Breaking through the race barrier

Peter Victor, a survivor of classroom abuse and racial stereotyping, finds out how black children can be helped to realise their potential
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The other day I noticed a purposeful young black man, his T-shirt proudly bearing the legend: "Danger - Educated Black Man!" The irony behind the boast was not lost on me: not only are black men with education to be approached with caution, but they are also rare enough to warrant a special T-shirt.

Conventional education is not working for many young black people. Black teenagers do poorly in exams compared with their white classmates. This summer,the Office for Standards in Education will publish a report expected to emphasise how badly Afro-Caribbean pupils are doing. Black boys make up a disproportionate number - around four times as many as whites - of those excluded from school. The Commission for Racial Equality suggests that this may be because teachers believe they are disruptive and unacademic. Herman Ouseley, the commission's chair, suggests that teachers are frightened by the sheer size of black boys and find their presence threatening.

As the second-smallest boy in my secondary school year, I was in no position to threaten anyone: once, an irritable teacher at least twice my size manhandled me across a desktop and dragged me out of a class for saying "Hello, Sir" as he entered the room. When I protested about this to my mother, she explained that white teachers could do whatever they liked to black pupils. The incident brought home how much more hostile the world becomes when black children become teenagers.

I had passed the 11-plus and was considered one of the brightest of my year leaving primary school. My secondary school headmaster singled me out early as a pupil with promise. But when I told the school careers adviser that after my A-levels I would like to pursue my childhood ambitions of the law or journalism, she sighed and suggested that I might like to consider a career in clerical work in a bank. She had in mind a particular bank which had a long-standing arrangement to take and train the schools' "rejects".

Perhaps I was too arrogant then to let negative attitudes worry me much. In the end I found my first job, in an insurance company post room, and worked my way up from there.

Being for several years one of only two black pupils in an East End school, I soon became too thick-skinned to respond to abuse from classmates and snide racist "jokes" from teachers. But I don't doubt that daily abuse from classmates and indifference from teachers, added to pressure to succeed from parents, leaves many black children frustrated and disillusioned.

In the Sixties, the educational researcher David Beetham studied "the difficulties affecting the educational attainment of West Indian immigrants". He wrote: "When it comes to work which requires sustained effort, the West Indian seems to lack concentration and staying power ... By nature the West Indian is emotional and exuberant, and this leads to behaviour problems in school." Twenty years later, in 1987, Afro-Caribbean 16-year- olds sitting the final year of CSE and O-level examinations averaged below almost every other ethnic group.

Detailed racial monitoring of recent GCSE exam results in Birmingham revealed that only 8.6 per cent of Afro-Caribbean boys passed maths with A to C grades, compared with 32.2 per cent of white boys and 34.2 per cent of Indians. Black boys fared little better in science, at 12.4 per cent, compared with whites, 36.9 per cent, and Indians, 44.1 per cent. The Department for Education and Employment has no national picture of the extent of the problem.

During the recent furore over Harriet Harman's choice of a selective school for her son, the black MP Bernie Grant said that his sons' state education had "ruined their lives". Black parents and teachers are increasingly unwilling to see their children suffer the same fate. Having decided that the Government and the current education system offers scant help, they are taking over their children's education.

Three strategies are emerging: one centres on supplementary schools, giving black children extra lessons at the weekend, often with volunteer teachers emphasising hard work and traditional teaching methods; another aims to provide a safety net for children who are falling out of the mainstream school system; a third is an attempt to promote excellence, providing bursaries, support networks and work experience for bright but underprivileged black students.

It would be nice to think that in the not too distant future, there may be no need for a black man or woman to have to boast about the level of his or her education on a T-shirt. It should be the norm.

Self-esteem is the key to reducing exclusions

In a classroom at Handsworth Wood Boys school in Birmingham, Guy Woolery, co-ordinator of Kwesi - Ghanaian for "Sunday" - is battling to reduce the numbers excluded from school. Birmingham, like most of Britain, sees a disproportionate number of young blacks excluded: 8 to 9 per cent of the population accounts for more than 40 per cent of exclusions.

