We don’t want no separation

Black boys achieve notoriously low examination results in
British schools. In 2004 just 36 per cent of black African and
black Caribbean pupils in England achieved five or more GCSEs at
grade C or above. The national average was 52 per cent.


And while the 2005 results are just out they are not expected to be
significantly different.

Although the poor educational attainment of black boys is well
documented, the issue hit the headlines again earlier this year
when Commission for Racial Equality chair Trevor Phillips became

As part of a BBC documentary he visited a school in the US where
some black boys were educated in separate classes from their peers,
with positive results. When Phillips praised the initiative and
questioned whether it could be replicated on this side of the pond
his comments caused a great kerfuffle. One of the arguments against
it happening here is that Britain is a less racially segregated
society and merely importing the US model would create divisions
where none now exist.

But there is no denying that something needs to be done. Black boys
in British schools are consistently outperformed, even by girls
from their own ethnic background.

To an extent, part of the problem is how schools operate. Mike
Vance trained as a teacher but is now Caribbean achievement
consultant for the Learning Trust, a private sector not-for-profit
company that runs all education services in the London Borough of
Hackney. He has found that black boys’ attainment can be hindered
by the classes in which they are placed at school. He says: “If a
black boy is in a below-average set it creates a low expectation of
what teachers think he can achieve and what the child himself
thinks he can, so he aims low.”

Henroy Green, public relations director at the National Black Boys
Can Association, an organisation that aims to raise the
achievements and aspirations of black boys, agrees. He says that
the way schools relate to black boys can significantly limit their
success and thus creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
“They expect black boys to fail.”

Beyond the classroom, the street culture that is popular among
black boys – where material wealth is valued more than educational
achievement – can also serve as a barrier to success at school.
Vance finds it frustrating that some black boys will only behave in
the way epitomised by the culture of American black music. “This
closes their minds rather than opens them, they are not allowing
themselves to be enlightened and it works against everything I am
trying to do.”

Patrick Stewart has first-hand experience of the difficulties black
boys can face in British schools. He came to the UK from Jamaica
when he was 14 and now, 30 years later, is senior project manager
at the Dalston Youth Project in east London.

Stewart says his clients’ experiences often mirror his own. “Black
boys are seen as aggressive and rude and they don’t like authority
and don’t want to learn,” he says. “Kids tell me their teachers
don’t understand them and they are quick to give up on them while
they feel other kids, who aren’t black, are given more of a
chance.” He recalls that, when he was at school, he was pushed into
taking manual, rather than academic, subjects – a problem that
remains today.

How a black boy’s parents relate to school can also affect how well
they get on. Stewart has come across parents who had a difficult
time at school and who, in turn, have negatively influenced their
children’s attitudes.

This point is picked up by Muhammad Anwar, a professor of ethnic
relations at the University of Warwick’s centre for research in
ethnic relations. “Parents’ background and class are linked and if
they are educated that can make a difference to how their children
He adds that it is not fair to say that all black boys are failing
at school, as clearly some are not. He adds that educational
attainment can also depend on how long a family has been here. “The
performance of some black boys is good and the reason for this is
that they came to Britain for the education,” he says.

But as to whether black boys should be educated separately from
their peers to improve their performance, the resounding answer is

Stewart argues such a move will not benefit black boys as, living
in a multicultural society, their future workplaces and colleges
will not be “black only” environments. He adds that for those
struggling in mainstream schooling, there is no guarantee things
will improve in a classroom full of pupils with the same colour of
skin and the same gender.

Vance agrees that educating black boys separately will not help
them in the long run and will just add to their feelings of
exclusion. Doing so would not only isolate them from girls, but
also from their friends, which most do not want.

Green says that, even with the best of intentions, it would be
divisive and lead to tensions between different communities. The
young black boys with whom he works are clear they do not wish to
take part in any such initiative. “They don’t want to be seen as
special in this way,” he says.

Besides, a step on from black-only classes are black-only schools –
a concept that Anwar does not favour even though some faith-based
schools have proved successful. Having such schools would compound
the feelings of exclusion that some black boys experience as future
employers and educational institutions could start to view them

So, if educating black boys separately is a bad idea, how can
schools engage with them and reverse the trend of poor educational
achievement? Stewart says the key is to reach out to their parents
and families and make it easier for them to become involved in
their education. Parents’ evenings could be made more welcoming
through communicating with parents – who themselves may have had
difficulties at school – about the purpose of the meetings.

In addition, Green recommends all teachers undergo cultural
awareness training. Too often, black boys are shunted thoughtlessly
into non-academic subjects due to the school’s assumption that they
will underachieve in other disciplines. Also, more effort could be
made to understand parents’ cultural background too. The need for
this is underlined by the frequency with which Green’s association
is asked to mediate between schools and black parents because of
the difficulties the two sides face when communicating with each

Schools and parents need to understand and accept they are involved
in a partnership regarding the education of their children, Anwar
says, and that it will fail unless everyone is on board. “If one
side contributes while the other doesn’t, it is the black boys’
education that is impacted.”

Teaching black boys in special classes would ultimately lead to
their further exclusion; it is not the answer to improving how they
learn and the number of exams they pass. Instead, the education
system must work alongside parents, pupils and its other partners
to nurture, not alienate, all vulnerable children.

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