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Black on track

Why do Afro-Caribbean boys start school so well then under-perform at GCSE? Three London schools are leading a drive to stem the decline. Biddy Passmore reports

Before their sons joined Winchmore school in September 2003, 20 sets of black Caribbean parents received an invitation to attend a special meeting with their sons. Staff wanted to make them feel welcome and tell them how Winchmore worked. More specifically, they wanted to explain why the boys were being singled out for a programme of special support from academic tutors and how it would be organised. And the teachers knew that the tone of their remarks was vital.

"We were keen to stress that their sons were not seen as low attainers or in any way doomed to failure," says Lorraine Vivian, head of history and one of the co-ordinators of the programme. "It was more a question of keeping the boys on track, helping them to fulfil their potential despite peer pressure."

Staff had selected the 20 boys with care from the 33 black Caribbean pupils entering Year 7 of this 1400-pupil mixed comprehensive in north London. The boys were of mixed ability, from a wide geographical area and some showed leadership potential.

The meeting, where parents and sons sat informally round school tables in the hall, went better than they could have dreamt. At one point, the boys disappeared to get to know each other while parents divided into groups to discuss important issues: what the potential barriers to success were, what the school and the parents needed to do to ensure their sons' success, what should be expected of the boys.

Out it all came: parents' fears about teachers' negative attitudes towards black boys, their belief that teachers had low expectations of their sons and their worries about peer pressure. But they also expressed their enthusiasm for praise and support from teachers and for focused monitoring of their boys' progress.

As parents, they recognised the need to talk to their sons, praising them regularly when they did well and showing patience when they did not, of keeping track of their homework and - vitally - of the type of children with whom they associated. And they were keen to keep in regular contact with the school.

Thus began a positive partnership between parents and school that has survived and, if anything, grown during the past two years.

Winchmore is one of three London schools in a pilot scheme to improve the achievement of black West Indian boys, something that has been worrying experts for a long time. Nobody can quite explain what happens to them.

Their performance in the early years of primary school is at or above that of their peers. But it starts to decline in the later primary years and tails off badly after they move to secondary. By the time they get to GCSEs, they're at the bottom of the academic pile.

In 2003, the last year for which an ethnic breakdown is available, only 25 per cent of Afro-Caribbean boys got five good GCSEs, just under half the national average. Why is this? It cannot be lack of potential, or they would not do so well in the early years. Nor is it the result of poverty.

Official statistics show that, among pupils eligible for free school meals, they perform at about average levels - and slightly better than white boys - in key stage 3 tests and GCSE. Among pupils not eligible for free meals, however - technically, the better off - they come bottom, most markedly so at GCSE.

Teachers, academics and politicians have offered various causes. Dr Tony Sewell, a black academic and director of the Hackney Learning Trust, says much of the problem is the stereotype of masculinity within the Afro-Caribbean community, which celebrates sport, music and violence - but not scholarship.

Professor David Gillborn of London University's Institute of Education tends to attribute their poor achievement to low expectations on the part of teachers. The black Labour MP Diane Abbott says white women teachers are to blame for the failure of black boys because they are afraid of them.

Others point to shortcomings in the curriculum, which pays too little attention to black people's history or their contributions to British society.

When nearly half of Afro-Caribbean families are headed by a single parent, many cite the lack of black role models - fathers, politicians or male teachers - for black boys to emulate. It seems that a combination of factors, both educational and cultural, conspires to turn Afro-Caribbean boys off academic learning. And the effects really start to show at key stage 3.

So when London Challenge, the improvement programme for the capital's schools, devised a project for tackling this problem, it was obvious it should form part of the inclusion strand of the key stage 3 strategy. The capital is where most Afro-Caribbean boys are at school: nearly one in three of its 400 schools have 10 per cent or more Afro-Caribbean pupils.

The key to the approach is that this should be a positive programme about learning rather than a negative programme about behaviour.

"This isn't about badly-behaved boys," says Val McGregor, director of this strand of KS3. "This project is aimed at pupils who are not low-attaining but are at risk of under-attaining." So they picked three pilot schools, all identified by inspectors for their good record on keeping their Afro-Caribbean boys on track. The first job was to test the idea of giving extra tutoring to such pupils as they entered secondary school.

So Winchmore began the experiment detailed above. At Forest Hill boys'

school in Lewisham, south London, an experienced woman teacher and specialist in pastoral care ran a structured, six-week programme in study skills for them as part of the PSHE timetable. The scheme here has been running since 2002 and covers Years 7 to 11. The proportion of black pupils getting five good GCSEs has shot up from 26.5 per cent to 44.4 per cent in two years.

And at Southfields, a specialist sports college in Wandsworth, south London, each of a selected group of boys was given an academic tutor and they also took part in a programme of regular, after-school group sessions (see "This breakfast is the business", right).

The three schools started to involve partner schools in their boroughs.

They held a big conference last summer to share their practice and a further 20 schools across London joined up. Many more are now queuing up to start at the end of next month. Meanwhile, the three pilots - Winchmore, Southefield and Forest Hill - have extended their scheme to embrace Year 8.

Essential to the project's success, says Val McGregor, is for each school to identify a member of the senior management team who will take charge.

"This is about proactive, not permissive leadership," she told a conference of participating schools last month. Teachers and advisers at the conference stressed the importance of getting the scheme embedded in the school's timetable and of training for the whole staff. "This is not a bolt-on activity - it has got to be driven from the top down," said one.

Several stressed the importance of teachers' behaviour towards Afro-Caribbean pupils - "modelling respect". Equally vital was teachers'

openness about the issue of racism and their willingness to take risks. One described how she had said to a Afro-Caribbean pupil selected for the scheme: "I expect you're wondering what a white woman is doing here, talking about this." He had been so astonished that he had opened up and was now an enthusiastic participant.

Back at Winchmore, they are hoping that the parents' group will grow into a parents' support network. pointing out that many live some distance from the school and that they no longer have the school-gate contact they enjoyed at primary school. "So that if, for instance, their 14-year-old son is in trouble, they could go and see another parent to talk about it."

Shahid Dean, the assistant head in charge of the Winchmore project, is determined to keep up the momentum and embed the scheme within the school's timetable and practice. He knows the parents would not let it die anyway.

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