Dr Mike Phillips is an educated man. He may be less well known than his brother Trevor, the journalist and politician, but he is arguably more distinguished. He is a novelist, academic, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. So he was taken aback when his son's school advised him to get a few books in the house.
Dr Phillips is black. "The first thing that pissed me off was that my son was estimated to get Cs and Ds in his exams, and they seemed to think that I'd be quite pleased by that," he recalls. "Then the last teacher I spoke to said, 'I can't stress to you too much the importance of having books.' I was a university lecturer and published author at the time."
The incident was characteristic. His eldest son now has three degrees, but his education was a battle against grindingly low expectations. Year by year his confidence waned. That is why Dr Phillips's youngest son, Ivan, seven, does not go to school at all and is educated at home in London. "That was a few years ago, but there's no evidence for me that the prospects have changed definitively," he says. "Kids go into the school system normal, but they don't come out the other side. It's a black hole for Afro-Caribbean boys."
Diane Abbott prefers "silent catastrophe" to describe the lot of black pupils who end up bottom of the heap. This Saturday she is staging a major conference on the issue, as part of her personal campaign to draw attention to a problem now so familiar it is part of the educational background. She points out that five-year-old black pupils enter school as happy, as enthusiastic and as academically able as their white counterparts. Yet by 16, black pupils are scoring lower than any other group, the boys in particular. Muslims from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds also do badly, but they still do better than their white neighbours in Tower Hamlets and Bradford. The year-on-year decline shown by black boys is unique.
Astonishingly, the Department for Education and Skills is still unable to produce detailed figures showing how the different ethnic groupings perform. But statistics collected by London boroughs show that only 13 per cent of black boys achieve five GCSE grades at the barest "pass" level in comparison with a city-wide average of 48 per cent.
Their position has continued to decline, despite the fact that results improved throughout the 1990s. Research for Ofsted, the schools inspection agency, shows that black pupils fell away still further over the decade. Yesterday Professor David Gillborn, one of the authors of the Ofsted study and an authority on classroom equality, warned ministers that attempts to divide up pupils according to academic and vocational ability would discriminate against black and Asian pupils. Teachers, he believes, are unlikely to see their true potential.
Equally worrying is the fate of those who never get to sit exams. The high exclusion rate means that black boys are thrown out of school at least three times more than the average and up to six times more regularly, depending on which researchers you read.
The late Bernie Grant was so angered by his three sons' experience of the British school system that the left-wing MP famously intervened to defend Harriet Harman's choice of a selective school for her own boy. Grant was in no position to send his boys elsewhere, but black parents who have the means mostly do just that. Diane Abbott says her friends educate their children privately or even send them abroad. Dr Phillips teaches his child at home. His brother Trevor, now a Labour member of the Greater London Assembly, decided to risk his political neck and send his two girls to a highly regarded private school, North London Collegiate, because he was determined to spare them his own dismal experience.
"Most of the people I know who have children at school are my sort of age. Their experience of school is pretty much the same as mine," he says. "You're not much taken account of. The parents are not respected by the school and families have to make a huge effort, as mine did. I have no doubt I would not be the man I am, had I stayed at school in London. I would probably have gone through several periods in prison."
He says that his sprinting prowess was valued more highly than his academic prospects, so his parents sent him to school in the Caribbean. He eventually studied chemistry at Imperial College (having turned down a sporting scholarship at MIT in Boston).
It is unusual for Phillips, a trusted lieutenant in Blair's New Labour army, to share a platform with Abbott, a prominent member of the Old Labour awkward squad. But they will be together on Saturday, agreed that, however tangled and multi-layered it may be as an issue, the disastrous performance of black children needs addressing now. In particular, they want to see the exclusion rate cut, to stop black pupils drifting off into a self-sustaining cycle of antisocial behaviour, crime and poverty.
But they have another, more surprising message: black parents, they say, have to get their act together. "They have to understand their responsibilities," says Abbott. "A lot of parents, for whatever reason, feel inhibited. My argument is that black parents need to engage with schools now. They need to ask questions, get involved , go to meetings and apply to be governors. There's a real shortage of black governors."
Trevor Phillips is in complete agreement. "Obviously, schools have to do a lot better. We have got to make sure that the worst excesses of the system, the exclusions for example, are stopped. But you cannot continue saying that it's everyone else's fault, because we haven't got the time for that.
"That means that parents have got to wake up and stop believing everything teachers tell them. And they also have to say much more clearly to their children that, whatever the problems, they have got to read and write. I think a bit too much effort has gone into making people feel comfortable. I'd rather never see another steel pan if it meant the children could read and write."
London Schools and The Black Child is on 16 March at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London SW1. Registration is at 9am. Tickets for the event have now all been taken, but the organisers can be contacted on 020-7983 4010Reuse content