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Growing up amid guns and gangs

Harsh life outside the school gates means odds are stacked against many urban black pupils, reports Nicholas Pyke

Devon Hanson knows that the pupils he teaches return every night to estates ringing to the sound of police sirens and occasional gunfire.

But, though poverty and violence have a huge effect, they are not the whole story, says Mr Hanson, one of London's most senior black teachers, an English specialist and director of work-related studies at a large Southwark secondary school. Despite inner-city problems, he thinks schools can make more of a difference.

Mr Hanson was brought up in Peckham and, as a child, attended the same primary school as the murdered schoolboy Damilola Taylor. He now teaches many of Damilola's former classmates.

He told The TES: "Our kids first arrive at school like any others, optimistic and looking forward to learning. Unfortunately many of the black pupils go back to estates where it's a totally different world - a world of police sirens and maybe even the sound of gunshots.

"It has a major effect, and the baggage carried by our pupils, particularly boys, is getting larger. It's only the strong ones who can come through without the support of parents and committed teachers.

"What I tell black children is this - you're here for your own benefit and even if you think some teachers are a problem, you've got to get beyond that. You don't have to like them to get good exam results. Smile, maintain eye contact and maintain your sense of integrity."

Mr Hanson was one of 2,000 parents and teachers attending last Saturday's conference in London on the problem of underachievement by African-Caribbean pupils.

Schools, they were told, can and should do much more to engage black boys. They are bottom of the academic pile at 16, despite entering the school system at the age of five apparently well-adjusted and academically successful.

Black boys are also between three and six times as likely to be excluded as their white counterparts. Diane Abbott, the left-wing backbench MP who staged the conference, has described it as a "silent catastrophe".

After years of working with black youngsters, Mr Hanson, 44, agrees that schools should be doing more.

He accepts that black parents also need to do more to engage with the school system. But he said that parents should be given more support and schools should treat them as partners.

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