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Building a culture of success

Robust anti-racist policies, respect and high expectations help breed achievement for black Caribbean students, writes David Bell

Black History Month provides us with an opportunity to revisit issues of importance to the black community, including educational opportunity and achievement. Our annual report this year highlighted that boys and girls of black Caribbean heritage continue to lag behind most of their peers in secondary school. This issue has again hit the headlines in recent weeks and our findings have been confirmed in a recent report from the London Development Agency, The educational experiences of black boys in London schools 2000-2003.

The evidence available shows that the relative performance of black Caribbean pupils compared with their peers declines at key stage 2, tails off badly at KS3 and is below that of most other ethnic groups at KS4.

Black Caribbean pupils also appear to be in trouble in schools more often than their peers. The exclusion of black pupils is still around three times higher than that of white pupils.

This situation is unacceptable. We have a duty to ensure that all our children get a good education, not just a lucky majority. But there are schools which are bucking the trend. Two reports published by the Office for Standards in Education in 2002 showed that good, successful schools can raise the achievement of their black Caribbean pupils. Our evidence shows that there are several key characteristics of both primary and secondary schools where black Caribbean pupils flourish.

It is critical to the success of such schools that headteachers and managers gain the confidence of parents and pupils. They must establish their credibility in the communities they serve.

Schools must build an ethos that instils confidence in their black Caribbean pupils and creates a culture of achievement. It is a fundamental part of a school's work that they commit to valuing and including pupils and ensuring that they have high expectations of themselves. Teachers' expectations of pupils must then be backed up by intensive support.

Teachers need to cultivate positive relationships with their pupils. Black Caribbean pupils respond best in lessons which offer intellectual engagement and where there are well-defined classroom routines and clear outcomes of work.

When teachers have high expectations of pupils and give them support, the response of pupils is very often highly positive. Many pupils see the response to black people in wider society as often marked by negativity and discrimination and the notion of "respect" in schools is of critical importance.

Schools must have a clear stance on racism. Schools where black Caribbean pupils achieve well have a strong commitment to equal opportunities and unambiguous and direct policies against racism.

This encourages pupils to respect one another and means that black pupils will be confident that action will be taken on any incidents they report.

Our evidence suggests there are three broad steps that primary and secondary schools can take to ensure that their black Caribbean pupils achieve success.

The first is to develop confidence and sophistication in approaching ethnic diversity. Schools need to use data effectively to focus attention and resources. Along with this comes the need for open debate among staff, pupils and parents about barriers to achievement. This is complicated and sensitive territory and many schools in ethnically diverse areas are plainly nervous about opening up such a debate for fear of making things worse. But schools do need to open up this debate.

The second step is to focus on how to integrate specific action on minority ethnic achievement within schools' usual improvement initiatives. Action on ethnic minority achievement is not something to be pursued as an after thought or by the committed few. Schools need to set clear objectives and targets for greater participation and higher attainment. These need to be central to the schools' basic systems and approaches and made relevant to all staff.

The third issue - and the one on which work has been least systematic to date -is to improve connections between schools and other local services in joint action on social inclusion. More needs to be done across the public services to focus on the inclusion of disadvantaged groups as a matter of basic principle and routine. Schools are receiving less help than they need in this respect and many schools in ethnically diverse areas are under great pressure as a result.

For example, our annual report this year found that one quarter of local education authorities need to do more to combat racism in education.

Inspectors found large gaps between the authorities that are succeeding in this area and those that are failing to combat racism and promote equal opportunities effectively enough.

For too long now, black Caribbean children have been let down by our education system. But our evidence shows that in good schools, with the help of good teachers, black Caribbean pupils can achieve their potential.

Schools and LEAs should look closely at the work of successful schools and LEAs are doing to make sure that all children and young people, regardless of their ethnic group, are given the best opportunities to succeed in education.

David Bell is the chief inspector of schools

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