Black history has relatively recently gained the attention of education policy-makers and publishers, but Peter Okoye, who gives black history classes once a week at Mandela Supplementary School in Camden, north London, believes it could be the key to raising attainment levels that are particularly poor among black boys. In his lessons pupils explore African kingdoms such as the Benin Empire, inventors and pioneers, and the impact of colonisation.
Statistics showing poor school performance among black children stimulated black parents and teachers in Camden to set up Mandela Supplementary School in 1980. Its 60 or so pupils from across north London are aged between five and 16. Studies include black history, English, maths, ICT and confidence building. Now the school has a two-year waiting list and students willingly attend lessons on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings.
"It was a response to the disproportionate numbers of black children who were being excluded from school at that time," says Peter Okoye. "I want to give the children confidence. There are all these inventions by black people they don't know about. We want to make sure that we get across positive images of black people".
Anne-Marie Daley, director of Mandela School, agrees that learning about black history is vital for African-Caribbean children. She says: "Black history gives them role models and makes a difference to what they feel they can aspire to."
The trend of under-achievement among African-Caribbean children, particularly boys, begins early. When they start school at five, they perform as well as white and Asian children, but by 11 their achievement levels are beginning to drop off. By the time they reach 16, only 48 per cent of black boys gain five GCSEs A* to E.
Cara Thompson, 11, who regularly attends the black history class says: "My grades have really improved since I have been coming here. I think they should teach black history at school so other people can learn about it as well."
Another fan of black history is Dionne Bell, aged 11. She says: "We have learned all about the African kings and queens and Martin Luther King and Cleopatra. And we have done plays about black people who have invented things, like the person who invented the toilet and the ice-cream scoop."
Mandela School works hard to maintain strong links with mainstream schools.
Peter Okoye says: "We are in contact with four or five secondary schools and 12 primary schools in the surrounding area."
During Black History month, in October, the Mandela staff visit the schools and hold workshops. "Mainstream schools and supplementary schools should be walking hand in hand," says Peter Okoye. "Our liaison with the LEA is also fundamental and we work very closely with them."
Haverstock Secondary School, Camden, has particularly strong links with Mandela School. During Black History month, Mandela School visited Haverstock and held workshops looking at SSEmpire Windrush, the ship which brought some 500 African-Caribbeans to Britain in 1948.
Bet Schneiderman, head of history at Haverstock, says: "An actor acted out coming over on the ship to Britain and showed how his life had changed when he got here. The students really enjoyed it. The work of supplementary schools like the Mandela is very important."
Assistant head of Haverstock School, Nikki Haydon, says she has noticed a distinct improvement in the grades of the pupils who go to the supplementary school. "The students who attend Mandela School have become much more focused in terms of their basic skills and their homework. I think it is very important to study black history, it seems to give them higher aspirations. We certainly noticed there was a big impact on their GCSEs last year."
Just before Mandela pupils sit their GCSEs, Peter Okoye drives a minibus full of students to Cambridge University to visit the colleges where he hopes they may one day study. This school, which numbers the politically outspoken singer Ms Dynamite and a Cambridge graduate among its former pupils, is certainly doing its utmost to buck the trend.
The Mandela Supplementary School. Tel: 020 7284 0030. www.cbpta.com