In summer 2005, only 21 per cent of African-Caribbean boys in England obtained five GCSE passes at grades A*-C including maths and English. The percentage for all pupils was double that. The figures revealed by The Independent on Sunday tell a similar story, and heighten concerns that have been around for at least 40 years.
Reporting in 1969, E J B Rose and his co-authors in their magisterial study Colour and Citizenship wrote: "Children of West Indian parents have been a source of bafflement, embarrassment and despair in the education system ... They have often presented problems which the average teacher is not equipped to understand, let alone overcome." More recently Ofsted referred in 1999 to "a worrying ignorance, generally, about how to raise the attainment of Black Caribbean boys".
In the late 1970s, Shirley Williams, as Secretary of State for Education, set up a committee of inquiry on this topic, chaired by the businessman Anthony Rampton. When Rampton declared, in an interim report in 1981, that the essential problem is the low expectations of black pupils among teachers, Williams was no longer in power and Margaret Thatcher moved swiftly to shoot the messenger: Rampton was removed from his position; neither the Thatcher government nor the teacher unions wanted to hear what he had to say.
Around 2001, the Government began to switch financial resources towards improving education for African-Caribbean pupils. In autumn 2003, it launched the African-Caribbean Achievement Project, based on sound academic research, and led and co-ordinated by people with substantial practical experience. Nevertheless, the appalling 21 per cent figure mentioned above shows the enormous mountain left to climb.
The good news in today's revelation is that the civil servants at the Department for Education and Skills accept what campaigners and academics have been saying for the past 40 years - that most key factors affecting African-Caribbean achievement are "in-school", not in families and communities. This is a sensitive area. The right-wing press will seek to make capital, which runs the danger of alienating and demotivating teachers, and making change all the harder to achieve. But knowing how much goodwill exists in the teaching profession, I believe most will welcome a courageous show of leadership from Government.
I suggest six crucial steps. Underlying them are four principles: the need for a multi-pronged, joined-up approach; the avoidance of teacher-bashing and finger-pointing in any direction; the admission by Government that it needs to put its own house in order; modest pride in the African-Caribbean Achievement Project.
My six practical stepsare these: (1) consult informally a few sympathetic academics, community activists and educational opinion formers about how best to finalise and publish the report that has been prepared; (2) convene some regional conferences or seminars, each chaired or introduced by a minister, to disseminate the insights derived from recent successful projects; (3) start designing and constructing a new, or developing an existing, website for teachers that focuses on practical ideas and theoretical matters; (4) promote closer contacts between mainstream schools and black-led supplementary schools; (5) fund some professional development courses on the power and nature of teacher expectations; and (6) promote far more vigorously than hitherto the development of both multicultural and anti-racist curricula.
Two hundred years ago, the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. It was a multi-pronged but joined-up campaign that did the trick. In the long fight for real race equality, such an approach is needed still.
The writer is a former director of the Runnymede Trust