Newly-appointed education minister David Laws spoke at a Lib Dem fringe meeting yesterday. I asked him about the huge gaps in GCSE achievement between African-Caribbean and White pupils. Sadly his answer revealed he has not yet fully grasped the issue.
I pointed out there was a 28 percent gap between African-Caribbean pupils getting five good GCSEs – grades A* to C – compared to White pupils. That meant 40 percent of African-Caribbean’s were leaving school having failed to achieve this benchmark.
How concerned was he about this and did he believe that specific measures were needed to address this, or does he hold to a colourblind approach which assumes tackling disadvantage will help all disadvantaged pupils equally?
His response left a lot to be desired. He replied:
One of the most serious issues in this country is the gap between the disadvantaged and the rest. The biggest challenge is the white working class who are at the bottom of the table.
There are differences in other ethnic groups, for example Chinese children to very well. But there are problems as well and this hints at poverty being a predicator of outcomes.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s also about culture, aspirations and chaos in families.
Schools have to work with the raw material coming in from chaotic environments. That’s why the Pupil Premium is so important to tackle this.
I felt Laws only vaguely addressed my question about African-Caribbean GCSE results and the gap between them and the White average. And there were several problems with his answer.
It felt like he was suggesting that it was the White working class rather than African-Caribbean’s we should be most concerned about. Of course we should be concerned about the White working class but it’s a bit rich talking about class inequalities when this Coalition government axed the socio-economic duty from the Equality Act 2010 before it had even been implemented.
Laws missed the point. Yes, the White working class continue to suffer in this most class-ridden of societies, and yes Britain has a terrible record for social mobility. But Black families suffer additional discrimination based on colour, culture and nationality regardless of their class.
Poverty is one predictor of outcomes but there are others too, and unless we recognise the unfairness built into education we are simply turning a blind eye to structural race inequality in society, a process that begins at school.
Statistics show wide variations in GCSE achievement by ethnicity. And yes, the Chinese outperform other races. Many Indian children, particularly from more wealthy families, also do well. But African, Pakistani and Bangladeshi children to less well. And African-Caribbean pupils are at the bottom of the table, just above Gypsy-Travellers.
There are many factors at play to create these differences but the fact that they exist and that some communities, like the Chinese, are succeeding should not be an excuse to turn our face away from the issue of who is not.
It’s also a bit of a misnomer to talk about aspirations. Many African-Caribbean families are highly ambitious for their children. And even though the parents may have been born in this country most of their parents were not exactly from remote villages. Indeed the Windrush generation from the 1950s onwards came equipped with an English education and aspirational values.
When measuring performance by ethnicity, Black pupils typically perform very highly when they enter the school system and their performance remains high in Key Stage Two. Then something dramatic happens when the enter secondary school; they plummet down the ethnicity table. And by the time they leave school, African-Caribbean pupils are right down the bottom. So what is going on?
There’s no doubt that ‘urban culture’ has it’s distractions. This affects many pupils regardless of ethnicity. Hip Hop lyrics, video games, X-factor hunger for fame and riches, the “cult of death” and worship of stars who play the pied-piper leading their followers away from themselves all play a part.
Yet we also have an education system that buries it’s head in the sand and refuses to address the reality of pressures and temptations. A system that expects uniformly good behaviour and expels anyone who does not fit into this mould. A system that is not geared to individuality let alone diversity.
If there is chaos it comes more from external influences than culture. Of course there are too many chaotic households, but the inner cities also contain a great many church-going and upright families struggling to guide their children and keep them on the straight and narrow.
In schools bog-standard teaching, low expectations, and exclusion not just for the disruptive but also for talented pupils who are frustrated and bored. Many pupils who fail their English are highly talented poets who express their creativity through rap. Those who turn to drug dealing often display great entrepreneurship that has been misdirected through a lack of guidance.
As I said at a fringe meeting last night, where I was a guest speaker, headteachers should be clamouring to bring into school professionals who can offer pupils the mentoring and career guidance lacking within the school walls. Without this the only examples of ‘success’ are other young adults who are engaged in criminality.
We need to recognise that the school curriculum fails to engage or inspire many African-Caribbean pupils who do not see people like themselves reflected in it. They are not taught about the African origins of mathematics, geometry, astrology and architecture. It is a curriculum aimed largely at the White middle classes and an instrument of assimilation.
We don’t talk about assimilation in society any more, thank God! We rarely even talk about tolerance. Such terms have been replaced with community cohesion and multiculturalism. But inside the school walls, assimilation rules. Conformity is control.
And the desire for control has too often eclipsed the goal of allowing pupils to achieve the very best they can. They say that knowledge is power but if ‘knowledge’ is stripped of its’ history, it is without context and without a reference point.
