Which way forward for black children?

When the disturbances in France exploded at the end of October, sparked by the deaths of two youths of Mauritanian and Tunisian background  in a suburb of Paris, it was easy to speculate from this side of the Channel on causes and effects.

The imminent terror of social disorder – looted shops, burned out cars, smashed windows – did not touch us. So we could sit back and watch the dramatic effect of years of heavy-handed policing, poor housing and lousy jobs.

The wisdom afforded by distance is matched only by the wisdom afforded by time. The Brixton riots of 1981 were predictably condemned by government ministers as examples of criminal lawlessness.  It took Lord Scarman’s inquiry, published the following year, to pinpoint the underlying “racial disadvantage that is a fact of British life” which sparked the riots.
But if rioting and repression are both predictable responses to long-term social inequality and racism, is there a third way? Are there tough, radical non-violent ways to bring about social transformation?

This autumn, two pamphlets, both written by black authors, offer a radically different analysis of what has gone wrong for  black youth in this country. In No Man’s Land: How Britain’s Inner City Youth Are Being Failed published by the Centre for Policy Studies, Shaun Bailey argues that lax attitudes to marriage, drugs, and sex have failed a generation of black youth. In other words, it’s all Permissive Britain’s fault.

Bailey paints a bleak picture indeed of young black men turning to lawlessness and crime, rather than developing real ambitions, personal or professional. Last week, the Daily Mail published a two-page extract of the pamphlet with a giant picture of Bailey, striding the streets about which he writes. “The more liberal Britain has been,” Bailey declares, “the more the poor have suffered.”

From the other end of the political spectrum, a small publisher (Bookmark) has reissued Bernard Coard’s pamphlet from the early 1970s. How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System with added essays on the effects of racism in Britain’s schools.

Coard’s work won’t get nearly as much publicity as Shaun Bailey’s but it should.  According to one of the modern commentaries, not much has changed in the  30 years since the pamphlet was first published. As the eminent scientific thinker Steven Rose says, “only the initials have changed: SEN (special educational needs) replaces ESN (educationally sub normal).”

But in one of the toughest, and yet most optimistic essays on today’s situation, Sharon Geer, an ethnic minority achievement co-ordinator in a boys school in south London, describes the ACE programme, which is carefully tailored to raise the attainment of African Caribbean boys.

A group of boys were taken out of mainstream lessons, given an older student as a mentor and taught a range of skills from how to study to how to deal with peer pressure. The results were dramatic: by the end of 2005 “the gap between the white students and African Caribbean students had narrowed to just two points.”

In one important sense Bailey and Geer’s analysis coincide. Bailey says “Poor people don’t need liberalism… they need direction”. Geer has provided that direction not through personal criticism and exhortation but through the deployment of institutional power .

The ACE programme has been a clear success story; it has given that cohort of boys huge encouragement. No one doubts that the most crucial educational commodity of all is confidence.

I hope that the Department for Education and Science – and the Daily Mail, of course – will be looking closely at projects like Sharon Geer’s and examining whether they might be applied more generally in England’s schools.

Melissa Benn is a writer and broadcaster

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