Education: Don't let them be misunderstood: Why are more Afro-Caribbean boys excluded from school than their white peers? Ngaio Crequer investigates a growing problem

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The Independent Online
Afro-Caribbean boys are four times more likely to be excluded from school than their white peers. According to the Commission for Racial Equality, it is the biggest single problem in inner-city schools.

Phil Barnett, principal officer (education), of the Commission says: 'In London, Manchester, Birmingham and other big cities, the issue is one of major proportions. It is a problem in boroughs or cities of all political hues. We have been overwhelmed by complaints. It is a matter of over-riding concern to black parents.'

A Mori poll of 79 local authorities, commissioned by Panorama in March last year, found 35,549 exclusions. It estimated that 66,000 children (of all races) might be excluded throughout all education authorities. According to figures from the Department for Education, Afro-Caribbean children represent 8.1 per cent of all children permanently excluded, yet they comprise only 2 per cent of the school population.

Earlier this year the department issued new guidance, which said that permanent exclusions should be used only as a last resort. It added: 'Headteachers need to take particular care to ensure that they apply disciplinary procedures objectively and consistently across all cultural groups.'

How far that advice has been heeded is difficult to judge. But in Ealing earlier this month Afro-Caribbean parents and school governors held a candlelight vigil outside the local town hall to highlight what they say is a worsening problem. They say one child was excluded from his nursery school when he was three-and-a-half. Still only six, he has now been excluded from school and a pattern of repeated exclusions, which appears common, has been set.

The problem can be explosive. Last year a 10-year-old Afro-Caribbean boy was excluded from his school in Handsworth, Birmingham, after a scuffle with a teacher. When the local education authority overturned the exclusion the teachers were so incensed that the school was closed for two days to allow tempers to cool.

But why is it happening? Phil Barnett says it is a complex question. 'I suspect teachers tend to have an untutored understanding of certain behaviours. There is a certain stereotyping, a belief that Afro-Caribbean boys are noisy.

'It is possible that because schools are now competing with others there is likely to be increased sensitivity to pupils who are seen as difficult. They might think it is easier to get rid of them than to hold on to them.'

The last formal CRE investigation into the issue was in Birmingham in 1985. Two standard explanations were given for the fact that black children were more likely to be suspended than whites: a greater representation in inner- city schools, and a greater tendency towards a one-parent family background. The Commission tested both hypotheses and found no evidence to support them. But it did find that teachers often misinterpreted black pupils' behaviour.

'One example of such misunderstanding, not of great significance in itself but frequently quoted as a source of friction, was the way some black pupils lowered their eyes when confronted by a teacher; a sign of respect in West Indian circles perceived as a sign of insolence in school,' says Mr Barnett.

Claire Villaruel, a school counsellor and chair of the African Caribbean Governors group in Ealing, which helped to organise the candlelight vigil, argues that Afro- Caribbean boys are treated less leniently than children from other backgrounds. Her group is hand ling six new cases every month from schools all over the borough.

'Boys are seen as uneducable, disruptive, as bullies. There is racial stereotyping. Teachers have low expectations of these children. There is a high degree of intolerance of black children's behaviour. A white child could say 'f. . . off', but a black child is excluded.'

A. Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations, says one exclusion leads to another. In a recent report for the institute he wrote: 'Exclusion is seldom the measure of a child's capacity to learn; it is an indication, instead, of the teachers' refusal to be challenged. And, when you have an educational system which puts a premium not on the educability of the child but on the price of its education, the challenge to the teacher is the financial cost of keeping it in school, not the human cost of keeping it out.

'When, in addition, educability is prejudged in terms of a social stereotype which associates 'black' with 'problem', the exclusion of the black child becomes that much more automatic.'

DIDN'T ANYONE CHECK KENNY'S STORY?

Kenny is 16 next month. He was one of three Afro-Caribbean boys excluded in May from a mixed comprehensive school in Southall, London, after a fight in which he and two others were allegedly seen holding weapons.

Kenny denies being involved. He says he was not even at school when the fight happened. It was lunchtime and he says he was at a shop off the school premises, where he normally goes for lunch.

Kenny's mother, Sonia Anderson, and the parents of the two other excluded boys have been shown statements by the school taken from about 40 pupils and some bystanders.

Kenny, it is alleged, 'was seen by a number of people both punching and kicking and holding a weapon described as a chisel, but probably a file from the metalwork shop'.

Exactly the same wording is used to describe the alleged offences of the two other boys. Kenny's mother says: 'I asked the school if they contacted the police, and they said no. The school took two weeks before they even told me they thought a violent incident had taken place. They said they had not checked my son's statement about where he was because they had 17 witnesses.'

Kenny has been excluded before, by a different school. He would have been allowed back, he says, if he had signed a contract that said he would treat people as others treated him. He would not sign it because, he said, it implied he had committed the original offence - an allegation of violence against another boy - which he still denies.

Meanwhile, Kenny misses school. He has no teaching at home but spends his time sketching, which he likes, and reading. He helps out with the household chores. He rarely goes out.

'School was all right. I liked art, English, and history until a teacher put me off it. I kept myself to myself. I did not bother anybody.'

His mother is now trying to find Kenny a college place, but she also wants to clear his name. 'I do not know what else to put this down to unless it is racism. Some of the parents will not stand up and fight with their children. I know my son is telling the truth. If I knew he was doing wrong, I would not stand by him, I would punish him. But that is not the case.'

A spokeswoman from Ealing local education authority said: 'Kenny was one of three children excluded from a comprehensive school in May. The decision was taken by the school governing body, and continued by the LEA's pupil panel.'

The families have appealed and, at the request of their solicitor, the appeal has been postponed until September. The school is preparing to offer set work at home, pending the outcome of the appeal.

(Photograph omitted)

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