Young, gifted, black - and a living reproach to our racist school system

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The Independent Online
AISHA PHOENIX, aged 17, hopes she is heading for Oxbridge. She chalked up six starred As and four As at GCSE and is now taking A-levels in English, History and French at City and Islington College in north London.

But her success is in sharp contrast with that of most Black Caribbean pupils in Britain's schools. They are at the bottom of the heap for academic qualifications - just 29 per cent achieve five good grades at GCSE, though girls do better than boys. The figures for whites are 47 per cent and for Indians 54 per cent.

A report by school inspectors published today suggests that racial stereotyping and low expectations among teachers are to blame for the poor exam performance of Black Caribbeans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Gypsy Traveller children.

Aisha disagrees. She did not, she says, have to fight her way to A-level through barriers of prejudice. On the contrary. "I was at a mixed comprehensive and I didn't see any racism from teachers. I have always worked hard and been motivated. Teachers encouraged us regardless of race. My friends and I got some of the best GCSE grades in the school."

The only prejudice she encountered was when she had an interview at another college, not City and Islington. "The interviewer there said he was expecting me to be stupid but I had better grades than he had."

Jernine Bradshaw-Murray, who is studying psychology, sociology and media studies at A-level and wants to do a degree in criminology, also said she had never experienced racism.

Yet Cliff Gould, head of secondary inspection at the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) which produced the report, said English schools were guilty of "institutional racism" - the term used about the police by Sir William Macpherson in the Lawrence report.

"But it is equally important to recognise that the vast majority of teachers in our schools are not intentionally racist," Mr Gould said. Not infrequently, he suggested, there is a breakdown of communications between white teachers and black pupils. In some schools, teachers' assessment of black and Asian pupils, is consistently lower than their test results, the report says.

It may be that teachers expect black boys to achieve lower exam scores than black girls. Male Black Caribbean pupils at City and Islington take a different view from the girls. Renaldo La Rose, who is taking three A-levels, said: "After we got our GCSE results teachers were going up to black pupils and saying they were surprised they had done so well. They used to put black pupils down. If you had your hand up and were calling a black teacher, she would rather go to a white student."

Marlon Trotman, aged 17, is angry that teachers at his previous school would not let him take the higher-tier GCSE exam for IT and instead made him take the lower tier, which meant he could not achieve a higher grade than C. "There were white students and Asians who were put in for the higher paper who were not as good as me," he said. He eventually scored four As, two Bs and two Cs and plans to go to university.

If such racial stereotyping goes on, says the report, schools must take "unequivocal action to counter it". The same goes for racial harassment. "If schools do not take a stand, what hope is there for breaking the vicious circle of these corrosive forces which exist in society at large?"

Aisha says that the only racism she encountered at school came from other pupils. The report recognises that schools cannot fight racism alone. Some white parents oppose schools' anti-racist policies. "Many parents brought in because their children had used unacceptable language ["Paki" or "blackie"] failed to accept that there was anything wrong with such terms."

The report looks at the progress of Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean, Pakistani and Gypsy Traveller children in 48 schools in 25 local education authorities. Inspectors also visited 34 schools which were particularly successful with ethnic minority pupils.

They found that Gypsy Traveller children were the most at risk with very few achieving success at GCSE and many failing to attend secondary school at all. Black Caribbean boys were a particular worry.

Inspectors said schools which tackled the issue, for example by using the opportunities offered in the national curriculum to talk about black scientists or pupils' own culture, made a big difference to ethnic minority achievement.

Silvaine Wiles, an HMI and an author of the report, said: "There are too few examples of this. Anti-racist initiatives have to some extent been off the agenda for a while." Half of primary schools believe that references to pupils' backgrounds through music, art and history, is "unhelpful and patronising," the report says.

Renaldo said there was not enough about black culture in the curriculum. "The most you get is things about the history of slavery and a bit about Malcolm X and Mandela. There's nothing about the modern black way of living."

Charles Clarke, the schools minister, promised that the present review of the national curriculum would help to foster an understanding of the different culture in Britain.

Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, said: "A significant minority of ethnic groups are not being enabled to fulfil their potential but, within these groups, boys are generally doing worse than girls. Many thousands of pupils, notably Black Caribbean boys, are therefore facing double jeopardy."

All the students at City and Islington say their homes have been as important as their teachers in motivating them to do well. Jernine said: "My mum is doing a degree now and she wants me to have the education she didn't have."