Collective Black voice or ‘comfort zone’ for ministers?

Collective Black voice or ‘comfort zone’ for ministers?


Written by: Saleh Mamon

A personal view of the third conference on the education of Black children, held recently in London.

Nearly 1,000 people filled the halls of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre to participate in the third conference on the achievement of Black pupils in London schools on 11 September 2004. The conference was dubbed ‘reaching for the stars’ but the speakers failed to identify key policy issues confronting Black children in a society where increasing inequalities disproportionately affect them.

The conference received unprecedented coverage in the mainstream media before it convened because of the release of the report The educational experience and achievements of Black boys in London schools 2000-2003 by the London Development Agency (LDA) Education Commission. The results confirmed previous findings of massive underachievement by Black boys in London where, last year, 70 per cent of African-Caribbean boys left school with fewer than five GCSEs at the top grades of A*-C equivalent. A series of questionnaires and focus groups with Black and Minority Ethnic pupils aged 11-15 revealed that Black boys complained of racism and stereotyping from teachers who had low expectations of them. Their parents told researchers that they felt school did not welcome their input. Black teachers spoke of discrimination. Of the 7.4 per cent of London’s teachers who were from ethnic minorities, only 2.9 per cent were Black while the proportion of Black pupils was 19.5 per cent in 2002, six times greater than the proportion of Black teachers. In general, Black pupils felt that Black teachers were more encouraging, provided greater levels of support and had higher expectations of academic success.

The 206-page report, which represents the most exhaustive study to date of the educational underachievement of Black boys in London, concludes that, ‘The English educational system has produced dismal academic results for a high percentage of Black pupils for the best part of 50 years.’ It makes seventy-two recommendations addressed to government, teacher trainers, local government, schools and Black parents.


This year’s conference panel had Black celebrities such as Garth Crooks (sports presenter) and Kwame Kwei Armah (actor and writer) who, together with Lee Jasper, adviser to Mayor Ken Livingstone, brought the conference to its feet with speeches, some full of common sense, others full of rhetoric. Grace Onowinu, a solicitor and manager at the Crown Prosecution Service, recounted how, after failing all her GCSEs, she went on with family support and personal determination to overcome all obstacles and succeed professionally.

Not surprisingly, Garth Crooks’ criticism of the street culture surrounding ‘gangsta rap’, describing it as a ‘deadly virus’ threatening the Black community attracted the most press interest. He said, ‘As for the youngsters in our community who think they are gangsters, grow up. You are pathetic. You are not gangsters or clever. You are kids and it’s time to impose zero tolerance.’ He did not, however, go on to explore who would impose this ‘zero tolerance’ and by what means.

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), said that, since the last conference, the CRE had worked closely with OFSTED to make race equality integral to the inspection process. He argued that Black teachers mattered and backed Ken Livingstone’s call for more Black teachers even if it meant that Black teachers should be paid more.


Ken Livingstone, who has financially backed this conference for three years, talked about giving a ‘second chance’ to those Black adults who were failed by the educational system for over a generation. Looking into the future, he forecast that more than 80 per cent of the over half a million jobs that will be created in London will be in the financial sector; planners and Black and Minority Ethnic communities need to respond to these opportunities. He wished that he had control of education in London and urged that a target be set to recruit a third of London teachers from Black and Minority Ethnic communities to better reflect the composition of the school population.

A similar approach was suggested by Dr Stan Mimes, the superintendent of schools in Brooklyn, New York. He had implemented mass recruiting of Black teachers from the Caribbean, training in Black culture for all teachers and investment in parent-training. The challenge, in the British context, to implementing such a strategy would involve overcoming the current weakening of local education authorities and the delegation of decision-making to school governors and headteachers. For they could choose to refuse such policies.

There was a wide range of workshops organised with varying degrees of professionalism and encouragement of audience participation. The workshops for parents organised by ‘Afroice’, a Black parents support group set up at the last conference, and ‘100 Black Men’ were well attended and appreciated because they were practical and allowed for audience participation. The launch by the General Teaching Council of ‘Achieve’, a network for teaching professionals who wish to promote equality, received a good reception although the lack of promotional opportunities for Black teachers left some bitter.

It was worrying that the LDA report, its findings and recommendations were not fully addressed at the conference. The interim report was presented to the whole conference at plenary last year but the final report did not get the same airing. The presentation of the report requires dialogue and conversation within a group to fully understand the findings and their importance. The report deserves wide dissemination amongst decision-makers such as headteachers, unions and the Black community in a systematic way so that it has impact but, unfortunately, strategies to take it forward were not discussed.

It would be true to say that there was a great emphasis throughout the conference on exhortations and rhetoric surrounding family values and the importance of parents fully participating in education, truisms that nobody would oppose. But opportunities to question the platform at both plenary sessions were significantly limited this year and dissenting voices which could offer alternative strategies were markedly absent.


Apart from discussion of school exclusions, there was very little highlighting of the challenges confronting Black families in the British educational system. In the coming months, for example, all parents with children reaching the age of eleven will begin a scramble for secondary school places. Black children living in the most deprived boroughs, such as Hackney, Lambeth and Southwark, will not have enough places locally available for their schooling. While parents are moving house, paying a premium to get into the catchment area, dissembling to get into church schools or plainly paying for education, the majority of Black parents are not in the running. There is increasing segregation in schools in London – described by one parent as an ‘education apartheid’ – not planned by the public education service but created by the ‘invisible hand’ of the education market. Black children are more likely to be found in schools that are deemed to be poor in terms of league table results. This polarisation and its consequences were not discussed to any extent. The gap between rhetoric and reality was all too clear.

Stephen Twigg, the minister present, had nothing significant to offer. His assertion that exclusions had been reduced has been countered by experts who say that giving heads the power to exclude has led to a system where exclusions are done on the quiet and by other means. Apart from committing a few million pounds to ‘Aiming High’, a government programme to raise the achievement of Minority Ethnic pupils, government policies are set in an unchanging mould of increasing choice – which is, in fact, a guise for competition and the marketisation of education.


In reality, government policies over the last twenty years are irreconcilable with social and racial equality. The result has been the devastation of education provision in inner city areas, underinvestment and increasing privatisation. The setting up of new academies in private hands is likely to be dominated by the rich, as are grammar schools. This does not bode well for the future of Black children.

In failing to address such broader policy issues, the conference provided a comfort zone for ministers and officials. The participants were there because they were concerned about the issues but the debate was confined to anecdotes without a larger overall perspective appearing. A collective Black voice to address these issues socially and politically did not emerge. The creation of an active grassroots movement in Black communities to hold leaders, local councillors, governors, headteachers and government to account for the provision of education and its efficacy for Black children seems all the more urgent. It could go some way towards resolving what the poet Benjamin Zephaniah has termed a ‘crisis of leadership in the Black community’.

Related links

The educational experience and achievements of Black boys in London schools 2000-2003 – London Development Agency report

Saleh Mamon is an educational consultant and former headteacher.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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