Christina Patterson: Young, gifted and betrayed by society

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The Independent Online

When my friend Dreda Say Mitchell went to visit a head teacher in a school last year, she was asked if she was looking for the kitchen. Dreda is an award-winning crime writer and also, in a stroke of supreme irony, a consultant in ethnic minority achievement. This may or may not have been an example of the "institutional racism" in schools identified in a new report commissioned by the Government, but it clearly doesn't bode well.

The report, Getting It. Getting It Right, addresses the fact that Afro-Caribbean pupils, in particular boys, are three times more likely than white pupils to be permanently excluded from school. They are five times less likely to be registered as "gifted and talented". The report concludes that the exclusion gap is due largely to "unintentional racism" stemming from "long-standing social conditioning involving negative images of black people" and "particularly black men". Presented to ministers two months ago, it has yet to be released.

You can see why these are conclusions the Government might not be in a rush to flaunt. It's one thing to claim, as it consistently has, and as the Tories have apparently just discovered, that poor educational performance is linked with economic deprivation and family breakdown. But "institutional racism", in a field which a high-spending government 10 years ago declared its top priority, is a whole other deal.

Dreda Say Mitchell was lucky. Growing up on a council estate in Tower Hamlets, she encountered her fair share of racism at school, but managed to buck it. As shot-put champion for East London, it dawned on her one day that all the academic high-achievers at her school were white and all the athletes were black. Next time the gym teacher asked her to sign up for competition-level shot-putting, she declined.

The gym teacher didn't know Dreda's mum. A feisty Grenadian, and a part-time cleaner in a local hospital, she ruled her family with an iron rod. "You didn't cross your mum," Dreda told me. "You'd get a load of verbal from your dad and when you were in trouble you'd get the belt from your mum." While no great fan of corporal punishment, she is quick to acknowledge the role that a disciplined household played. "We were brought up to be independent," she recalled. "Nobody had any money and nobody had the latest trainers - but in those days it didn't matter because everyone wore black plimsolls."

Other friends have similar memories. David Thomas, a sound technician and a Jamaican South Londoner, says his mother's word "was law". When he came home one day with his school uniform in tatters, after an encounter with the class bully, she marched him straight back. She told him that if he didn't hit the bully then she'd hit him. And when he was in trouble with the police, she "whopped" his "ass" and he was grounded. "This week you don't breathe," she said, and he barely did.

Breis, a hip-hop artist from Brixton, remembers his mother's enthusiasm for the wooden spoon. Attending school in Nigeria, he had lessons in "moral education", like "giving up your seat for old people" and "learning some manners". Back in Brixton, his mother kept the moral education - quite fiercely - alive.

Clearly, these are the products of a particular generation. No one can resurrect the formidable Caribbean or African matriarch - many, incidentally, single mothers - or the values of the colonial Christian education that many of these women underwent. No one can instil today's teenagers with the fear of the pastor, God or the wooden spoon. And no one should want to. But when society's expectations of our black children remain so low, and when our schools fail them, and when teachers fear the hulking adolescents they teach, and when their mothers struggle alone, without the support of the traditional extended family, then someone, somewhere, needs to fight their corner. And telling the truth might be a start.

On drugs, Cheryl speaks sense

My admiration for girlband popsters married to footballers tends to be limited, but I could only cheer at comments made by Cheryl Cole earlier this week. Cole, who has lost a number of friends to heroin, described the baby-faced Babyshambles frontman Pete Doherty as a "junkie idiot". "There are enough drug problems going on" she said "without him... sticking needles in his arm in the press".

So many members of the celebrity circus, and indeed the media, seem to have swallowed the myth of Pete as the genius whose artificially heightened perception is communion with the muse. Stupid Kate Moss is clearly as in thrall to it as the mildly talented rocker is to his daily fix. As the bodies pile up in Suffolk, the realities of drug addiction have rarely been starker. "A Season in Hell" is not just a poem by Doherty's hero, Rimbaud. Sometimes, it's a life.

* You don't have to be tired of life, as Samuel Johnson said, to sometimes be a little bit weary of London. I'm thinking, for example, of the times when the area outside my front door has been transformed by gangland shootings into a crime scene you can't cross. Last time, it stopped me getting to the farmer's market and the gym.

But last week, on my birthday, I had a taste of London at its best. First, a posh tea at the Waldorf with my mum and later, at midnight, a trip to a kebab shop whose lamacun is legendary. When my friend asked the man serving to write "Happy Birthday" on my wrapped chicken shish, he yelled out something in Turkish. Moments later, his seven-year old daughter emerged, bearing a massive piece of cake, and the whole shop - customers, staff and local lowlife - burst into song. I would call it my Richard Curtis moment - except that I don't think that Lower Clapton is quite his usual scene.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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