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Forget colour - look at the will to succeed

It appears the dust has finally settled following the publication of Steve Strand's research, which suggested that schools were institutionally racist, albeit without realising it ("Able students denied top grades", TES, September 5).

The main findings of his study were that academically able black Caribbean pupils are less likely to be entered for higher-tier maths and science tests at key stage 3 than white British pupils with the same achievement record. The study was based on test data collected on more than 15,000 14- year-olds.

While under-representation of other groups such as Pakistani, black African and Bangladeshi students could be explained by lower previous attainment in tests taken at the age of 11, this could not explain the lower achievement of black Caribbean pupils; and neither, the study concludes, could differences in social class, gender, maternal education, entitlement to free school meals, attitudes to school, single-parent households or truancy rates. Dr Strand suggests the reason for the under- representation is the result of teachers' judgements of academic potential being distorted by perceptions of pupil behaviour.

While no one can take issue with the data presented in this study, it would be interesting to see exactly how the research was able to rule out all the other factors - particularly attitudes to school - that may help to explain this pattern.

For most teachers working in our target-driven culture, any pupil whose mock Sats result suggested they could be put in for a higher tier would be entered. In other words, it will be pupils' attainment data, not their teachers' perceptions, that will have resulted in the tiering decisions. Of course, that begs the question of why they might be underperforming in their mocks. Perhaps we need to look more widely at factors that affect achievement.

Dr Strand's own research revealed earlier this year that the biggest group of under-achievers is the white working class. He concluded that the most important factors were about children's aspirations for their own future, their self-confidence and their parents' aspirations for them.

It's not just an economic poverty but one of ambition and aspiration. Ironically, these findings concur with the conclusions of the 1985 Swann report, which suggested that schools should focus on the needs of all. The report also found there was no evidence to support the notion that schools were institutionally racist, and strongly rejected the idea of segregated schools.

So what does all this mean? First, we have to accept that there is only so much schools can do to counter the disadvantage that different groups of children face in our society. But many schools have successfully personalised what they do to meet individual needs and raise ambition and aspiration of pupils and their families.

These schools tailor the curriculum to ensure young people feel a sense of achievement and purpose; they track progress closely and provide appropriate and timely intervention; they have discipline systems based on both rewards and sanctions; they offer positive adult role models from the local community, and they go to great lengths to develop trust and partnership between school and home.

The review of personalisation by Christine Gilbert, now chief inspector, provided a detailed analysis of what we can do to ensure all pupils fulfil their potential. Other agencies have responded too. The Training and Development Agency for Schools has for many years been working with great success towards challenging targets for minority ethnic recruitment. The new Masters in Teaching and Learning is also an opportunity to develop teachers' understanding of this complex issue.

Of course, Dr Strand may be right and we may be institutionally racist. But it could be that the reason for the underachievement isn't the issue - it's what we do about it.

Andy Buck, Headteacher at the Eastbrook-Jo Richardson partnership in Barking and Dagenham in east London.

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