Boateng tells pupils: `You're lucky - we did homework by light of street lamps'

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The Independent Online
THE BLACK youngsters were aghast. They had prepared a barrage of questions for the Home Office minister, Paul Boateng, about their lack of opportunity in a deprived inner-city school and he turned round and told them they were lucky.

The minister had it much worse when he was a lad.

"I went to a school in Africa where the school had fewer teachers than this school," he said. "The classes were bigger ... and some [pupils] did their homework under the street lamp at night because their parents did not have enough money, not just for electricity but for oil for the lamps."

Speaking at a Home Office-backed project aimed at raising the aspirations of black youths, Mr Boateng, who was raised in Ghana, told the schoolboys that his African classmates had achieved better results than any school in London.

He said: "If you recognise that education is important to you, you will get the most out of school. You make out of life what you put into it. If you look around for excuses you have only got yourselves to blame when you don't go where you want to go."

It was a calculated move by Britain's highest-ranking black politician to ensure that the project - in which the minister chose to become personally involved in the progress of about 20 black teenagers - took on a positive tone.

The boys from Willesden High School, in a north-west London neighbourhood where there have been nine black-on-black gun murders this year, responded in kind.

Delroy, who wants to be a dancer, said: "I would say I have got a good attitude. I know what I want to do and where I want to go."

Some of the group had ambitions to become engineers. Another wanted to be a teacher. None aspired to Mr Boateng's own legal profession and his question about possible police careers left the group temporarily dumbfounded.

Abdi, 15, explained that he was stopped and searched only last weekend on his way to play football.

Mr Boateng, who during the session became less the politician and more the concerned father-of-five, agreed that the police officer's "lack of respect" in handling the search had been unacceptable.

The boys became increasingly at ease with the minister who had taken off his pin-striped jacket, revealed his allegiance to Arsenal and toyed with his mobile phone.

By the end of the session - which was filmed for publication on the Internet as part of a national schools resource for helping black boys in danger of exclusion - both the minister and the youths had learnt some lessons.

Mr Boateng warned the boys that violence against women was always unacceptable and that it was "not manly" to be a father at 16.

He told a boy who had been called a "bastard" by a white man that "there will always be ignorant people". He said: "That's progress! Ten years ago he would have called you a black bastard or worse."

In turn, the minister listened intently to the youngsters' requests for security cameras at the school gates to deter drug dealers and sex education that concentrated on health matters rather than the basics of reproduction "which everybody knows".

Promising to meet the boys again one year on, Mr Boateng told them that their standards of appearance and self- expression compared well with any school he had visited. "You have got nothing to be ashamed of," he said.