Education: Closer inspection could narrow the ethnic gap

Statistics on the performance of black boys are distinctly lacking. But the evidence is that they do worse than other groups, particularly in technical subjects as well as maths and science. Shouldn't we have stricter ethnic monitoring? asks Michael Brooks.

Black British males can't do science and maths - or so their GCSE results imply. As they pass through the education system, African-Caribbean boys slide from the top to the bottom of the achievement scales.

Their performance is worst in the technical subjects: in these GCSEs Caribbean boys are managing only one third of the average male score. This poor performance has been hidden for years by a dearth of detailed figures. Local education authorities are under no obligation to carry out detailed ethnic minority monitoring - the Department for Education and Employment requests that headteachers provide only a cursory glance at the numbers of such students in their schools. Achievement monitoring is carried out by LEAs on a purely voluntary basis.

Where detailed statistics have been collected, however, they have exposed the difficulties faced by African-Caribbean boys. Last year Birmingham revealed that only 8.6 per cent achieved the top three grades in the 1995 maths GCSE, and 12.4 per cent in science. Indian boys fared much better: 34.2 per cent in maths and 44.1 per cent in science. White boys came in the middle: 32.2 per cent achieved A-C in maths and 36.9 per cent in science.

In Leeds, a similar story has emerged. Although the figures did not separate girls from boys, the 1994 GCSE results showed that African-Caribbean children were trailing other ethnic groups by an average of 25 per cent in maths and science. In English they are around 13 per cent behind.

Having highlighted the issue, Birmingham encouraged individual schools to monitor their own ethnic minority pupils. "We asked the schools to look at individual pupil achievement at subject level, and to set individual targets," says John Hill, the city's chief research and statistics officer. "There were some improvements in the 1996 results but, for African-Caribbean boys, the gap is still evident."

It is now becoming apparent that different groups gain very different benefits from the education system. According to Birmingham figures, African- Caribbean children score 20 per cent above the LEA average at entry level, but at GCSE, they are 21 per cent below average. Bangladeshi children climb from 45 per cent to 17 per cent below average. Indian children move from 5 per cent below average to 14 per cent above average. Only white children join African-Caribbeans in losing ground - they fall from 10 per cent to 6 per cent above average.

"Solving these inequalities is going to take real commitment," says David Gillborn, lecturer at London University's Institute of Education. Last year Mr Gillborn wrote a report, published by the Office for Standards in Education, calling for a far more thorough approach to ethnic monitoring.

Ofsted inspections are meant to monitor the school's ethnic minority policies but, according to Mr Gillborn, this isn't happening. "The indication to date is that, although there are references to these issues in the inspection guidelines, many inspection teams don't feel confident with race issues, and they tend not to be followed up," he says.

Race issues in schools tend to concern stereotyping rather than overt racism. Although there is no deliberate prejudice, it is still a destructive force, according to Liz Rasekoala, spokeswoman for the African- Caribbean Network for Science and Technology. "When you start to look at the schools you see the powerful role of racial stereotyping," she says. "Black children learn very early on that they are not taken seriously in academic terms. Education builds on aspiration and achievement, and black children have neither."

The network supports teachers and African-Caribbean students, helping them to raise their expectations. Stereotyping happens to every ethnic group, says Liz Rasekoala, but other groups can actually benefit academically. "Asian students are typically stereotyped as academic achievers and not creative or sports-minded." As a result they get pushed into the library rather than the school football team.

Once the subject is raised, teachers realise the damage done by subconscious stereotyping. One penitent science teacher from Manchester publicly confessed at an in-servicing training day run by the network: "I suddenly see what I've been doing. When Asian students come up to me and ask for help in getting the grades to study medicine I take them seriously, go to the library and spend time with them. When black kids have come up to me and said the same, I've actually laughed at them."

Rodney Barrett has just graduated from South Bank University with a degree in energy engineering. He is black, and at school was occasionally told he was never going to be any good academically, but that he would make a great sportsman. "It was really through ignorance rather than wanton racism," he remembers. He considers himself quite fortunate: there were several black teachers at his Walthamstow school, one of whom taught physics. "If you had asked me as a 14-year-old, I wouldn't have known it but, looking back, it did make a difference."

The lack of classroom teachers from their own ethnic groups is a problem for all non-white students. In Birmingham, where nearly 40 per cent of the school-age population belong to ethnic minorities, only 5 per cent of the teachers come from these groups. Many minority teachers leave the negative attitudes of the classroom (and staffroom) to work on education policy, hoping to effect change through raising issues at county level. Northamptonshire, for example, employs seven black teachers. Of these, just two are mainstream teachers - the rest work in the multicultural education service. "That's to do with what it's like to be a black teacher in an all-white school with white management," says Roger Tweed, multicultural services manager for the county.

Without relevant role models, only strict and detailed monitoring will enable black students to realise their potential, Liz Rasekoala believes. To start the ball rolling the Department should impose stricter regulations on schools and make them carry out detailed monitoring, she says.

David Gillborn has worked with schools that have monitored themselves without help from the Department or even the LEA; given the will to do it, he says, ethnic monitoring can be painless and effective. "It has to be made a priority," he insists. "The last 18 years have moved race systematically off the education agenda. It doesn't need the Department or the LEA to do anything: a school can actually gather all the necessary information quite quickly, and it can sound warning bells at an early stage."

Warning bells should already be ringing. University admissions statistics for 1992 revealed that only 3 per cent of African-Caribbean university entrants were studying "numerate" courses - maths, science, engineering or teaching. The knock-on effect of poor GCSE maths performance is a low take-up of A-level places among black students. Those that do make it to university are opting for arts and humanities subjects. Few black teachers and even fewer black scientists, mathematicians and engineers are likely to emerge as role models in the next decade. The future, for science at least, looks white.

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