Education: Saturday is the secret of their success: Stereotyped as under-achievers, black children are proving their worth at weekend schools, reports Brenda Houghton

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The Independent Online
On Saturday mornings, 11-year- old Chanel Bannister joins 80 other Afro-Caribbean children at a school in north-west London to study maths and English. All around the country thousands of black children are doing the same. At a score of sites around London, and in other cities with a sizeable black population such as Leeds and Birmingham, parents and teachers have come together to set up supplementary schools to combat the under-achievement of their children in state schools.

There is nothing organised or centralised about these supplementary schools. The usual pattern is that a group of parents become upset about their children's poor results, a black teacher volunteers help and a school grows by word of mouth, and sometimes by advertising in local black newspapers, into a fully- fledged operation.

Alexander Boadi set up the North West Saturday School seven years ago with three children in a local sports centre. Now up to 100 children from 5 to 16 meet in classes of up to a dozen in a Neasden primary school. The local council, Brent, helps to pay the rent and supplies some of the books; charities and parents pay for the rest.

'We teach basic maths, English, spelling and reading,' explains Mr Boadi. 'Some get places on the Government's Assisted Places Scheme and we teach GCSE English, maths, science and technology. Within the last three or four years we've been getting A to C grades at GCSE, and we have a 12-year-old boy who is taking GCSE maths this summer. It proves that it is discipline and hard work that gets results.'

The self-discipline of his pupils is clear when he pushes open a classroom door at random and reveals a group of teenagers sitting in absolute silence taking a maths test, unsupervised.

Chanel Bannister says: 'I've progressed a lot since I've come here. When they ask at school, 'Who knows this?' now I can say 'Oh, I know that' because I did it in Saturday school.'

But what is wrong with the state system that makes such supplementary teaching necessary? Mr Boadi lists lack of discipline in mainstream schools, peer group pressure on the children not to be swots, lack of motivation, large classes, low expectations.

'The parents have to contribute, you cannot leave it all to the teachers,' he argues. 'Here, because parents contribute fees, the children feel they value the school. And the kids know if they don't work, we're going to tell their parents.'

Kwame Adjei has three children coming each Saturday 'because I want the best for them', he says. 'Ordinary school classes have so many children, sometimes it's difficult to keep up with all of them. And some children are shy, they can't speak out in school even if they don't understand. When you have a lot less children, you have a chance to say and have these things explained and maybe the second time, you will understand.'

The slur that black parents don't care about their children's education is contradicted by the fact that thousands of parents such as Mr Adjei pay every week for supplementary classes. The North West school charges pounds 5 a morning for primary children, pounds 6 for secondary. At the Claudia Jones Saturday school in Stoke Newington, north London, which has been running for 12 years, parents are asked to contribute pounds 17 a month.

'We all started doing it free - the classes were in somebody's front room,' explains Hazel Ellis, the co-ordinator. 'But you have to have teachers who are in the system, and you can only do so much voluntarily. People have commitments.'

Which brings us back to why black children, in particular, are failing to do their best in mainstream schools.

Maureen Vincent, an Afro-Irish mature graduate who is trying to set up a community school in north London, believes part of the problem lies with the parents. 'A lot of the black parents are so young themselves, they cannot guide their children. They see dressing nicely and having money in your pocket as what is important, not education itself. And they despise the teachers for being badly dressed.'

But she says that 'there is a lot of racism in schools. When I was at school, they were always steering me towards working in Woolworth's. Black children are expected to fail, so they lose confidence.'

Jeffrey Bannister, now in his second year studying sociology at the London School of Economics, agrees. He went to the North West Saturday School as a mature student to boost his maths and now teaches there himself.

'What's wrong with the British education system is lack of expectation among the teachers. For instance, I know of one black child who did exceptionally well in one particular piece of work who was asked 'Who did you copy it from?' rather than 'Well done, let's do this again next time round.' The teacher did not believe a black child could achieve that.'

Jeffrey says out-and-out racism such as this is uncommon, but many teachers who believe themselves to be well-intentioned are unconsciously racist. 'They think they should be kind to the black kids, but they mustn't ask too much of them because they're not very bright. And if you don't ask anything of children, you won't get anything from them.

'We need more black teachers and headteachers. Children need a role model. But a lot could be done by simply insisting that the black child in the maths class works as hard and does as well as the white child, with no excuse.'

In school this Saturday, Michele McDowell has high expectations of the six small children sitting with her around a table practising their letters. 'Parents don't wait to see how well their children do at school before sending them here,' Ms McDowell observes. 'They think, 'We can drop the children here, do the shopping and it will benefit them.' The important thing is confidence-building,' she adds. 'Making them believe they can do the work really does help.'

(Photograph omitted)