Feelings run high over 'unjust system'

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The Independent Online
IN A TIDY terrace house opposite Westminster Junior School, Isa Stewart, 10, is watching television when he should be at school.

He has spent much of the past four months in front of the box while his mother Pauline, 29, his school teachers and Birmingham City Council have argued about his future following his expulsion from school.

This week his predicament has also forced his classmates to stay at home. Yesterday morning Westminster's gates were padlocked and its grounds and corridors deserted to allow 'a cooling-off' period after two days of angry demonstrations.

Isa Stewart's expulsion looks like becoming a cause celebre in the debate about the high number of black children, usually boys, expelled by schools on the grounds that they are unmanageable.

In Handsworth, the scene of riots in the mid-1980s, feeling is running high. Maxine Tapper, the founder of the African People's Education Group, organised this week's demonstrations by local parents and activists after Isa was banned from studying or playing with his peers.

Ms Tapper insists Isa is just one of many black children condemned to a lifetime of failure by an 'unjust' education system. 'Isa is not an isolated case. The damage to black people begins at school when children like Isa are labelled as having behavioural problems.

'Here we have a school which is answerable to the local education authority but is refusing instruction to take a child back. It has also lost its appeal to an independent tribunal and still refuses to comply. By not enforcing the law the local education authority is colluding.'

Mrs Stewart, a volunteer worker in a nursery, believes her son is being treated differently because he is black in a school where the teachers are white. 'Had this happened to a middle-class white boy from Sutton Coldfield there would have been an uproar.

'Around here black children leave school all the time with no qualifications and I could see that process beginning with Isa.

'My son is not violent. The whole issue has been examined twice now and yet this school still refuses to take Isa back. I offered to go into school to work with them with my son because I did not recognise the boy they were describing. 'They refused, yet under the 1988 Education Act they are supposed to work in partnership with parents,' Mrs Stewart said.

Westminster's record raises doubt about the accusation of 'institutional racism'.

More than 90 per cent of Westminster's pupils are Afro-Caribbean or Asian. David Neale has been the headteacher for 19 years and this is the first time that he has expelled a pupil.

Jacqui Johnson, a West Indian who has six children at Westminster, denied the issue was racial. 'There are rumours going around that the headmaster is racist, but there has never been a problem with him or any of the teachers. My children are happy there.

'The parents are split down the middle. Some are on Pauline's side and some agree with the teachers.'