"I've seen the light at the end of the tunnel": how "de-racialising" black students was a recipe for success
As a way of driving up attainment among black British teenagers, it was certainly a bold experiment: take a group of high-achieving boys away from their peers and whisk them off to Jamaica to spend their summers learning advanced science at the University of the West Indies.
But the experiment – dubbed Generating Genius by academic Tony Sewell (pictured), who founded the project to try and steer young black males away from a toxic culture of gangs, drugs and low expectations - seems to have paid off.
Seven years on, the project's first group of awkward 12-year-olds have become ambitious young men, and are all studying science subjects at the UK’s leading universities.
The young men are the subject of the BBC Radio 4 documentary Bright, Black and Looking for Work, in which they look back on how they have changed over the last few years, and what lessons they have learned through the scheme.
Jamal Miller erupts with laughter after hearing his 12-year-old self, about to fly to Jamaica for the first time, confess: “My name’s Jamal, and I’m a little bit nervous, but very excited.”
“I do remember the excitement,” he admits. “Being selected for the programme was like my talent had been recognised.”
And the consequences have been profound, he adds. “I’ve actually seen really successful black individuals and black leaders, and seen the light at the end of the tunnel, almost, and a taste of where I want to be. Then it’s a lot easier to just keep your head down [and study] because you know where you want to get to.”
It has also been a valuable learning experience for Dr Sewell.
“What we did was ‘de-racialise’ these children,” the academic says. “We removed them from their peer group and said, ‘It doesn't matter what your background is, you're now geniuses’.”
The project has been expanded over the last eight years, and now works with around 500 children – girls and boys from all racial groups - throughout the secondary school age range. Its primary focus, however, is no longer on African-Caribbean youth, Dr Sewell explains.
“Now I'm going in to schools in Essex and doing the same for white working-class boys who are now the group saying they don't want to learn and achieve.
“While the picture in London for African-Caribbean children is now greatly improved, the cycle is repeating itself among white working class boys.”
Bright, Black and Looking for Work will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow at 11am.