A report on the recent London Schools and the Black Child (LSBC) conference organised annually by Diane Abbott, MP.
The sixth London Schools and the Black Child conference was attended by about 1,200 people at Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. A sample survey indicated that about 85 per cent of the delegates were of Afro-Caribbean and African background. Parents made up almost a quarter, another just over quarter were teachers, 15 per cent were youth workers and a quarter members of the public. There were a significant number of pupils.
Diane Abbott, MP, who chaired the plenary sessions, expressed her concerns that Black pupils were almost three times more likely to be excluded than White pupils. Every year there were 10,000 permanent exclusions and 30,000 fixed term exclusions. She said that exclusion was a personal tragedy for the child involved and a tragedy for the family. Beyond that, there was a clear relationship between being excluded and being sucked into gang culture and crime. She described exclusion as a ‘life time sentence’ and at one point she said ‘exclusion is to education what stop and search is to criminal justice’.
Derrick Anderson, the Chief Executive of Lambeth, spoke about the ‘Lambeth experience’. It was an ethnically diverse borough where 153 different languages were spoken by school students. In 2007, Somali was adopted as an asset language by one of the schools to raise the profile of non-European languages. The borough had made immense progress in academic achievement at GCSE. The Ethnic Minority Achievement Team was making considerable progress in improving achievement of BME pupils. The education authority had clear priorities for equity and fairness, support for schools, involving communities and parents and improving school provision for the future.
Baroness Morgan outlined the government’s approach to reducing exclusions through targeting and developing specific approaches. When she mentioned that academies were a powerful tool in this strategy, there was marked consternation from the audience. The government had launched a pilot project to reduce exclusions involving eighty schools spread in twelve local education authorities.
Boris Johnson, London mayor, expressed his concerns about the high levels of exclusions in London and attributed this to a lack of drive and ambition in too many children resulting in poor academic results and high truancy rates. He advocated the recruitment of more male Black teachers to act as role models. His office had launched a consultation report ‘Time for Action: equipping young people for the future and preventing violence’ which set out proposals for six projects for London. The workshop that followed was attended by 300 people and the opportunity was used to consult people on the projects using electronic voting. All projects got favourable ratings. Paradoxically, academies were approved of, though they remove education from local community accountability and there are no appeals against exclusions.
Rosemary Campbell-Stephens, the programme director of Investing in Diversity, London Centre for Leadership and Learning, received a standing ovation when she talked of struggle and resistance. She said, what has been ‘lost, forgotten and stripped’ from the culture of Black community must be ‘reclaimed, revived, preserved and perpetuated’. In her view, exclusion has been an intractable problem for over thirty years and described the journey of the community over the period including the role of supplementary schools in the ’60s and ’70s. She called on Black parents, teachers and pupils to lead an anti-racist movement for equity and justice. In her view the focus of the system on deficit models of Black students and families diverted attention from the real determinants of school exclusion – teacher expectations and school practice. (Read Rosemary Campbell-Stephens’ speech here.)
In the afternoon, Professor Heidi Safia Mirza, in an interesting analysis, asked the conference to remember the grassroots action by Black communities in the ’70s and mentioned her involvement in setting up the Runnymede Black Cultural archives and the George Padmore archive. She outlined the patterns of racism over the fifty years and the changes in discourse which diverted discussion from real issues of poverty and income differences.
The conference heard Shardae Smith, the winner of the 2008 LSBC award, describe how she succeeded educationally through hard work and family support to achieve a first class degree. More than ten Black people from the government’s ‘REACH role model’ project were presented to the conference with a résumé of their achievements.
The audience was entertained by two prominent Black comedians, Stephen K. Amos and Jocelyn Jee Esien. They both recounted their experiences of growing up in Britain and how they mastered their craft against traditional family and school expectations.
It is rare to have more than a thousand Black Londoners gathered under the same roof full of anxieties about the education of Black children and desperate for change. But, for all the rhetoric, the conference failed to arm them for a concerted campaign of resistance against school practices which lead to discrimination and the points of power that exclude young people from education.
Clearly, the government has the money and personnel to promote its strategies directly through its departments or indirectly through proxies. In the lounges, where diverse stalls peddled their cultural wares, a number of Black entrepreneurs were cashing in on the anxieties of the Black parent by selling books on how to succeed in education. HOW TO UNLOCK YOUR FAMILY’S GENIUS was selling well!