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Phillips puts black boys centre stage

Media coverage of Trevor Phillips's suggestion that black boys could be taught separately from their white peers illustrates the enduringly powerful hold issues of race have over our society. The proposal, the latest in a long line of suggested remedies for the underperformance of black boys, whipped the media into a frenzy and has been vehemently criticised for raising the spectre of segregation (see Another Voice).

Although he talked about the need for shock treatment, Mr Phillips, the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, actually ventured quite tentatively into these tricky waters. He was not advocating complete separation of pupils by race, merely suggesting that the idea that black youngsters could be taught apart from white children for some lessons should be investigated.

He was right to be cautious. Several practical questions follow from the suggestion. Would these classes only be for underachieving black boys? This already happens by default in some British and American schools, where African-Caribbean youngsters are over-represented in lower sets and streams.

Even if separation could be shown to have a positive effect on the youngsters' exam results, many would argue that it would come at an unacceptably high price. Is separation really the best way to encourage inter-racial understanding? Recognising that underachievement among some groups is an issue does not have to equate to teaching black boys separately. There is no denying, however, the seriousness of the problem.

Ministers have highlighted figures showing black pupils' GCSE results improved faster last year than those of other races. It is also true that white working-class boys are doing slightly worse at GCSE than their black classmates. But other official statistics show a widening white-black gap at GCSE over the past 15 years.

If Mr Phillips's comments mean that fresh attention is focused on a seemingly intractable problem that has dogged education, in Britain and the United States, for decades, perhaps he has done us all a favour.

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