,” the RAF added in a statement.
The figures appear within documents released under freedom of information laws after the Ministry of Defence refused to publish them for five months.
Their disclosure will raise significant questions about the potential barriers to entry facing young black people determined to join the UK’s armed forces. The RAF in particular has already accepted that it has a diversity problem, with fewer than three per cent of regulars identifying as BAME (black and minority ethnic).
A senior source in the RAF said “no definitive answer” had been discovered as to why some ethnic groups outperform others on the aptitude tests. Defence chiefs have hired psychologists to examine the ASTs for signs of racial bias, the source added, but no evidence has ever been found that the exams taken by thousands of candidates every year are unfairly skewed toward any ethnicity.
“The ASTs are very good at working out whether someone is right for the RAF. No more, no less,” the senior source told The Telegraph.
“This is the military, and we need our people to be the best. If we can’t find evidence that the tests are unfair, then what can we do?”
The documents show the results for the four main ASTs taken between 2015 and 2020, broken down by self-declared ethnicity. Each table reveals a significant and consistent gap between the marks scored by black applicants, and those achieved by their white and Asian counterparts.
The numbers are scores rather than percentages, and the individual pass mark is decided by the type of role applied for.
On the ‘BIS’ test, designed to test spatial awareness, including that of potential RAF gunners, candidates from a Black African background scored a five-year average of 40.6.
However, White British applicants scored a five-year average of 55.4, more than 36 per cent higher. Those declaring a Mixed Black Caribbean and White ethnicity scored 51.4, candidates of Asian Indian ethnicity scored 50.1, while applicants from a Chinese background scored highest, with 60.1.
The pattern is repeated in the three other main aptitude tests, including the ‘DIS’ test which examines suitability for “trades technical in nature”.
Applicants from a Black African background scored a five-year average of 40.7 on the exam, while those of Black Carribean ethnicity achieved 44.8. White British candidates, meanwhile, scored much higher with 56.4. Candidates from a ‘White Gypsy or Irish Traveller’ background were among the highest scorers with an average of 59.8.
The documents also reveal how few candidates from minority ethnic groups are applying to join the RAF, although the numbers are slightly increasing.
Last year, only 53 people from a Black Caribbean background and 141 people identifying as Black African applied to join the air force, compared to 7,790 candidates declaring as white British.
A RAF spokesman suggested that the disparity in test results between groups may partly be explained by the comparatively small sample size.
“It is possible that the ethnic minority candidate groups may not be a fair representation of the ethnic minority general population,” the spokesman added.
A spokesman for the RAF BAME Network said there was “more to be done” to break down “potential barriers to recruitment” faced by young black people wanting to join the RAF.
An RAF spokesman said: “The RAF has a proud history of offering opportunities to anyone who has the ability to serve, no matter their background. Aptitude tests are designed to assess a candidates’ potential for the job they are applying for, with professional analysis confirming they are not biased.
“These tests are just one tool used to assess a candidate’s suitability for a career in the RAF. As the percentage of BAME personnel in the RAF continues to increase, we are actively encouraging more individuals from BAME backgrounds to consider a career with us.”