When black infant boys enter the school system aged five all too often they find themselves on the edge of the abyss. For many, nursery school will prove to be the high point of their academic career as a result of an educational system that will will fail them.
The bleak reality is that there is an alarming decline in the level of attainment of black school boys between the ages of 5 and 16. Theories abound as explanation for this worrying decline.
Diane Abbott MP is outspoken on the issue. She represents Hackney North and Stoke Newington, an inner-city area of London, where black children make up a large proportion of the schools population. She is also the mother of a black boy in primary education.
She recognises that the issue of black under-achievement is complex, but steadfastly refuses to put the blame at the door of victims. They are failing because they are being failed, she argues.
"If you move to place the burden of failure on youth culture and peer pressure then you are blaming the victim. The same child that a teacher in the mainstream may regard as difficult, may often excel in supplementary schools or if they are sent to the Caribbean for their education.
"When you challenge teachers on the issue of race, they will tell you it's about class, or it's about gender. Yet middle-class black boys also perform worse than middle-class white boys.
"What has yet to happen is the implementation of a decisive strategy to establish why there is such an achievement gap. Would you rather address the cause and effect, or simply build prisons?"
Supplementary education is one remedial strategy often advocated to redress the balance and it has proved highly effective, when supported through local education authority funding and with the backing of the schools.
However, this all rather skirts around the roots of the problem. Abbott believes that the perception held of black boys in the classroom by their teachers must also be addressed: "Black boys are seen as particularly threatening. But I will not buy the notion that there is something specific about African Caribbean boys which means they are doomed to failure."
Gloria Hyatt is headteacher of Elimu Academy in Toxteth, Liverpool, a school that accepts excluded children, a high proportion of whom are black.
She believes that although peer pressure to "act black" and the influence of negative media portrayals of young black men may create barriers, there is a need for schools to focus on black achievement throughout the curriculum.
"The influence of black people on all areas of world history should be taught throughout the curriculum, not just as an 'add-on'. There is also a successful black, middle-class population in this country, but they're not profiled so there's little for students to be inspired by."
There are a number of strategies being developed that suggest teachers can make a difference with the right training and resources. Whitehall is investing pound;450 million through the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant (EMAG). This money has been devolved straight to schools in the ten areas of the country with the highest concentration of ethnic minority students.
The focus is on the transition from key stage 3 to 4, monitoring, parental involvement and analysis of performance data. This practical focus suggests that there is now a more open acknowledgement of the need for action and contrasts with the very general guidance offered by Ofsted in a recent report on good practice.
Inspectors visited nine schools (six secondary and three primary) which were more successful than most in raising the levels of achievement of their black Caribbean pupils. They also looked at rates of exclusion which, although declining, still reveal that black pupils are four times more likely to be excluded from school than all pupils nationally.
The Ofsted findings were that the success of these schools could be attributed to "mutual understanding and respect, an ethos of fairness and equality and an expectation of high standards of achievement". In addition "pupils are given personal support, a variety of extra-curricular activities and well-drafted classroom routines and clear outcomes for the work".
All these aims are very noble, but would seem to be good practice for all pupils and don't acknowledge the very specific pressures faced by black teenagers.
The Teacher Training Agency (TTA) is trying to improve the volume of ethnic minority recruitment into teaching. In 2002, the number of blacks rose a percentage point to 7.8 per cent of new recruits.
Gordon Griffiths of the agency outlined some of the ways it is trying to increase the number of black teachers.
"We are working with schools and colleges at ground level to try and meet targets and we often arrange for people from different backgrounds, who may have been out of education for a number of years to go in to schools for visits," he said.
A successful strategy at Goldsmiths College in south London has set up taster courses for people from ethnic minorities who are considering teaching as a career. When Dilly McDermott, head of the graduate teacher programme at Goldsmiths, introduced the first courses in May, she said: "It is important that students are taught by teachers from all sections of society to reflect the diversity of our schools."
The scheme was so popular there are going to be in the region of 200-250 places on it this year.
The agency also gives money to service providers so they can update marketing material, review selection procedures and support and welcome trainees.
