School's out for children who feel alienated

Outsiders: Commission for Racial Equality says Afro-Caribbeans are four times more likely to be excluded from the classroom
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Yesterday, Brixton in south London looked at its best. The sun shone, murals glistened on the walls, children played on the swings and even a traffic warden smiled as he pounded his beat.

Days like this are to be cherished, for many young black people feel Brixton's image casts a cloud over them - a bleak picture of schools running out of control and friends being drawn into a life of crime.

According to the Commission for Racial Equality, Brixton could be seen as a microcosm. It warned yesterday that Britain was alienating its black youth, driving them towards crime and anti-social behaviour.

Presenting the CRE's 1995 annual report the chairman, Herman Ouseley, said that school exclusions in particular "were forcing children onto the streets into conflict with the police and engaging with the forces of law and order. It is at that point that young people start looking for alternative lifestyles and to engage in more anti-social behaviour".

The report gave an otherwise more optimistic picture, with racial discrimination complaints falling from 1,937 in 1994 to 1,682 last year and the contribution made to society by those from ethnic minorities gradually being recognised by an increase in these employed in fields such as the medical professions and higher education and running public services.

But figures show that Afro-Caribbean children are four or five times more likely to be thrown out of school than their white counterparts and unemployment among the young in some ethnic minorities runs three times higher.

Mr Ouseley said it was the sense of alienation which triggered "skirmishes" in parts of the country last summer."Bradford and Brixton came close to giving us a glimpse of the social unrest none of us wants. It is time to recognise the need to invest in young people ... so that they can reach their full potential, rather than finance their custodial arrangements in later life."

He said those from ethnic minorities wanted to see that they were being treated equally and fairly, that they were properly educated and were given jobs on the basis of merit. But this was not the experience of many.

In Brixton, Mr Ouseley's sentiments were echoed. Many former pupils claim the schools have been sinking for some time, leaving those without qualifications facing a desperate struggle to find work. Even among those who do well at school many still fear the future and watch their friends being drawn into drugs and theft.

Brixton teenager, Kelly O'Liaya, 18, who has just completed her A-levels, said: "I can see all these kids around and I know they should be at school. That's maybe when they choose to go down a different path, like crime. That's just not something I chose. I suppose I was scared of getting caught".

She added: "People's attitude to Brixton is unfair, there are as many people round here doing good things."

Samuel Lewis, 21, a car mechanic, said: "School was hell, it wasn't a great start for anyone. My mum was very strict, so I didn't fall into the crime trap, but some of my friends are in prison now."

Peter Johnson, 29, an unemployed decorator, said: "They just get the second-rate teachers ... The kids get no discipline, and instead of trying to teach them, they just expel them. Then you're heading for disaster."

Community workers claim that the numbers of black boys being excluded from schools is creating a lost generation. Lee Parker, a youth worker, said: "As soon as you take them out of the education system at an early age the only alternative is crime, and petty criminals become hardened criminals. This is a wake-up call for the Government to do something about our kids, and for schools to start taking the problem seriously."