In a first floor classroom in Willesden high school in the London borough of Brent, young black men are exchanging views on homosexuality. Ope Bankole, 36, is leading the workshop. He asks all those "who are of the opinion that homosexuality is bad" to go to the far side of the room. Only one boy gets off his chair and crosses the floor. "I don't feel comfortable around them or nothing," he says, sheepishly. Today is Friday and there's been a tangible change from the beginning of the week, when a majority of the boys declared themselves happy to be homophobic.
The purpose of the week-long workshop held at Willesden high is to discover what issues are of concern to young black males aged 14 to 16. "We need informed debate so that we can have informed action," says Bisi Akiwumi, director of the Black Male Project, which organised the workshop. Discussion covers sexuality, language, dress, expectations, ambitions and racism. Underlying the debate is the question Ope Bankole asks during the end-of-week summing up: how well is the education system serving these pupils? "How many of you actually feel that you are taking the knowledge that you need for life?" he says. Only a smattering of hands go up around the room. "It's so hard to believe that we can get jobs, that we're not going to have to steal," says one.
But this kind of attitude is challenged by Ope and his colleagues from the Black Male Project. Mr Bankole, whose parents came to Britain from Nigeria and who attended a comprehensive in Mitcham, Surrey, is well aware that racism is a fact of life for black kids. But his approach is to lead them away from a victim mentality and get them to take responsibility for their own futures. "This is the sharp end," he says of the week, which he's taking as holiday from his job as a senior sales executive with a media group. "You're dealing with underprivileged kids who need to be woken up before it's too late."
Ope Bankole certainly seems like the man to do the waking up. When one boy says he wants to be a musician, Ope asks him what GCSEs he will need. "Why don't you know what you need? Go and find out." He continues to challenge the boys throughout the day. When they name Tupac Shakur, an American rap artist killed three years ago, as a role model, he asks: "Can you respect a man for his music when he lives a life that is just pure stupidness?" When pupils say that only black teachers can understand where they're coming from, he says: "I think at the end of the day maybe you're just using it as an excuse. What is this great difficult thing that you black kids are facing?" Pacing the floor in his fine wool sweater and designer jeans, he displays great energy and courage, and succeeds in holding the interest of this large and sometimes angry group of boys.
The Black Male Project is part of an Internet research initiative for young people called Outcast. Concerned by the high rate of school disaffection and exclusion among young black men, Outcast's founder Bisi Akiwumi, 34, hopes to widen the parameters of debate. "When it comes to black kids," she says, "an honest debate is not taking place. The emphasis on racism as a bar to black male achievement is not strictly accurate. It hides the fact that a lot of work needs to be done with young black men."
Issues of race, disaffection and criminality are thrown into relief at this 544-pupil comprehensive in north-west London. The school is at the stony bottom of the local league tables with just 13.5 per cent of pupils achieving five A-C GCSEs last summer. There were nine reported fatal shootings of young black men in the area last year. Pupils from this school, identifiable by their maroon uniform, attract ridicule on the streets because, they say, the reputation of the school is so poor. These young people inhabit a world where a cluster of disadvantages - poverty, family breakdown, poor environment and a school in special measures - collide. Yet they are loyal and proud of their school. "I love coming to school," says one Year 10 pupil. "I love this school, no matter how bad it is."
The Black Male workshop at Willesden has the flavour of a no-holds-barred PSE session. The boys talk frankly and truthfully about life as they see it, and address Ope Bankole alternately as "man" and "sir". In the course of the day, they role-play common situations, such as encounters with the police in which they are asked to turn out their pockets. They take it in turns to be a headmaster trying to persuade a pupil to stay on at school and take GCSEs, then brainstorm in groups about what obstacles they may encounter in looking for jobs and how they might overcome them. "It's really interesting because it makes you think about life and the past and about how you can achieve more instead of just going on the streets," says 14-year-old Alwayne Codling.
In the hands of Ope Bankole, whose approach clearly wins their respect, macho facades are lowered. Shaun Boyce, 15, a large boy with an uncompromising style of dress and manner, talks about how his mother taught him to cook, and how he cooks for the two of them if she is ill or tired. He takes on the group's view that cooking is women's work. "Anyone can learn to cook," he says. "It's good." They talk about the importance of church and family in their lives, and about the likelihood of friends and acquaintances ending up in prison. It makes for painful listening. "Everyone is just saying that black kids are bad, that we're thieves and killers and things like this. I just want them to know we're not all like that," says one participant.
