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Hope has to be the new black

A treasury of reflections on African-Caribbean underachievement strikes an all too familiar chord with Tim Brighouse

Tell It Like It Is: How our schools fail black children

Edited by Brian Richardson

Bookmarks Publications and Trentham Books pound;6.99

This book adds to an ever-growing literature on racism and black underachievement in school. This one, however, is different. It has no fewer than 31 contributors, with a preface by Sir Herman Ouseley, former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, an introduction from the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, and a foreword from Doreen Lawrence, the death of whose son Stephen in 1993 sparked a renewed energy for tackling the issue. Even if it is a pity that Brian Richardson has not summarised some simple recommendations for action, he has nevertheless put together a set of vivid cameos. They contain a series of suggestions which, if taken together and applied consistently, would make a difference to the apparently intractable problem of race, poverty and educational underachievement often labelled the "cycle of disadvantage".

Amid the treasure of important contributions is the seminal pamphlet by Bernard Coard, published in 1971, How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system: the scandal of the black child in schools in Britain. It had an electrifying effect on a few influential and senior people within the education system, as Sally Tomlinson's and Chris Searle's contributions to the book show. I, too, recall the impact of Coard's work on the policies of the Inner London Education Authority. Indeed, several larger cities at the time embarked on intensive efforts to address the problem. Coard's reflections almost 35 years on, also included along with so many vivid and desperate stories from other contributors, underline how limited our achievements since then have been.

Three episodes from my own return to urban education in Birmingham in the early 1990s confirm the validity of this judgment. The first is of a Saturday meeting in Lozells, near Handsworth, in my first week in post: a baptism of fire. The hall was full of 300 or so people from the African-Caribbean community. All were angry. All felt let down by the education system. Most were in despair. It was difficult not to be defensive and almost impossible to persuade them that I would or could contribute anything. Three years later, in 1997, the publication of Ian Grosvenor's extraordinary book, Assimilating Identities: Racism and educational policy in post-1945 Britain, lifted the veil on that city's education committee documents from the 1960s, when Enoch Powell made his notorious "rivers of blood" speech. Try this draft advertisement (intended to recruit teachers) for size: B Birmingham children are white and they're black

I Immigrants come, we can't send them back

R Really we'd like to but now they're here

M Millions who multiply year after year

I It's our job to teach them to live just like us

N Nicely and soberly without any fuss

G God knows how we'll do it, we'd all like to try

* Have you desire to give help and try

A And teach in our schools? We'll see you get paid

M May we please employ you to give us your aid?

Reading this and Grosvenor's other revelations, I began to realise just how let down the Windrush generation and their children must have felt. My final recollection, which confirmed me in this judgment, is of a farewell presentation for a Birmingham head at which various influential figures from his past emerged in This is Your Life style. These included his first headteacher, at that point an octogenarian in a wheelchair, who waxed eloquently and innocently about his triumphs in the 1960s in a Birmingham city centre primary school. "They were great days," he told the gathering, "until those little black children came along and spoiled it all." The silence was broken only by gasps of shocked disbelief until he was wheeled off with muttered thanks, to his bewildered confusion and our embarrassment. I resolved to redouble my personal support for the efforts made on behalf of the city's African-Caribbean and Asian population.

So when I read books like Tell It Like It Is, I want to agree but also, very gently, protest. For we have made at least the modest progress that most schools' attitudes have changed since the 1960s, 70s and 80s. And, as this volume shows, there are at last emerging promising examples which show that differences can be made. But the black communities' successful participation in the widened access to further and higher education (illustrated here by Stella Dodzie and Lola Young) should not obscure the need to do much more about their children's unsuccessful experience of schooling - or, worse still, their exclusion from it. Here the chapters from Sharon Geer about the profoundly successful interventions at Forest Hill school in the London borough of Lewisham and from David Simon about the supplementary school movement provide some rays of hope.

Indeed, the number of schools known to buck the depressing trend grows with every year. As David Gilborn points out, however, until system-wide change is energetically pursued and sustained we shall continue to wring our hands. At that level, Ofsted inspections, the provision of comparative ethnic performance detail, the inclusion of an equal opportunities paragraph on all reports (including white papers!), the overhaul of curriculum content and examinations and the spread of good professional development initiatives - such as the chartered London teacher, which has specific requirements to extend the cultural knowledge of beginning teachers in urban areas - are all required.

So too is the setting of targets for better representation of different communities in the teaching profession. At school level, job descriptions, mentoring schemes, monitoring the performance of underachieving groups and acting on the outcome and attending to professional development are all needed. Most importantly, adopting formative assessment and abandoning streaming are crucial.

When all these are common practice, with an overall commitment to overcome the issue of poverty-induced disadvantage for all groups (including, in particular, white and black boys on free school meals), we shall at last be able to be proud to live in a multifaith, multiracial and multilingual society committed to fairness for all.

And if this sounds all too serious, buy the book if only for Benjamin Zephaniah's poems, which will make you smile as he cuts you to the quick.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser of the London Schools Challenge

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