Lover, King, Villain, Hero, Fool." In a chalet in the Oxfordshire countryside, a group of boys is assembled around a list scrawled on a flipchart. The list - of male stereotypes encountered in films - has a poignant quality, because these pupils are young black men from the inner city, at risk themselves of the damaging effects of stereotyping.
The scene is incongruous. The boys, heavily camouflaged by their logo-smothered street clothes, have mud on their trainers. Outside, the apple blossom lies damply on the grass and only blackbirds move. There is that sense of nothing happening that makes some city visitors to the countryside uneasy.
Here, though, a great deal is happening. Bisi Akiwumi, director of the Black Male Project (see TES Friday, January 21), has brought 16 Year 9 and 10 pupils from Willesden high school, in the London borough of Brent, to Hill End Camp for a week of the Easter holidays. All of the boys risk school failure. "The purpose of the trip is to prepare them for change," says Bisi Akiwumi. "It's all right to intellectualise about the issues, but in the end it's about how they affect individual lives."
For most of the young men, just getting away from their home patch in north-west London is challenging. When did 14-year-old Darrell Dennett last go on holiday? "Big holiday?" he asks. "More than a day? I think I was in Year 4. I went to Jamaica for six weeks, to see my grannie."
The programme, run by six adults with backgrounds in social work, psychotherapy, sports and careers guidance, has ranged from lessons on black history to martial arts sessions, outward bound activities, canoeing and group discussions on such issues as confidence, assertiveness and "first impressions".
Part of the agenda has been a personal session for each pupil with careers consultant Althea Johnson. "Many black and Asian people get the qualifications but not the jobs," she says. "I'm saying to them, 'You are intelligent, you can achieve so much'."
On the day of The TES's visit, the group has been split into two and given the task of producing a play. The real exercise, as far as the trainers are concerned, is about co-operation. But the plays that emerge say much about the real and imaginary worlds these boys inhabit and the influences they struggle to contain in their young lives.
In one group's play, "Kaos", "Orphan", and "Menace" succumb to peer pressure, take part in an armed robbery and end up in prison. The other group devises a morality tale revolving around drugs and inter-generational conflict. Jamal John, playing a disaffected youth, is watching "Bad Boy Tele" while his father, played by Andre Sherman, 13, nags him about homework. "You need some education, boy!" Andre growls from behind the paper.
Jason Carty has tucked his trousers into his socks and adopted a goose step in his role as policeman searching the house for drugs. He rejects the line "You black nigger". He says: "The police don't say that. They're not that bad. He'd just say, 'This boy's no good'." Father and son grow increasingly hostile to each other's values, and the play ends when the son shoots the father, after being asked to wash up.
The improvised dialogue is witty and shows a good grasp of character and action. But the boys find working together difficult. They have divergent ideas about plot development and almost all are eager to make their mark as actors. Fifteen-year-old Abdi, as self-appointed director, tries to contain the high feelings while Andre Sherman attempts to bring the group back to basic principles. "What is the meaning of this story, this whole story?" he asks. There is a lively disagreement, with temporarily bruised feelings all round.
Out here in the Oxfordshire countryside, there is a tolerance in rehearsal for noise, boisterousness and the occasional flying chair. Even when one boy becomes highly animated while waving a large pair of scissors as a prop, trainer Michael Mallows keeps his nerve. "Scissors make him feel safe," he says. "There's friction, there's tension but they're not hitting each other, and they're not storming off."
There is also an engagement - with language, with each other and with the process of creating something out of nothing - which would surely make any teacher's heart sing. Yet these boys rarely shine at school. "Some are getting into trouble, some have poor motivation," says 30-year-old Tracey Marquis, an English teacher at Willesden high who came along for several days of the trip. "A lot of them feel that nothing in school is for them. I wanted to come along partly because they're fun to be around but also to learn about their reality, and see if there is anything I and the school could be doing to facilitate what they want."
The Black Male Project has already run one week-long workshop with the same core group of pupils (the composition has shifted slightly as three pupils have since been excluded, one permanently), at Willesden high last year. Project workers asked the children what they regarded as the crucial issues for black males. They said they encountered injustice at school and from the police, and resented "not being accepted in general society". When asked "can an Englishman be black?", the answer "was a resounding no", reports the subsequent consultation document.
Two out of three boys taking part in the workshops are from families "without a positive paternal influence". All come from low-income households where there is "limited exposure to professional aspirations". Most have a limited range of social experiences. Their role models are mainly athletes and musicians; the most influentual medium in their lives is music, which to a great extent "preoccupies their thoughts and determines their beliefs".
