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Lately, the news has been very gloomy on the achievement of young black boys in the UK education system.

Politicians and commentators are talking about how badly they are doing without actually agreeing on any concrete plans that will turn things around for good.


By Shola Adenekan

Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), suggests that in order to tackle academic underachievement, especially among African-Caribbean boys, black students should be taught separately from whites.

Phillips points to some examples of segregation in the UK which have already yielded good results.

The Windsor Fellowship, for example, runs a programme exclusively for ethnic minority children, where they are mentored and given extra lessons.

In London last year, 100% of their students passed five or more good GCSEs, in Birmingham the figure was 75%. A boys' school in South London that provides a six-week course for black pupils has seen the proportion getting five good GCSEs rise from 25.6% to 44.4% in two years.

But others like Tony Sewell, an education expert at the University of Leeds, lampoon the kind of educational apartheid that Phillips is suggesting.

Sewell believes there is a real danger that such a crude form of segregation - even for the most positive reasons - could cause resentment and division within schools, the absolute opposite of the goal of racial harmony.

Moreover, he is unsure if the lessons of the United States are always applicable in Britain.

America has a very different set of racial demographics and cultural history,” he said in a newspaper interview. “Nor does this approach take account of the wider reasons that African Caribbean pupils are failing."

"The implication of this proposal is that black boys can succeed only in a black environment, since they are alienated by the supposed white racial bias of the British education system.”

Middle class, middle-aged white men and women who formulate policies at Whitehall and city halls across the country may be clueless and alienated from the world that most Black boys come from, but the solutions which eminent Black figures like Phillips and Sewell are proposing seem rather confusing and contradictory as well.

For example, Phillips is against the whole idea of multi-culturalism and instead wants ethnic minority groups to assimilate themselves fully into the British society, yet he want separate schools for Black boys.

Sewell on the other hand, has launched a mentoring scheme that takes Black boys to learn at some Caribbean countries, when  the Caribbean racial demographics and cultural history is different from the British experience.

It is true that recent official figures on the education of young Black boys are dismal. Only 31.9% of black boys achieved five A to C passes last year, against a national average of 51.9%, and there are twice as many black men in prison as there are in university.

Given that Black boys had the highest scores of any racial group of pupils in so-called baseline assessments of basic literacy and numeracy when British children begin school,  why do they fall off the achievement stage later on?

Prof David Gillborn, an educationist at London University’s Institute of Education believes Black children are being condemned to failure early in life because of racist attitudes among teachers.

He says new tests being used to measure children’s competence when they start primary school are not only damaging black pupils but that at secondary school level, teachers are entering them for lower tiers of GSCE exams because they believe black pupils are perpetual underachievers, thus damaging their chances of getting the grades that may determine whether or not they continue in education.

Racism is not just about groups like the BNP, he points out. But that “well-meaning white professionals who simply do not see equality as a major concern” were guilty of institutional racism.

Gillborn points to official data that shows that changes in the assessment of three to five year olds have been linked to a reduction in the attainment of black kids in relation to white pupils.

“Here is one area that black children were doing well and it’s gone overnight,” he says. “There is no evidence of conscious intent. There does not need to be. The normal working of the education system put racial equality at the very margins of debate.

“After the Stephen Lawrence enquiry, every education authorities to have equality monitoring policies but the CRE data show most schools any clear goal for raising black achievement,” says Gillborn.

Gillborn wants the school watchdog, Ofsted, to take the issue of Black boys’under-achievement into top priority during its inspections and the Department for Education and Skills, Dfes, to raise the profile of equality policies among British schools.

Gillborn views are supported by a new study carried out by Nottingham Trent University on School exclusion and transition into adulthood in African-Caribbean communities.

Although the exclusion statistics for black pupils are improving, researchers suggest they are still four or more times more likely to be permanently excluded than white pupils.

Professor Cecile Wright, a Black academic and  co-author of the study, says all the young people her team spoke to described exclusion from school as a traumatic experience that led to a loss of dignity and self-respect.

But in most cases it was followed by the development of a resilient sense of self and a positive black identity that motivated young people to disprove low official expectations and prove their worth.

Wright says it was families and dedicated workers in community-based groups, usually depending on short-term funding, who had helped young Black people to make that critical change in their lives.

The researchers conclude that the single most effective thing that policy makers could do to reduce the negative impact of school exclusion would be to offer central support and secure funding to these community groups.

“This makes it imperative that funding is made available to train everyone involved in the exclusion process to ensure greater awareness of the way that race influences the relationship between teacher and pupil."


Wright thereby calls for an on-going, integrated support for excluded pupils to ensure successful reintegration into mainstream education, in order to seize the opportunities for positive change that her group's study has revealed.

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Britain: Educating Black Boys

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