Liz Rasekoala is worried. Qualified as a chemical engineer in Nigeria, she came to Britain 10 years ago to take a masters degree. Now, working as an industrial consultant and with two children of her own, she is deeply anxious that black Caribbean children raised in Britain are not following in her - or her husband's - footsteps as professional scientists, mathematicians and engineers. "The next generation should be taking our place but where are they?" As spokeswoman for the African-Caribbean Network for Science and Technology, she points to a dismaying level of under-achievement, saying that a debate about low expectations is long overdue. "When I go into schools and tell them I'm a chemical engineer they look at me as if I'm out of Star Trek."
The network is a national organisation of black, mainly African, scientists and engineers committed to collecting and disseminating information on black under-achievement in science and maths.
Now they are armed with a new set of unpublished statistics which reveals huge inequalities of achievement between different ethnic groups and, in particular, the low level of attainment among black Caribbean children.
In a country where only 17 per cent of all students take science beyond GCSE, disinterest among young blacks is not a surprise. But the statistics - collected by a large metropolitan authority - shocked the officers who collated them. "They were scared about the findings and didn't know what to do with them. They asked us to use them nationally to bring other local education authorities out of the closet and get a national debate going."
The council conducted a survey of 1,508 children in 15 of its secondary schools with the highest number of ethnic minority pupils (more than 80 per cent of the city's total black and minority ethnic pupils were in these schools). Only 10 per cent of black Caribbean children received five grades A to C at GCSE, against the national average of 43.5 per cent. What's worse, only 7 per cent left school with a GCSE pass in the crucial area of maths.
Although national trends can't be extrapolated on the basis of one LEA's figures, the statistics are in line with data and observations that the network has collected from 30 secondary schools in five major metropolitan LEAs in the north of England and the Midlands. Birmingham LEA figures for the same year show only a marginal improvement over the surveyed authorities, with 12 per cent of black Caribbean children getting five A to C GCSEs. The message is loud, clear and bleak: as a group, pupils of African Caribbean origin are doing worse than all other children in the core subjects and are leaving school without qualifications in maths and science.
"What future," asks Ms Rasekoala, "will black Caribbean young people have in this western, numerate, industrialised society? What we're looking at is a system sitting back and watching black kids leaving school at 16 to face a world in which they're not even qualified for an apprenticeship. It's like saying that we've found the next generation of cleaners."
The major difference between the way the information is presented by most schools and LEAs - those who bother with ethnic monitoring at all - and this authority's survey is the way the data is broken down. Where such information exists, it is generally listed by broadly-based groups (for example: white, black, Asian, other).
But the education department which undertook this survey did the most thorough breakdown to date, looking at the GCSE results by subject area and by carefully delineated ethnic divisions: black African, black Caribbean, black other, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Greek Cypriot, Indian, Pakistani, white UK, white other, Vietnamese, any other ethnic group and unclassified.
The survey shows that it is black Caribbean boys who are consistently at the bottom of the heap. While the average GCSE point score of black Caribbean girls was 2.63 (as opposed to 3.66 for white UK girls and 5.79 for the highest-achieving girls, black Africans), black Caribbean boys only averaged 1.99 (compared to 3.35 for white UK boys and, at the top of the male league, 3.63 for Indian boys).
The African-Caribbean Network believes that this data represents an explosive situation, particularly in relation to maths, for which only 7 per cent of black Caribbean children achieved A to Cs (compared to 35.2 per cent of UK white and 50 per cent of black Africans). Things are not much better in science, with only 9.3 per cent receiving A to C grades, which is less than any other ethnic group by at least two points.
This point is underlined by the paucity of black access courses in maths, science and technology. In the network's survey of the 10 major metropolitan authorities in England where 90 per cent of black Caribbeans live, there was no black access course in one of these subjects. "What you find is money being thrown at English language courses and the humanities. So many young blacks go into social work and the caring professions. Where else can they go without maths?" says Ms Rasekoala. "Law school requires GCSE maths as does teacher training - and accountancy and business studies."
The network's meetings with headteachers have borne out the data. Although all were concerned about what they acknowledged to be a trend of black under-achievement, a good proportion were concerned about its implications on the school's public profile. One head of an inner city comprehensive in the north minced no words. "I'll take all the African children I can get, but I don't want black Caribbeans. They're bad for league tables."
In the Midlands, another head's response was to point out that in her school, black Caribbean children were doing even worse: only 4 per cent in the previous year had achieved A to C maths scores at GCSE.
