Socialist Worker

Failed by the system

by DEAN RYAN worker with disaffected young people in north London
Issue No. 1916

BLACK BOYS are suffering appalling levels of expulsions and underachievement in Britain’s schools

There is a crisis. But it’s not a crisis of black young men themselves—it’s a crisis of the education system.

Last week’s BBC documentary The Trouble with Black Men echoed the propaganda we get from New Labour ministers.

They say that racism does not explain why black children, especially boys, are falling behind.

The programme accused black men of “ruining the black family with their testosterone-fuelled promiscuity, and fixation with gangsta rap, fast cars and aggressive driving”.

In other words, it pumped out a series of racist stereotypes about black men, all in the name of finding some explanation other than racism for the disadvantage they face.

Some journalists and academics have put the same argument in more sophisticated packaging.

But it all boils down to saying there is something wrong with black boys rather than something wrong with society and the education system.

Let’s look at the facts. Black boys are six times more likely to be expelled than white boys.

I have worked with disaffected teenagers, many of whom have been excluded, in north London for a number of years.

We’re told that exclusions are happening because black boys buy into a culture—rap, glorification of guns and drugs—that is anti-learning.

But black boys (and girls) are more likely to be excluded from primary schools, as well as secondary.

You can’t explain the exclusion of five, six and seven year olds by their supposed attitudes to music, sex and gangs.

Nor can you explain why black boys aged four and five are more likely to be seen as a problem in nursery schools and reception classes. At that age their educational achievement is, if anything, slightly above the national average.

What does explain it is that the stereotype of the “aggressive black man” means that behaviour that is classed as “boisterous” when it is by white children becomes seen as “threatening” when it is from black kids, even as young as three.

The way racist stereotypes in society become reflected in the education system is not new.

I started secondary school in Hackney, east London, in 1977.

Black students then were underachieving compared with whites.

Research showed that black children were unfairly being labelled as “educationally subnormal”.

The only thing black children were expected to shine at was sport.

There was also a general rise in racism in society at the time.

The Nazi National Front took over 100,000 votes in the London elections in 1977.

The police were increasing their use of racist SUS laws to harass black youth.

With these levels of racism, it wasn’t surprising that black youth didn’t want to be part of the mainstream.

The growth of Rastafarianism and black pride was a response. This often brought black boys into conflict with the establishment in schools because of wearing dreadlocks and their unwillingness to accept paternalistic racism.

In 1979 the Tory government launched an inquiry into black youth and schooling. It took six years before it finally reported.

The Swann Report of 1985 acknowledged there was a problem, but said it was the “culture of deprivation” in black families that was to blame.

But alienated black youth had taken matters into their hands in uprisings in Brixton, Toxteth, Bristol and Birmingham.

It was that, and the work of radical anti-racist teachers, that won gains such as anti-racist policies in schools and mixed ability teaching.

But those gains came under attack almost immediately.

Much of this has come through the market being introduced into education.

The Tories’ 1988 Education Act introduced grant maintained schools, streaming and setting, which was selection through the back door.

At the same time as talking about “parental choice”, the Tories attacked progressive methods in schools, such as the funds which schools got to attract black teachers.

All this has continued and got worse under New Labour.

It has created a system that disadvantages working class and black children.

Some people use the argument that there are too many white middle class teachers in our schools who just can’t relate to black pupils.

But it is wrong to lay the blame for black underachievement at individual teachers’ feet.

There are many good anti-racist teachers, black and white.

They tend to get on a lot better with students alienated from school.

But even supportive teachers work within the framework that the government lays down.

They can sometimes not look towards the outside world, but at the micro-politics of the school.

When I was at school I had a black teacher called Mr Carter. He took us for general studies. We were a sink class.

All of us really liked him because he treated us as individuals and encouraged us to liberate our minds.

I met him on an anti-racist protest 12 years later. He had been a Communist Party member. His politics and teaching were linked.

But even though he’d had a fantastic influence on me, he couldn’t stop me leaving school with no qualifications and feeling totally alienated.

And without an understanding of wider racism in society, teachers can end up blaming the boys, their family and their culture for any conflict.

A number of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds which hamper their educational achievements.

But the vast majority of black families have hard working values and a high emphasis on education.

Teachers have to work within the framework of the national curriculum. This means league tables which turn education into a lottery.

Teachers are under such pressure that they don’t have time to spend trying to give individuals help. They can end up feeling it’s better to get rid of the “troublemakers” and concentrate on the others.

People I see say they’ve been having problems with the work in the class and tried to get the teacher’s help.

The teacher hasn’t got time, so the students feel frustrated and left behind. Then things kick off.

People come to me from schools where their Ofsted inspection is coming up, and say they’ve been told to stay away from school until after it.

Then there is the future that black children can expect on leaving school.

They do courses in computing, painting and decorating, bricklaying, and they reach a certain level.

Then there aren’t the jobs for them. They are three times more likely to be unemployed.

They see their families working all hours for nothing.

This can lead them to question the whole idea of education.

The fight for decent schooling for black children is linked with the fight to defend education and to advance the interests of working people .

The vast majority of black people are working class—we can’t afford to opt out of the school system like Diane Abbott.

The black Labour MP has done a lot to highlight this issue, but she has chosen to send her son to a private school.

Her argument is that for 30 years the education system has been failing black students, and that racism is endemic in the system. This is true.

But private schools are part of the problem, not the solution.

Institutions like the school she has sent her son to reproduce the establishment, who rule over the racist education system.

We need to fight for real reforms. Most of all, we have to fight against the market-led education system that tries to turn our children into mindless workers instead of free thinking individuals.


Schooling—the facts

  • Only 30 percent of black (African-Caribbean) boys get GCSE grades of A-C. This is the lowest of any ethnic group.

  • When they begin primary school education black pupils record a level of success 20 percentage points above the average. At age 10-11 black pupils attain below the average.

  • In their GCSE exams they attain 21 percent below the average.

  • Black boys are six times more likely to be excluded.

    The discrimination gets worse when the total level of exclusions goes up.

  • New Labour has made discrimination worse by limiting the ability of parents and pupils to appeal against exclusions and expulsions.


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    Article information

    Features
    Sat 28 Aug 2004, 00:00 BST
    Issue No. 1916
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