Black boys do better

Hackney was a byword for educational failure, but a drive to raise standards is beginning to bear fruit - particularly for Afro-Caribbean boys
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The Independent Online

The London Borough of Hackney does not normally conjure up visions of educational success. Although this part of east London contains some lovely Victorian houses, it is better known for its grim council blocks and the "murder mile" which has seen a series of gangland shootings. Middle class enclaves sit alongside areas of acute poverty - Hackney is the second most deprived area in the country.

The London Borough of Hackney does not normally conjure up visions of educational success. Although this part of east London contains some lovely Victorian houses, it is better known for its grim council blocks and the "murder mile" which has seen a series of gangland shootings. Middle class enclaves sit alongside areas of acute poverty - Hackney is the second most deprived area in the country.

So it is no surprise to learn that its comprehensives have been considered among the worst in Britain and that its council was the first in the country to be stripped of its powers to run education because of its poor performance. Most recently, Diane Abbott, the Left-wing Labour MP, caused a furore when she rejected comprehensives in her Hackney constituency, opting instead to send her son to the £10,000-a-year City of London boys' school. She blamed the poor performance of black boys in local schools.

Only nine per cent of black boys in Hackney got five good GCSE passes in 2003, a situation that Ms Abbott described as "catastrophic". However, this may already be beginning to change.

New figures, obtained exclusively by The Independent, reveal that schools in Hackney have more than tripled the GCSE results of black schoolboys as a result of a drive to tackle underachievement. After 2003's dismal showing, a number of initiatives were introduced, and by last summer results had leapt to 28 per cent, according to the figures.

This is a massive improvement, although still below the national average of 53.7 per cent, for a borough that was until recently considered one of the worst education authorities in the country. This year's results were the best in the borough's history. Provisional results show that 45.3 per cent of Hackney pupils achieved five or more A* - C grades in their GCSE exams. The borough is no longer in the bottom 20 in the country. It improved by more than six percentage points on 2003's record figure of 39.2 per cent. It continues the upward trend which began after 2002 when only 31.1 per cent of pupils in Hackney achieved five or more A*- C grades at GCSE.

Mark Emmerson, head of Stoke Newington School, has seen results improve from 2003 when not one black boy achieved five good GCSE passes. In 2004 one in three achieved this standard.

The school has done this by introducing an intensive programme of mentoring, target setting and monitoring for black students as well as extra classes in study skills. Some of these initiatives were funded by £20,000 from the Government's Aiming High programme which is targeting 30 schools where the underachievement of black pupils is a major problem. Some of the changes have resulted in a re-write of the curriculum: black poets and historical figures are now given greater prominence. But other initiatives simply involve a back-to-basics focus on discipline and extra lessons for black students at risk of underachieving.

"Most of the Afro-Caribbean boys who underachieve are very clever but a lot of personal situations make it attractive for them to subscribe to an anti learning culture," says Mr Emmerson. "A lot of it is to do with the prevailing culture. In Hackney there is a history of underachievement of Afro-Caribbean kids so there is a lot of potential distrust out there."

The school has also reviewed its curriculum and provided staff training to maximise the achievement of black students, who make up 25 per cent of the school population. It has also applied techniques known to succeed with all students - such as regular progress checks with a senior member of staff - and applied them intensively to black students in danger of underachieving. Many of these programmes are also open to other students but the primary focus is on black pupils.

"The idea is to create a more inclusive environment where Afro-Caribbean pupils see more of their own identity and culture in classes," says Gary Lyle, assistant headteacher. "For example in English we have made sure we include black poets and in history we have black history month. It's important not to shove it in the kids' faces or for it to just be tokenistic. It's for all the kids not just the black kids and has had a very positive impact on the group as a whole."

The school had already begun its own focus on black underachievement but says that the support from the Government's Aiming High programme has been invaluable. The £1.7m project was launched in November 2003 and involves 30 secondary schools in 20 local education authorities. Nineteen of the schools are in London, but Stoke Newington is the only Hackney school taking part.

Project schools account for around 7 per cent of the Afro-Caribbean school population. About 70 per cent of all black Caribbean pupils in the country go to school in London. The project was launched after concerns that in 2002, only 30 per cent of all black pupils got five or more good GCSEs compared to a national average of 51 per cent, and that black pupils were around three times more likely to be excluded from school than whites.

Meanwhile, The Learning Trust, the not-for-profit private company which now runs Hackney's education service, has produced impressive results with a wider initiative to transforms black boys' attitudes to learning in all the borough's schools.

The first step was to ask schools to conduct an audit of pupils' achievements at age 16 and compare their actual scores with the grades they were predicted five years earlier based on their ability when they started secondary school. The schools were shocked to find how far behind many black boys had fallen. Many were in danger of leaving without qualifications because they were so far behind with their coursework.

Mike Vance, head of Hackney's ethnic minority achievement service, said that the project's success hinged around getting black teenagers to think carefully about the kind of affluent future they wanted and persuade them to realise that many of their dreams depended on getting good basic qualifications. "We got the boys to talk about what they wanted to be doing when they were 26: where would they live? What kind of clothes would they wear? What kind of car would they drive and what job would they do?" Mr Vance says. "Then we worked backwards and talked about the kind of qualifications that successful a 26-year-old would have needed at 21. We talked about where you needed to be aged 18 to become that 21-year-old. Then we worked backwards and discussed what you needed at16 to have a chance of becoming the 18-year-old you wanted to be."

Black boys are under tremendous social pressure to conform to an anti-learning culture, argues Mr Vance. "Being good at academic work does not have a cool image among boys of Caribbean heritage. The things that are seen as high status are the things that are going to get them into trouble. We are not trying to change the learning culture in schools. We are trying to transform the attitude of boys of Caribbean heritage to that learning culture."

So things may at long last be heading in the right direction in Hackney. But there's a long way to go. Maybe one day even parents like Ms Abbott may be won over by the borough's schools.

s.cassidy@indepependent.co.uk

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