If this survey adds weight to fears that a spiralling downward trend does indeed exist - as the network, the Commission for Racial Equality and many educationists believe - a sound analysis is less easy to find. Why black Caribbean children in particular come out so badly in the core subjects has taxed academics and practitioners for years. And why is it that, as a Birmingham survey pointed out last year, black Caribbean boys start out at primary among the highest-achieving pupils and then fall down so dramatically when they transfer to secondary school?
Whatever the reasons, the revelation of these figures focuses attention on the need for more detailed information from schools and LEAs on how different groups of children are achieving.
Dr David Gillborn, lecturer in the sociology of education at London University's Institute of Education has a particular interest in the subject. OFSTED commissioned him - with Professor Caroline Gipps, dean of research at the Institute - to review recent research on the attainment of ethnic miniority pupils. The authors analysed responses from a wide range of LEAs, offering the most far-reaching update of current thinking on ethnic minority achievement since the Swann report of the mid 1980s.
But although completed last autumn, the highly sensitive report is still with the chief inspector, and there has been speculation that it will not be published in full, although a spokesperson denies there is anything "untoward" in the delay.
Although the network's single LEA survey cannot be held up as signifying a national trend on its own, Dr Gillborn sees its exposure as important, primarily because "it raises a whole set of vitally important questions to do with the need for ethnic monitoring.
"Monitoring allows you to identify where social injustice occurs. If you don't ask questions about how different ethnic groups experience education, inequalities can remain masked."
The CRE has been lobbying the Department for Education and Employment and OFSTED for several years to introduce comprehensive ethnic monitoring of schools. At present the DFEE asks schools to give information with their annual census, completed every January, on numbers of ethnic minority pupils, the two largest groups and the numbers needing language support.
Phil Barnett of the CRE believes that while this is a step in the right direction, it is too small and tentative to make any impact. "It's not clear what anybody will do with this aggregated data or how it can help."
He decries the DFEE's assertion that it must not overburden schools by demanding more detailed ethnic breakdowns.
"In the absence of hard data showing where the inequalities of achievement lie in the form of proper ethnic monitoring, we can't remove those barriers to learning that are standing in the way."
The CRE has a draft of David Gillborn and Caroline Gipps's report and is also in consultation with the African-Caribbean Network, with whom it may collaborate on further research.
Liz Rasekoala and her network colleagues are committed to getting these issues debated and the tide turned. "We want to be honest brokers in this. The parents of black children as well as the schools have to look to themselves. Maybe there are things we could all do better.
"All I want is a situation where black Caribbean children are coming out of school with options and some hope for the future. We're not out to create a black elite. We just want to give them a broad base of opportunity."
THE AFRICAN-CARIBBEAN NETWORK FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
This group of 60 scientists, mathematicians, medical professionals and engineers was set up last year in response to growing concerns about the under-achievement of black Caribbean pupils. Based in Manchester but with a national membership, it works with schools, colleges and education authorities by:
* aiming to motivate children's interest by highlighting the achievements of black people in the professions
* providing a mentoring scheme with black scientists and other positive role models
* using a schools outreach service in which black professionals spend time in classrooms assisting multi-cultural maths and science modules
* making tutorial support available for children and young people from the age of nine through to undergraduates, every day after school, Saturday mornings and during school holidays
* running reguular short courses to explain the education system to parents and an information service to help pupils and students who are interested in entering careers in science and techology.
To find out more about the African-Caribbean Network for Science and Technology, contact Liz Rasekoala at 19 Dorchester Road, Swinton, Manchester M27 5PX. Tel: 0161 727 9188.
TRINITY HIGH SCHOOL
In the part-urban jungle, part-moonscape that is the HulmeMoss Side area of Manchester sits the city's top-scoring school.
Michael Evans (left), founding head of Trinity C of E High, boasts a 51 per cent A to C GCSE rate for last year and a 90 per cent staying-on rate at post-16. A quarter of pupils travel in from middle-class suburbs - although one third is from HulmeMoss Side. Mr Evans, who ethnically monitors his students, quotes the pecking order of achievementI"white girls, followed by black girls, then white boys. The black boys come lowest.
"You can't work in this area without noticing disparity of achievement. Amongst other factors, we know that a lot of the black boys are from single-parent families. Some are absolutely at sea, not knowing what's expected of them; some of the potential mentors, young men in their early 20s, are caught up in drug-related crime. We have backgrounds every bit as supportive as you'd hope to find - but also a lack of support by some parents who aren't equipped to make things happen."
To counterbalance the inequalities, Mr Evans backs the traditional yardsticks of progress in English, maths and science. And he places great importance on the Network's efforts to focus attention on under-achievement. "It has gone unaddressed for too long."