What ought to have been a welcome focus on improving the education of black children was this week skewed into a sterile debate. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, made the headlines when he suggested black boys could be taught in separate classes for some subjects.
He’s right to highlight the issue of underachievement. Just 38 percent of black boys got five A to C grades at GCSE last year. That compares with a national average of 52 percent.
But it’s not just black boys. The figure for black girls was 43 percent. White working class boys also underachieve. These facts alone should point to problems with Phillips’s approach.
Educating black boys separately smacks of segregation and will lead to the “black class” being stigmatised and seen as, in the phrase of the 1970s, “educationally subnormal”. Phillips says we face a crisis even though we’ve “spent a lot of money and tried many things”. If only. The “many things” this government and its Tory predecessors have done to education are part of the problem.
They have deepened inequality in education by insisting on competition between schools, squeezing creative space out of the curriculum and turning off generations of children from learning by imposing tests.
I work with disaffected teenagers. Their aspirations are lowered, not by some cultural factor, but by the lack of a decent job and life chances. My job used to involve helping young people address the social problems they face. Now it is increasingly just about getting them onto training courses. At the end of the course they come back without a job, wondering what the point was.
The government’s response is to push more and more working class children, some aged as young as 14, towards training rather than education.
And the assumption is that if children are failing at school, it is the fault of the kids rather than anything to do with the structure of the education system.
But my son, who has just started school, is typical of black children. He is, if anything, above the average level at that age.
Government figures show that black children hold their own throughout primary school and then drop sharply at secondary school level. Addressing this does mean targeting resources. But the schools that are doing this are not segregating their students. In fact they are hitting back against the setting, streaming and narrow curriculum that the government imposes.
There are wider social problems that impact on black and working class children. Poverty is the biggest cause of educational disadvantage. That won’t be solved by fining black parents who don’t co-operate with the school, as Phillips suggests.
More black teachers will help. But that means more resources. Above all, it has to be part of a fundamental restructuring of education so it meets the needs of children rather than the dictates of big business.