So when we talk about inequality in education we are talking not just about low teacher expectations or disproportionate exclusions, we are also talking about an education that puts Black students at a disadvantage from the start, by failing to teach them that they can be great because others like them were too.
We have a school system – and I use the word ‘system’ deliberately – that almost dares children who are the most different from ‘the norm’ to rebel in order to punish them. Where loud talk is an offence, despite Africa being a home of oratory tradition and where music is an offence, despite music as communication is embedded deep in the DNA.
In too many schools the voice of Black pupils is not encouraged, let alone tapping their creativity. Conform or be punished. The impression they have of the outside world of policing and criminal justice is mirrored by the way they are treated by schools. Is it any wonder, then, that so many Black pupils rebel, and fail at school?
The school system is also ruled by fear. Where parents who were themselves failed by British schools fear the school their children attend, and where teachers fear the physical appearance of Black boys once they develop into young adults.
The White working class are failed too but the mistake we make, time and time again, is to assume that the dynamics are the same. Class and race are one and the same. The assumption that there need only be one approach, helping those who are disadvantaged regardless of other forms of discrimination, is deeply flawed.
Increasing numbers of Black parents are giving up on the system. Some who can scrap together the money are sending their children to be educated in Africa, the Caribbean, or are home-schooling. Supplementary schools are still going – despite lack of funds – simply because Black parents are crying out for an education that empowers their children.
Empowers them to think for themselves, and see themselves as valued citizens of the world, and for them to receive a cultural education that will be their armoury against the racism they will encounter all their adult lives.
I have yet to hear about a single youth with knowledge of self that has shot or stabbed someone. Those aware of their history and ancestry, who realise the abilities they have and the achievements that have gone before them, do not engage in destructive behaviour. It is the ignorant who cause madness on the streets. And while they are responsible for their actions they are mostly not to blame for being kept ignorant.
A few years ago – as a young journalist working in the Black press – I covered a story about two young men of African-Caribbean school pupils – who were excluded getting tramlines. Neither boy had been in trouble before. They were talented and exemplary students going places.
They appealed the exclusion decision time and time again but to no avail. They had broken the school’s dress code and that was it, case closed.
What then happened is they challenged the decision in the courts – a move hardly any Black student had done before. In court it emerged that an Irish boy in their year had marked St Patrick’s Day by coming into school with bright green dyed hair. This boy was not disciplined in any way. It was – according to the school – just an expression of culture.
The school seemed to be saying that for Black boys their hair must not express who they are. Only the Black equivalent of a short-back-and-sides is acceptable; short hair or a low-fro. It was almost as if teachers feared that if they relaxed their stance on Black hair the whole school would go ghetto!
The two Black boys won their case, but I felt a wider point had been made. Black pupils had an identity that was expressed through their hair. Their hair was part of them and within reason it should be acceptable to style African hair. And it didn’t make Black pupils badly behaved or any more likely to fail.
What it also meant is that the unspoken notion that Black pupils must assimilate into the dominant culture was challenged.
Over the past week the London Evening Standard has been running an excellent campaign highlighting the huge barriers young Black and Asian school-leavers face in the job market. A new generation being consigned to the scrapheap not just because of the recession but also because of the colour of their skin and because they lack the connections available to some of the White middle class.
It mentioned recent evidence that foreign-sounding names made it at least doubly hard to secure a job interview. And 55 percent – over half – of all Black men are now unemployed, according to the Runnymede Trust.
The London Evening Standard highlighted what every person of colour has always known, that despite the images of multiculturalism at the Olympics, the reality is rather different. Prejudice and discrimination based on race, colour, culture and religion is alive and kicking today.
Just about the only positive thing the Liberal Democrats are doing on race equality is pushing name-blind job applications. It’s only been introduced in a few Whitehall departments and hasn’t yet made it to the outside world but it’s still a recognition that tackling racism requires specific measures.
So if we can think about action in the job market, why not in education? We must, because the plight of many Black jobless has it’s roots in an education system that has failed them. Just as it failed their parents.
A good place to start is looking at the differentials between GCSE exam results by ethnicity and searching for holistic solutions.
The 28-point gap between African-Caribbean pupils and the White average should be a badge of shame for the education system.
It should be one of the subjects that dominates education debates.
There is nothing inevitable about that gap. It can be explained, and with political will it can be tackled. I hope that David Laws embarks on a journey of discovery in this field. He is in a crucial position and is also influential enough within government to get his way. His appointment as education minister means that what he believes has a real chance of being implemented.
It is my sincere hope that he understands these issues and feels the political and moral drive do something meaningful and serious about it.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway