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The last chance generation

Reva Klein reports on a conference called to discuss Caribbean children's failure in maths and science.

What do teachers know about black achievements in maths and science? Is there a role that science plays in the history of race equality or is science a discipline that transcends cultural and racial boundaries?

The recent expose of African Caribbean pupils' underachievement in maths and science brought together Birmingham headteachers, teachers, local authority officers, including Chief Education Officer Tim Brighouse, at a conference to discuss ways of reversing this trend.

Analysis by the LEA has found that only 8.6 per cent of black Caribbean boys achieved grades A-C in maths and 12.4 per cent in science GCSE. In comparision, 34.2 per cent of Indian boys got a top mark in maths.

The conference, organised by Birmingham Partnership for Change, looked at why schools needed to respond quickly to what Liz Rasekoala of the African Caribbean Network for Science and Technology calls "a national scandal".

Rather than looking at the reasons for the failure of, in particular, black Caribbean boys in these subjects, teachers should concentrate on ways of helping them.

Such thinking has to include the whole school. According to Rasekoala, a Manchester-based chemical engineer who is at the forefront of a campaign to raise black achievement, schools must ask themselves "what they are doing to ensure equality, how they are delivering the curriculum, how they are challenging racial stereotypes.

"Ethnic monitoring of all exams, including GCSEs and SATs, should be implemented in order to allow targeting of resources," she says. "And schools must develop a way of introducing multicultural maths and science programmes. "

While educationists tackled this kind of work with energy and enthusiasm in the Seventies and early Eighties, multiculturalism in the curriculum has been relegated to the back shelf in recent years.

Newly qualified teachers, in particular, have little theoretical or practical grounding and find it difficult to draw on examples and illustrations outside European culture.

Steve Thorp, curriculum advisor for Northamptonshire Education Authority and editor of Race Equality and Science Teaching contends that schools need to acknowledge that "the way scientists look at things has a very specific cultural context.

"Science is a culturally bound system of thought. And within that system, where the stereotype of the white man in the white coat prevails, access to positive examples of black scientists is marginal. We just don't see them in mainstream culture."

Science teachers, who often see themselves as scientists first and teachers second, need to meet the challenge of creating positive black and multicultural contexts in their teaching.

"It's difficult to invent contexts," Steve Thorp admits, "but the more creative we become, the easier it will be. By finding black scientists involved in the development of theories or discoveries, you can make lessons more interesting for all kids. This isn't about making science Afrocentric instead of Eurocentric, but about contextualising the subject, making it more global. "

If the education system is to put an end to "the betrayal of black children's and parent's aspirations," as Liz Rasekoala puts it, local education authorities, schools and the careers service need to look closely at the curriculum and how it is being presented.

If this doesn't happen - and happen fast - "we will be failing another generation of young people and we'll be doing so at our peril."

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