Nearly 2,500 delegates participated in the second conference on the underachievement of black pupils in London schools on Saturday 10 May 2003.
Opening the conference, Diane Abbott MP said that GCSE pass rates of black pupils were getting worse and now bordered on catastrophic. She urged the conference to seek practical solutions and develop a national strategy to close the gap between black and other pupils.
Research confirms crisis
Carol Hunte, principal consultant with the London Development Agency, gave an interim report on her research into black attainment in London schools. She drew attention to the fact that, allowing for class differences, black children performed poorly at GCSE compared with all other ethnic groups and were even behind recently arrived communities such as Bangladeshis. In London, only 15 per cent of African-Caribbean boys on free school meals (an indicator of poverty) gained 5 or more A*-C GCSEs as against an average for all boys of 26 per cent. Forty percent of Bangladeshi boys on free school meals gained good grades – out-performing even the African-Caribbean boys who were not on free school meals.
The research project gathered information from a wide range of groups involving parents, pupils and teachers. Pupils in London experience a culture of low expectations, inadequate level of positive teacher attention and poor behaviour management. Black pupils, it appeared, valued supplementary schools.
Black parents were not, according to the research, sufficiently involved in schools and were frustrated by the difficulty of gaining appointments with staff, the rapid turnover of staff and not receiving timely information on pupil progress. Black parents were bypassed on major decisions, such as use of the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant (EMAG). There was unanimous support for more black teachers, who were more likely to work in challenging schools, and disquiet that the qualifications and professional experience of Caribbean teachers were not recognised in the UK. When such teachers were employed, it was as unqualified teachers on lower pay.
Mayor of London’s comments
Ken Livingstone drew attention to the fact that one third of the pupils in London were black and lived in the poorest areas of the capital. He felt that the government had recognised that the system was failing and was trying to address the issues involved. He appealed to London schools and teacher unions to follow the example of the police after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, by admitting publicly that London schools had a problem of institutional racism and that they were failing black pupils. Looking to the future, he forecast that there would be half a million new jobs in London, mostly in finance and business. The London workforce needed to build up its reputation so as to compete successfully against the commuters from the Home Counties and take advantage of the new opportunities.
The CRE perspective
Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), reiterated the wide performance gap between black children and others. Outlining the employment and income differences between black and white people, he concluded that there was an ‘ethnic penalty’, a ‘price of being black’ in British society. Quoting research (Gillborn and Mirza, OFSTED, 2000), he said schools must be held responsible for the fact that black pupils’ attainment was 20 per cent above average on entering school but 21 per cent behind on leaving. Furthermore, Bangladeshi pupils who spoke English as a second language had overtaken black pupils in GCSE achievement.
He outlined a range of actions that he was prepared to take as chair of the CRE:
- compelling schools to produce a race equality scheme
- requiring OFSTED to report on the achievement of black children and the involvement of black parents and teachers
- developing supplementary school provision attached to mainstream schools
- making companies which profit from the promotion of rap music put some money back into supporting young black people and their parents
The American experience
Dr Walter Massey, President of Morehouse College (Atlanta, USA), delivered the international keynote address. On the US, he made the following observations:
- black males were lagging behind in going to college – only a third went into college compared to two thirds of black women
- problems began early in the education process
- poverty does make a difference to performance
- black males were 20 per cent of the population but 60 per cent of the prison population
- a significant proportion, 38 per cent, were involved in gangs
- there was a lack of black role models – only 1.5 per cent of teachers were black men
He suggested that the black community in Britain needed to:
- establish a firm research base
- identify success areas
- address the issue of economic development as a whole
- support black teachers
- engage young men themselves to come up with solutions.
The government’s response
Stephen Twigg, parliamentary under secretary of state for schools, reaffirmed the government’s determination to raise achievement and informed the conference that the prime minister would be launching a strategy for London schools in the coming week. He told the conference that only 7 per cent of black pupils in Hackney attained 5+ A*-C. This was unacceptable and the responsibility to improve results also rested with the government. The government’s consultation document Aiming High: Raising the Achievement of Minority Ethnic Pupils had identified the characteristics of a successful school: strong leadership, high expectations, effective teaching and learning, an ethos of respect and parental involvement. He identified exclusion as a key issue, as black pupils were three times more likely to be excluded compared to white pupils. Schools would have to explain this discrimination under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. He felt that black parents, who were historically marginalised, were key to improving achievement.
The way forward
Rosemary Campbell, an educational consultant who described the education system as morally bankrupt, demanded that there should be a national strategy to raise achievement of black pupils which would have the same status as the national literacy and numeracy strategies. Her exhortations to the audience, about a series of actions that should be taken at national, local authority, school, parent and community levels to improve achievement, earned her a standing ovation.
But, though some delegates went away clearly exhilarated by such speeches, others were concerned at the one year intervals between the conferences, the emphasis on needing more academic research at the expense of problem-solving in the community and the lack of practical resolutions, especially over locally-based initiatives.
Unfortunately, a latent tension within the organising groups about who should set and control the agenda for action, is likely to compound such frustrations. The report on the 2002 conference, produced by the Greater London Authority (GLA), contained none of the findings or recommendations of that conference, for the 2003 conference to build on. And a counter-document, The crisis facing black children in the British schooling system, was produced by Professor Gus John, in which he reprinted his acrimonious correspondence with Diane Abbott MP and Lee Jasper, advisor to the mayor, over the future direction of the conference. While the GLA wants to control the setting up of a parents’ network in London, John advocates an independent organisation free of GLA control.