Two years ago, while volunteering as a Saturday school teacher, Mr Woolery decided to do something about this.

"I noticed a big difference between the four- to five-year-old black children, who were bright and enthusiastic, and the 10- to 11-year-olds," he says. "By the time they reached that age there was a stark difference in their discipline, motivation and self-esteem. They don't feel valued in society."

Mr Woolery, a former graphic designer, believes that self-esteem is the key. Kwesi is called in by schools and parents when black pupils appear to be in danger of falling out of the system.

Mr Woolery and his fellow volunteers try to "turn them back on" to themselves over 12 weekly one-day sessions at Handsworth Wood while they continue with normal classes at their schools for the rest of the week. Extra lessons, mentoring and home visits are combined to support troubled, and troublesome, pupils.

There is no formal teaching plan - the emphasis is on encouraging the pupils to feel that they are of value. Mentors provide a solid, reliable role-model for boys who are often confused about the world and their place in it. Black heroes - kings, intellectuals, engineers and artists, rather than sports personalities - line the walls of the Kwesi headquarters.

In one exercise, the boys are invited to reach up for a doorkey, representing the key to their ambitions and hopes. "We start out with the key just above their heads. As they reach for it we move it higher. In the end, they have to take it from me. We tell them they have to fight as hard in education, because that is the key."

It's not so far from Handsworth to Harvard

Just two miles away from Kwesi's classroom in suburban Handsworth, Yvonne Mosquito, co-ordinator of Acafes Community Trust, is collating the latest set of performance measures and targets for the organisation, which takes bright but underprivileged black students in further education and gives them a chance to shine.

Up to February, the project has taken on 54 new students against a target of 50; has 600 clients active within the programme; saw 468 students completing course years against a target of 200; while 38 moved into employment within six months of graduating, against a target of 30.

"We provide a complete package, with counselling and guidance for bright Afro-Caribbean students," Ms Mosquito said. "If they want work placements, we can arrange them. We get bursaries through local employers, such as HP Sauce, Cadbury and Rover. We help them financially, up to master's level, then help them to find jobs." Grants have ranged from pounds 75 to pounds 1,333 a year. One MA student was sponsored to the tune of pounds 16,000 over a period of years.

Ms Mosquito is heartened by the organisation's success: "I feel happy seeing the students coming through - Gary, one of our students we supported from the age of 15, went up to Oxford to do law. Now he is at Harvard."

They struggle in school but shine on Saturday

Each Saturday for the past eight years, Simba Mwanza and his fellow teachers at the Lemuel Findlay supplementary school in London have been giving two and a half hours of extra tuition to black pupils.

Mr Mwanza, a teacher at a London primary school, believes the school, based at the College of North East London in Haringey, is vital for young black pupils. Compared with their counterparts in the Caribbean, he says, they are way behind. He has taught black children in the UK and in his native Guyana: he feels that the British education system leads to children being taught in a patchy fashion - even those with the best opportunities.

"When I started teaching in England in October 1989, I was really surprised, almost appalled, at the level of achievement of kids here. I would ask what would be fundamental questions in Guyana, and the children here could not answer them. For instance, you could ask them what the meat from a pig is called. They might know of pork but they can't relate the answer to the question.

"Black children, even the young ones who are above average here, could not compare with five- and six-year-olds in the Caribbean. Children who cannot understand why they are not well regarded get turned off. Very often white teachers, without even realising it, use language that is stereotyping. The atmosphere in the Saturday school for the two and a half hours - the commitment of the teachers, the positive enthusiasm of the pupils - is a very warm thing to behold."

It works. One pupil from Lemuel Findlay was coached recently to pass the entrance examination for Latymer independent school in west London. Another passed A-level maths after studying for it with Lemuel Findlay teachers. His state school had said he was not good enough to take it.