Bisi Akiwumi was born in Britain but educated in Sierra Leone. A former BBC employee, she says she learned a lot when she began going into British schools for Outcast. "The lack of discipline and resources, the behaviour of the kids... I was shocked," she says. She was warned that black boys would not want to take part in the seminar, that they didn't like to "get involved". The experience at Willesden was quite the reverse, with 18 boys, rather than the dozen planned for, squeezing in. Nobody dropped out and the impression was that every participant was deeply involved.
"It confirmed my view," says Bisi late on Friday afternoon, "that the boys have desires and ambitions and want to have hope. They are hungry, they want something, and that needs to be tapped into."
The Black Male Project offers no answers as yet, although the feedback from the participants was very positive and overwhelmingly they wanted it to continue. Bisi Akiwumi hopes to move the debate forward from what she sees as a narrow focus on racism. "Openness, honesty, transparency and responsibility. Those are the issues that I think are important," she says. "And to stress human engagement."
Outcast - Black Male Project can be contacted co Olabisi Akiwumi, 10 Strawberry Terrace, Coppetts Road, London N10 1JZ. Tel: 0181 883 6479
* ONE TO ONE: WHY MENTORING IS A MUST
Mentoring schemes - seen as a useful way of working with pupils at risk of educational failure and disaffection - have proliferated in recent years. The Commission for Racial Equality has just secured pound;4 million funding for its Millennium Mentor Awards Scheme, aimed particularly (but not only) at helping young black people who have tangled with the police to get involved in community life instead of crime.
The project will be run by training agency RPS Rainer through racial equality councils, and demonstrates CRE chair Herman Ouseley's personal interest in mentoring. "It's important for young black men to see positive role models who are not part of the music world or the American media hype," he says. "They need to see more successful black males who have made it in spite of negative attitudes and can convey to disillusioned youngsters that you can be successful, discrimination notwithstanding."
Herman Ouseley believes positive modelling needs to begin early, with six and seven-year-olds. "You need a positive group leading those coming from behind. Children with a lot of baggage can go off the rails at primary levels - they need supportive programmes to help them focus positively on themselves in spite of what they go home to."
Young black men stand to benefit greatly from the personalised input and attention mentoring offers, says Vince Padi of the African and Afro-Caribbean Peoples' Advisory Group, a south London charity helping families with school issues. "Because many of the boys do not really have any real roots, mentoring is critical to help them identify who they are and to give them a probable direction," he says. "The mentor must be one of their kind, somebody who's been through it, had a similar family background and speaks their language. Anyone over 45 is a waste of time."
The AACPAG has organised more than 300 mentormentee pairings in its six-year history and the results, says Vince Padi, can be dramatic. "Mentors can perform wonders if you give them the freedom and respect to act. It's not the quantity of time together that counts but the quality of the relationship."
The Government is firmly behind mentoring as a tool for raising aspiration in Afro-Caribbean pupils, and in other groups of young people considered at risk. Paul Boateng, deputy home secretary, has praised the activity as "a unique form of one to one community involvement". The government-sponsored National Mentoring Network, established in 1994, now has 600 member organisations, a third of them recruited in the past year. "There is a lot of evidence that it is effective in raising self-esteem and self-confidence," says national co-ordinator Marie Costigan, seconded to the network from the Department for Education and Employment.
But finding black male mentors can be difficult, reports Angela Slaven, chief executive of the Divert Trust, which runs mentoring pairings aimed at Afro-Caribbean pupils in Nottingham and Leicester. "Our biggest struggle is to get black male adult mentors," she says. "In the communities, women have tended to take a significant part in the raising of children. And employment rates in some areas of black men are low. Then it becomes a confidence issue, of 'what have I got to offer?' A lot of the work on self-esteem that we do with young people also needs to be done with adults."
The National Mentoring Network, which has information on new and existing schemes and issues a quarterly bulletin on mentoring, can be contacted on 0161 787 8600. The AACPAG can be contacted on 0181 667 9222The Divert Mentoring Handbook - on how to set up and run a mentoring project - is available free (plus pound;1.50 pamp;p) from Divert Trust, 33 King Street, London WC2E 8JD. Tel: 020 7379 6171