A pilot scheme was set up last year by the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) to help black and Asian teachers get into senior and management positions.
It looked at the specific professional needs of this group of teachers and how to support them in schools. It has proved so successful it is now being extended and offered to 150 teachers at centres in London, Bristol, Nottingham, Newcastle and Grantham.
Tony Sewell, education consultant and a director of the Learning Trust in Hackney, agrees that there are often negative expectations of black boys. Many white teachers, he believes, are afraid to discipline black students for fear of being accused of racism.
However, he recognises that many young teachers are thrust into schools that are already failing; as a result, they are inevitably affected by the prevailing spirit there.
"Too many newly qualified teachers don't get to see the system working well. They getdisillusioned and quit," he points out.
While it would be good to have more black teachers, that does not address the wider issue, he argues.
"Teachers can learn a teaching style that engages black students. Active learning is needed, but the colour of teachers is not the issue. I see no evidence that black students need black teachers. Teachers can learn more about different cultures as they get more experience - most successful teachers do this.
"There is a wider problem which is the peer group pressure these boys face. PSHE (Personal and Social Education) is a good starting point for engaging students in the debate and looking at their responsibilities. We also need to address parental responsibility, particularly with very young parents."
Dr Sewell has produced a video that can be used as a tool in the classroom for opening up discussion around these issues. His advice to teachers is to "love and discipline the children you teach as you would your own child".
Gloria Hyatt goes further and feels that the success she has achieved in her own school lies in the whole-school policy as well as teachers'
"All schools should promote social justice as a key area of policy and should provide opportunities for teachers to have training in conflict resolution," she says.
"Schools should also be monitoring children at risk of exclusion carefully and encouraging parental involvement. Many black parents are not confident about coming into schools because of their own educational experiences, and this adds to teachers' misconceptions about a lack of commitment to education."
Angela Miller, a PGCE student teacher at the Institute of Education in London, feels she has had a very good preparation for the realities of the multicultural classroom so far. In the first month of the course a lecture was given by Professor David Gillborn, who is an authority on classroom equality, on racist stereotypes that exist in the classroom and ways of dealing with inequalities of both class and race.
"There has been a strong emphasis on these issues from the start," says Angela, "starting with the theories and then moving onto the practical. After our lecture we followed up the discussion in our seminar and there was massive feedback. The sense I get is that the tutors want us to have a rounded understanding of the reality of the multicultural classroom."
Some of the advice Angela is following as a result of these discussions is to try and understand cultural issues, use the curriculum to open up debate, share cultural stories within the classroom and not to make assumptions.
"I'm from a small village in Lincolnshire and so I'm aware that there are gaps in my understanding of different cultures. I see it as a problem, but it's one I can overcome."
All teachers need to find ways of approaching children with different backgrounds and experiences to their own. Clare, a teacher for several years at a boys' school in inner London and now an educational consultant, says she did not experience problems with the black boys she taught.
"You do need to employ sensitivity and be aware of using different strategies to achieve success. After working at a mixed school and giving praise very openly and directly, I moved to an all-boys environment and discovered the boys were often very embarrassed by this. I learnt to give praise and encouragement more discreetly, so the boys didn't get teased by their friends. I also rang home regularly to tell parents about the achievements of their sons and this helped me to develop positive relationships with the parents as well."
Good teachers, male and female, black and white, want all their pupils to achieve their full potential. To have a specific group of children consistently under- performing reflects badly on all children, but there are signs that teachers are entering the classroom with more confidence to engage in the debate than in the past. With the issue of black boys'
achievement now firmly on the agenda, there is an opportunity to make a positive change which could have an effect beyond the walls of the classroom.
Anthea Davey is a teacher in north west London. She is also a freelance writer with black news and features agency www.snowmedia.net
BOTTOM OF THE PILE: HOW BLACK BOYS RANK AT GCSE
Indian girls 66
White girls 55
Indian boys 54
Black girls 46
White boys 45
Other groups girls 44
Other groups boys 40
PakistaniBangladeshi girls 37
Black boys 31
PakistaniBangladeshi boys 22
EXCLUSIONS PER 10,000
Black Caribbean 40
Other Black 38