Their school, the lowest-performing school in Brent - reflects the value they feel society places on them. The workshop report documents the boys' constant references to the school environment, the "messiness", the broken windows, the rubbish-strewn playground, the unruliness of many of the pupils and the perceptions of the school within their community as a "reject" school. Yet education is rated by 11 of the participants as one of their three top priorities (along with God and the family), says the report.
After this latest workshop, Bisi Akiwumi and her colleagues ask the boys how they would like to proceed - this residential trip was one of their ideas, and is taking place with funding from North West London TEC, Brent council and the local division of the Metropolitan police. At lunchtime, the boys mill about in the large institutional kitchen, eating hot cross buns, making cheese on toast and playing their music, loudly.
Jamal, out of role as the teenager gone bad, leans on the sink skinning chicken pieces for the communal supper. "I just want to know when we're going to do our play because I can't wait to show the others," says another boy. This week away is looking increasingly like an exercise in defence-lowering.
One boy, usually a dominant character, has turned into the baby of the group away from his own territory. "I miss my bed and my telly," he says. "I kind of miss my mum as well." Abdi, who came to London as a refugee from Somalia, has 14 small plaits on the top of his head. Tracey Marquis put them in for him, he says, smiling at the memory.
The boys are hungry for the acceptance and understanding they have received from the adults around them this week, and the chance for creative self-expression. When Michael Mallows tells them Tracey has written a goodbye poem for them, half of them leave the room because they want to hear it at bedtime instead. Another one of these big boys cries when she leaves. "I'm shocked by how much they've enjoyed themselves," says Bisi Akiwumi. "I don't think this is about race. It's about conditioning and the social environment, and their need for healing. Race is another layer." She hopes they will go back to school better prepared for learning and taking responsibility for themselves. The project will continue, she hopes, with a borough-wide black male club, attempts to involve parents, and after-school black history classes.
Concern has been expressed for some years now about underachievement among African-Caribbean teenage boys. The Department for Education has set up a website on raising achievement for ethnic minority pupils (http:www.dfee.gov.ukrtb), and the Teacher Training Agency has been charged with recruiting more black teachers (from 6 to 9 per cent by 2006) in an attempt to improve the situation. The need for constructive action is urgent. Black boys continue to fail in the system - or be failed by it - in disproportionate numbers. Figures released earlier this month by the DfEE show that even though the number of black pupils permanently excluded has fallen they still have an exclusion rate four times that of white pupils. And while some ethnic minority pupils - Chinese and Indian - exceed the national rate of 46 per cent gaining five or more A-C GCSEs, only 29 per cent of black pupils manage to reach this target.
The Black Male Project has the backing of Willesden high's acting headteacher, Philip Snell. "It's a strategy that could be used with any group who lack self-esteem, who feel disadvantaged and undervalued," he says. Willesden high school, in special measures for the past two years, is now the subject of an improvement campaign in which this, he says, is a useful element. "Some pupils have become more positive as a result of working with the Black Male Project. The mere fact of having attention paid to them, of getting the opportunity to speak about their feelings, without having to be reactive when challenged about their behaviour, is helpful."
In analysing the reasons behind the poor educational prospects of African-Caribbean males, the consultation document threw up a range of factors, some to do with the boys and their backgrounds, others to do with the system. On the school's part, it identified "an unwillingness to try new ways of addressing the needs of this client group", and an "unrealistic fear of this group's attitudes and temperaments, compounded by ingrained stereotypical perceptions". The Black Male Project will continue to work with the boys to discover what it is about the education system and themselves that sees them all too often cast as villains or fools - and how to break the mould.
The gang trap
Hassan Farah and his two younger brothers fled the war in Somalia in the Horn of Africa, arriving in England in 1995 with their step-mother and four step brothers. Hassan (not his real name) and his two younger brothers now live with an uncle - five people sharing a two-bedroom flat on a problem estate in Willesden, west London.
Hassan is tall and well mannered, and it is difficult to believe he is not yet 15. He is worried today because he has heard over his mobile phone that one of his younger brothers has been injured by some older boys. Gangs and their activities are a major part of his life; he is a semi-detached member of one, he says, for his own protection. "This week is the first time I've had a rest from problems at home, problems in the area," he says. "I used to love school, but there's this fighting going on outside school and every day I'm thinking about it, like when are they going to get me." Hassan has been attacked several times, including being stabbed on his own doorstep. "They want me to be scared of them so I can pay them money," he says. "I never come home feeling happy, feeling safe."
As he speaks, Hassan is expertly handling a huge frying pan, cooking a spicy sauce for supper. He is used to catering for his younger brothers, for whom he feels responsible. "This holiday has given me time to think - about my GCSEs, my future, what I'm going to do when I go back home," he says. "I want to help my people, stop the war, build up the country. I want to live a good life. But if I don't get out of the gang, I'll be one of those people who don't have anything."