Passport to better learning

A scheme to send black pupils to the Caribbean has been popular, but can it really raise standards?
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An innovative but controversial project to raise the achievement of black pupils is dividing the experts. Teachers and black children in Birmingham, Britain's second biggest city, are being sent on exchange trips to Jamaica to see how their West Indian peers achieve greater academic success with fewer resources.

An innovative but controversial project to raise the achievement of black pupils is dividing the experts. Teachers and black children in Birmingham, Britain's second biggest city, are being sent on exchange trips to Jamaica to see how their West Indian peers achieve greater academic success with fewer resources.

Two teachers and four pupils from Heartlands High School visited Titchfield High School in Port Antonio, Jamaica, in 2002, a year in which only 25 per cent of Birmingham's black boys gained five A to C passes in their GCSE exams.

The scheme puts children in touch with other cultures from whom they can learn, according to Tony Howell, Birmingham's director of education. And it ensures the schools understand the children's heritage. But the critics claim that it ignores the main problem, which they define as low teacher expectations or racism in schools.

Howell, however, would like to see these schemes running on a regular basis. "It's one of those events that can be a real turning point for young people," he says. "We want them to feel more positive about their own culture - if they feel better about themselves, they perform better. Unhappy children don't learn."

More trips are planned, but no dates are set yet. Brian Wardle, adviser to Birmingham's education support service, who oversaw the scheme, says it is about engaging black teenagers in learning. "It was eye-opening for them," he says. "In Jamaica, resources are poor - the children have to buy their own books - but the pupil behaviour is exemplary. It's about learning from them."

Engaging black youngsters in learning can be difficult in an inner-city school, one of the 50 most deprived in the country. The importance of keeping black teens in education was very much in the minds of those who planned the project after the gang-related Aston shootings of two black girls at a 2001 New Year's Eve party. The mother of one of the girls worked at Heartlands.

"We want to attract young people into positive lifestyles," explains Howell. "By building self-esteem, we educate young people about making wise choices, not moving into drug and gang cultures."

Heartlands's former headmaster, John McMullan, noticed the effects immediately on his return. "When I came back, I was very aware that kids of Jamaican background were pleased I could talk about Jamaica and felt much better about themselves. It gave me more street cred. And the kids had a new attitude. They had been infected by the Jamaican students."

Dinah Betteridge, now 16, noticed that the Jamaican schools were full of shabby furniture. "It made me think about the privileges we have and take for granted," she says. "I know now I have to get my head down and not let people distract me, so I'm trying to work harder and use the facilities I have. People used to distract me. I know that instead of arguing with them, which was taking up my time, I have to blank them and get on with what I'm doing."

Levice Ward, now 15, says he has worked harder since the trip. "I've got loads that other people haven't got and it's easier for me to get somewhere in life. My teachers tell me that if I don't go to university they're going to be disappointed in me."

Birmingham is now planning visits to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to encourage underachieving pupils from these communities (although Indian pupils tend to achieve better results than white pupils). By the end of the calendar year, there should be a permanent centre within a Jamaican teacher training institute for Birmingham's teachers to study Jamaican culture.

The project has been overseen by Javed Khan, former director of lifelong learning in Birmingham, who believes that it was necessary to instruct both the children and teachers in the students' grandparents' culture. He has since moved to Harrow and is setting up a similar scheme in that authority, which will send its first group to Gujerat or Bangalore in India in October.

"The concept is to help raise the self-esteem of ethnic minority children and recognise the role of culture in improving achievement," he says.

"We ask children to leave their home culture at the school gate, but when children can't relate their home life to their school life, that creates conflict."

The other issue is how to change teachers' attitudes. "You can send them on training days. But we've done the saris and samosas thing and it hasn't done a fat lot of good," says Khan. "The curriculum is still very white Eurocentric. Sending teachers to immerse themselves 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the culture is actually far more cost-effective."

The critics argue, however, that Birmingham is spending a lot of money (£10,000 for the 2002 trip) and missing the point. While Professor David Gillborn at London's Institute of Education believes that this kind of programme can have positive effects, it doesn't address the main problem in Birmingham, which is low expectations on the part of teachers rather than bad behaviour by students or low expectations on the part of students or their parents.

"It falls into the trap of imagining the reason black kids fail is something to do with black kids," he says.

But some critics say that it is something to do with black children, and anyone who denies this is falling into the political correctness trap. Dr Tony Sewell, an educationalist and director of the Learning Trust, which runs Hackney's education department, says that part of the problem is the attitude of the children themselves. "It's the old story of British/American black culture celebrating sport, music, and, yes, violence," he says.

"There is a stereotype within the black community of what masculine black men are like, and it's not a great scholar. So white teachers are often afraid of black children, and this leads to a lack of discipline." Asif Afridi, of the Birmingham Race Action Partnership, is another person who thinks that the exchange scheme is not addressing the right issue. He believes that efforts should be concentrated on institutional racism in schools which is preventing black children from achieving. "Teachers and the LEA need to understand that they are working in a system that discriminates against pupils from certain groups," he says.

Dr Sewell disagrees. It's no good accusing teachers of racism, he says. That's a waste of time. "We need to support them in reducing their own anxiety and be clear about discipline. We need to set clear boundaries where students feel safe, not be full of liberal 'oh, we'll just come and sit next to you and talk to you now and rationalise your bad behaviour.'"

A more radical solution still is put forward by Lee Jasper, race equality adviser to the Mayor of London, who thinks the answer lies in the racial profile of the teachers themselves. Black children need black teachers who understand the cultural needs of black children. That raises attainment, he says. "I don't believe these exchange schemes will be useful. It would be better to bring Jamaican teachers here."

For Professor Gillborn, the issue is less clear-cut. Black students do well when they are taught by teachers who have high expectations of them, he says. And that does not mean the teachers have to be black.

In the past, Jasper has called for all-black schools. He is not alone. Dr Sewell, however, argues that classrooms full of black pupils would be positively detrimental. "In fact, the black boys who do the best are the ones with non-black friends," he says. "The ones who do badly are in the 'mono' group."

For Professor Gillborn, the most important measure is targeting more resources on schools with high black pupil numbers. But Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, says that it's not simply a question of money.

"We could offer more support to schools with large numbers of African and Afro-Caribbean pupils," he says. "But why should we discriminate against Indian pupils who may be just as economically disadvantaged, but somehow have overcome that disadvantage, or white boys, increasingly among the lowest achievers and often among the poorest?"

Many black parents are opting out of the British school system altogether and sending their children to school in the Caribbean. They find that while they may be failing in British schools, they are doing fine in West Indian ones.

It is these Caribbean schools that Birmingham hopes will come to the rescue of its black pupils. The big question is whether it will really persuade them to do their homework and turn up on time.


Black children start school with levels of achievement as high as their white counterparts, but by the age of 16 they are doing significantly worse.

At GCSE, 51 per cent of white students gain five A to C grades - a touch higher than the national average. This compares with 33 per cent of black Caribbean children; 41 per cent of black Africans; 65 per cent of Indians; 42 per cent of Pakistanis; 46 per cent of Bangladeshis and 75 per cent of Chinese children. Black children are also three or four times as likely to be excluded from school as their white counterparts.