A survivor's tale of friendship in life and death
Duwayne Brooks, who escaped the racist gang that murdered his friend Stephen Lawrence, was himself subsequently treated like a criminal. Tim Brighouse on the problems that schools cannot address alone
There's more to this book than meets the eye, and a lot meets the eye. Mostly it's the frightening inefficiency - ineptitude laced with racism - of the police, and the incompetence of the Crown Prosecution Service. Only eight of the 300 pages are about school. It was at Blackheath Bluecoat school that Duwayne Brooks became Stephen Lawrence's best friend.
This book provides a fresh slant on Stephen's appalling death one night 10 years ago, following a gang attack on him and Brooks by young white thugs in a part of south-east London notorious for racist attacks. We hear of Brooks's subsequent trauma; of the events then Home Secretary Jack Straw put in train, leading to the Macpherson inquiry on the handling of Stephen's murder; of Brooks's friendship with a white middle-class woman lawyer; of the consequences of his decision to sue the police; of the concocted rape case against him; and of the multiple "police questioning" black youngsters experience as part of everyday urban life. In short, to read this book is to begin to understand what it feels like to be a black teenager in inner-city London in the last decade of the 20th century.
It's a frighteningly hopeless place. Brooks was born to a teenage mother and an absent father who retires to Jamaica. He tells of life at a secondary school that he perceives as having pretensions to being posh, by virtue of its location and church foundation. It is, in fact, a school the well-off local parents don't support but which acts as a magnet to black parents who live further away and are anxious to ensure for their youngsters something better than their local school, or who can't get admission to a preferred school. There are a few such schools in London and most urban areas, but they are relatively unusual.
But like the original schools built to serve council estates, those that serve predominantly incoming refugees, asylum seekers and other economic migrants, Brooks's old school is desperately trying to get a toehold on a culture of achievement. Some schools achieve such a tenuous toehold by extraordinary effort, skill, commitment, unrelenting energy and an optimism that brooks no denial. They begin to show that whole schools can make a dent in the correlation between disadvantage and educational failure.
Individual teachers have been doing this for years - Brooks sings the praises of at least three who taught at Blackheath Bluecoat - and some departments do it too.
We now know, in a way we didn't when Brooks, now 28, left school, how schools can succeed, and in the very recent past we have found out how some schools help black pupils to unlock their talent. What we must do is find the skills to spread successful practice.
It's the examples of whole schools which succeed against the odds that we should heed if we are to change the apparent inevitablity of the cycle of disadvantage endlessly repeating itself. These schools are the keys to our success. They don't need endless "on report" inspections, which can have the perverse effect of driving out the good staff who are holding the school together but get fed up with being the subject of another inspection visit made to keep up the percentages of good lessons. Once a school in such circumstances is moving in the right direction - and most are - they need our unequivocal and skilled support.
But this book is relatively silent about school. Instead, in gripping prose, we hear of the pubs, roads and communities black youngsters fear to visit, where they will hear chants of "nigger, nigger"; where they will be spat on. The dangers are exposed for leaders to heed if they will.
If ever there were a forceful argument for "place making" - what the Government calls, and is now funding as, "neighbourhood renewal" - the implications of this book make it. Policy makers will fully understand and feel passionate about the complex issues involved only if they get out of their cars and taxis, take tubes and buses and walk the estates, as I have been doing recently in a pilgrimage around London secondaries.
We know the answer lies there, and it will be the devil's own job to spread what we know fast enough. But we mustn't continue to act as though if we fix the schools all will be well, regardless of what is happening in the rest of their lives, and ours.
Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools