The post-racist bubble bursts

We knew it all along. Now even Ofsted admits the link between race and educational achievement

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When you reduce education policy to little more than a prolonged "Testing, testing 1,2,3 ..." scenario, you cannot really be surprised if the figures don't add up. While we are apparently to test children just out of nappies in order to monitor them more closely, we have for some time ignored the under-achievement of certain ethnic minorities. Well, officially, anyway. To talk of difference, diversity, multi-culturalism, racial harassment is dreadfully PC. This Government has preferred the colour blind approach, otherwise known as the ostrich position, insisting that league tables are perfectly justifiable and that the social background or ethnic origin of a school's pupils are not relevant.

Yet into this post-racist bubble plops a report from Ofsted that says, guess what, ethnic origin is a factor in education achievement. Well you don't say? Here is a case if ever there was one where everyone has known what was going on for some time. All Ofsted is doing is acknowledging it. Black parents know about it. The white middle-class particularly knows about it. They bus their kids across the city to avoid contamination by those of different social or ethnic origin a la Harman or Blair.

The state system, they argued, has failed, and therefore they are entitled to such segregation. Of course it is never described in these terms. It's not about race, it's about wanting the best for their own children, which of course is entirely natural. They are not prejudiced because actually some ethnic minorities really do work jolly hard, like the Chinese, you know. And I do know and I have had several conversations about this. Perfectly decent folk have warned me that my children would probably end up speaking Urdu and eating curry all day long if I didn't have a sudden urge to start going to church every Sunday to get them into the right C of E school.

Sometimes it seems that the only people who can talk openly about race are racists. It remains the great liberal taboo, but anyone who has been near a school in the past 10 years could not possibly be shocked by this latest Ofsted report. Indeed, nearly all of these recommendations were made more than 10 years ago, in the Swann report of 1985. The fact is that in order to raise standards for pupils coming from ethnic minorities, you have to monitor them and then consider the reasons why particular groups are falling behind.

Although many of the initiatives outlined in the new report are replicas of the loony lefty policy of bodies like Ilea, our explanations for under- achievement have become more sophisticated. Racism was the great catch- all to explain the failure of black pupils. There was a time when racism was seen as the problem of whites, not blacks. All every one had to do was to get in touch with their own inner racism and flagellate themselves for the world to be a better place. Guilt can no more be the basis for educational policy than some twee ebony and ivory approach. Nor can the charge of racism explain the differences between various ethnic groups, or why it is Afro-Caribbean boys rather than girls that are doing so badly.

What has fallen by the wayside along with all those kids excluded from school who never really find their way back is that quaint notion of equality of opportunity. That Ofsted should finally publish this report is an indication that even the Government feels that these issues can no longer be simply suspended. They will keep loitering around the school gates. Anyone who has been near an inner-city school lately ("inner-city" is the current euphemism for schools with large numbers of black kids) will know the system is at breaking point. Exclusion no longer means temporary suspension. Most pupils who are excluded never really go back to school, and black pupils are between three and six times as likely to be excluded as their white counterparts.

Low expectation leads to low self-esteem, or so the theory goes. Some teachers are scared of big black boys, though there are studies showing that they tend to misread their body language. In this case it is a small matter of educating the educators, but surely the real reasons for failure are much more complex. The lack of extended families, the demonising of single mothers, the scarcity of positive male role models, the reality of unemployment and poverty, the alienation from mainstream society, the sheer lack of hope is a combustible mixture.

The social and economic neutering of young black men is increasingly countered with initiatives borrowed from America, which promise to give them back their masculinity. Whether this is through the Nation of Islam's tried and tested definitions of manhood or the quasi-militaristic tone of separate schools, street culture itself has already become one vast exercise in displaying in its bruised and battered form the brand of distorted machismo that schools find so disruptive.

To be reminded almost innocently that our schools should give everyone who goes to them a decent education is to be reminded of a collective failure - a failure of will as well as of funds. As a society we no longer seem to believe in equality of opportunity. We do not think about this in terms of race - too many Benetton ads have fuddled our heads - but our gradual acceptance that there will always be a sector of society who are resolutely underclass, resolutely unlike us, who are amoral, promiscuous, criminal, subcultural, has definite racial implications. As the Charles Murrays of this world (who insist on seeing a genetic link between race and intelligence) well know. "We owe all our children ... the best possible start in life," said Cheryl Gillan, the education minister. Fine words, but they will only get it if we believe that all of them actually deserve it. Do we?

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