Whatever the cause, something is going on. While most ethnic groups are doing better than before in exams, Afro-Caribbean boys are slipping further behind.
Yesterday's Ofsted report on the achievements of ethnic-minority pupils described in painstaking detail a problem which has become almost impossible to ignore.
Teachers, it said, were creating and amplifying conflicts with black pupils. Far from seeing them as energetic and enthusiastic, they interpreted their behaviour as threatening and aggressive. They expected them to achieve little at school. Asian pupils, meanwhile, were seen as quiet and compliant. Not surprisingly, both groups of pupils tended to live up to their stereotypes.
The researchers did add that social class and gender both played an important part in the failure of those young people, but in seeking both causes and solutions to the problem, they turned to the school system.
They were not alone. The fatalism which used to surround the issue of race is being challenged from every quarter. The old belief that black teenagers were so weighed down by poverty, prejudice and hopelessness that they were bound to fail has been rejected. In addition, the belief that poor exam results can be caused by genetic programming has been largely discredited. Researchers are looking for the things that can be changed, rather than holding up their hands in despair.
Bernie Grant, Labour MP for Tottenham, believes there is much that can be done and he is blunt in his analysis of why black teenagers are falling by the wayside. "I think the schools are failing them and they can't cope with them," he said. "Other people suffer from social factors such as bad housing."
Mr Grant cited the case of a girl he met recently in a north London school. Until a year ago she had lived in Barbados, where she was considered a below-average pupil. Here, she was above average for black pupils, because the teachers' expectations were so low.
She and the other black teenagers at the school were in danger of having their actions misinterpreted. "I think they tend to talk back more, probably because of the feeling that they are discriminated against," Mr Grant said.
But while schools find themselves in the spotlight as the search for more information on discrimination and racial harassment continues, they cannot work in a vacuum.
Carlton Duncan, the black head of George Dixon school in Handsworth, Birmingham, believes that the presence or absence of a strong, supportive family is crucial.
"African-Caribbeans who have come into this country have never been able to set up the extended family arrangements which lend additional support," he said. "If you take the Asians, they have managed to bring over their aunts, uncles and grandparents."
But he, too, believes that school has a crucial part to play in stopping up the gaps. His own school has set up a "mentoring" scheme for teenagers who are likely to go off the rails, using local volunteers. As a result, the number of temporary exclusions has fallen from 40 a year three years ago to 11 last year.
Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, suggested that perhaps it was not black boys, but rather working-class boys, who were a problem. Another recent Ofsted report highlighted a similar pattern of underachievement among white youngsters from similar social backgrounds.
He pointed out that there was nothing in the latest research that could not have been said a year ago, or even 10 years ago. The real tragedy, he added, was that the situation had been allowed to drift for so long. "We are now reaping the downside of that. The children who were failed now have children of their own who are being failed all over again," he said.
Mr Ouseley believes that for many of those pupils, life on the streets is more exciting than school. It was important to find positive role- models - adults who had made a success of a law-abiding lifestyle - to compete with the lure of the street gangs and the drug dealers.
But, he added, the idea that such youngsters had so little chance in life that they could not be blamed for turning to crime did not hold water. If they doubted it, they should ask their friends on their streets about life in prison, he said.
Some people believe that the family plays a major part in shaping young blacks' lives. Many are from one-parent families. Many have parents who also stayed away from school and later from parents' evenings because of their own bad experiences in the classroom.
In the United States, however, black boys are catching up. The number of American blacks between the ages of 25 and 29 who have completed high school rose to nearly 87 per cent last year, reaching about the same level as their white peers for the first time, the Census Bureau said.
Why do black boys do so badly at school? The theories:
They tend to be lively and unafraid to answer back - traits misinterpreted as threatening, leading to exclusion.
Teachers stereotype black boys: because they are not expected to be academic, they do not strive to do well.
Parents subjected to racism at school are passing on their own negative attitudes, creating a cycle of resentment.
Many live in one-parent homes and lack extended families, often left in their families' countries of origin.
Young, disaffected blacks can easily drift into street culture, crime and drug gangs.
Black pupils' negative attitudes are the understandable result of seeing unemployment and racism at close quarters.
`My Muslim religion has given me discipline'
Camran Hussain, 16, who is studying for his A-levels, said he believed that there was "quite a big difference" in the way different communities responded to education. Camran, from Wembley, north London, whose family originally come from Pakistan, said: "Many Asians are very disciplined in their approach to education, unlike some other people who seem undisciplined. I think it's something that comes from the families and from the tradition. I am a Muslim and as a Muslim I believe it is important to do well in education and the religion is giving me discipline."
The student, who gained six A grades in his GCSEs this summer and is hoping to study maths, chemistry and physics at A-level said parental concern was an important factor but not the only one.
"My parents don't push me but they do ask me if I'm doing all right. But I don't want to do badly, because for me education is the most important thing. It will help me in the future. My aim is to get a good job with good money so I can support my family."
Camran hopes to study astronomy at university, possibly at Oxford or Cambridge.
`At our school, everyone is treated equally'
GCSE student Ewa Stefanska, 15, is aiming to take seven exams next summer at the Hampstead school.
She firmly rejected suggestions that the level of education depended on your community.
She said: "I have got black and Asians friends at school and I don't think it makes any difference who they are.
"It just depends on the individual and on the individual family.
"If you want to work hard then you will do well at school, but if you mess around then you will not.
"I think this applies to all the communities and at our school everyone is treated equally."
`I went out raving all the time, even on Sundays'
Marcus Murray is 16 and a pupil at the Hampstead school in north- west London where he is retaking his GCSEs to get better grades. He accepts that there are different "cultural" pressures which affect the way that Asians, fellow Afro-Caribbeans and other ethnic minorities do at school.
Marcus, from Victoria, central London, said: "You tend to find that the Asians do not have so much of a social life when they are working for exams."
He admitted that he and other Afro-Caribbeans had had hectic social lives and this may have affected their work. "I used to go out raving all the time. I would even go out on a Sunday and on Monday at school I would be tired and upset. So I decided not to go out so much and I think it has helped my work. "
He thought that while Afro-Caribbean families encouraged education, the pressure was greater in Asian families. "We are encouraged but the Asian pupils are pushed very hard. They really have to get it right."
However, he said he was "unhappy" at the stereotyping of Afro-Caribbeans being less good at school than other groups. "I think it depends on the individual and whether they want to work hard."Reuse content