Are we obsessed with black boys?

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Our worries are groundless, argues Emmanuel Ohajah. The majority take school seriously and the few who cause problems are no different from other pupils who sometimes misbehave

Teachers seem to spend a lot of time worrying about black male pupils.

Search The TES website and you find hundreds of references to black boys.

But it would be unfair to describe teachers as racist: the problem is rooted in a society that understands black males through a prism of delinquency and criminality.

The mainstream media are equally obsessed. Next to adverts for rap ringtones and MP3s, the Telegraph quotes footballer-turned-sports commentator Garth Crooks arguing that gangsta culture is "killing some of our children". He directly links films and rap music glorifying violence to truancy, crime and violence.

It is into this teachers' Groundhog Day that many young black male students stumble, aged 11. It is only when the boys get big, apparently, that they become a problem. Most primary teachers are relaxed about their pupils.

However, Belinda Ewart, head of Mayfield primary in Ealing, west London, understands where anxiety might creep into the equation.

"As a primary teacher you spend 27 hours a week with them. You devote your life to those kids. In secondaries, teachers have a greater distance. I remember my form teacher but only saw her for about 20 minutes a week. This distance is bound to exacerbate feelings of alienation for children and lead to a degree of apprehension on the part of teachers."

There is a coherent, semi-official response that addresses this apprehension. It is in the form of the surprisingly uncontroversial proposal of recruiting big black male teachers to deal with feral black male pupils. This approach singles out black boys on account of their race, but also reduces the task of educating them to one of physical control.

More worryingly, it suggests blacks pupils are so different that they cannot be taught effectively by white teachers.

Not everyone sees black boys as a behaviour problem. Julie Bradshaw, a supply teacher in east London who trained in Jamaica, sees a lot of them.

She concedes that, like all pupils, they can be a handful, but says: "They are ultimately still children and it is a failing on the part of teachers to reach them rather than anything inherently wrong with the boys.

"Black boys are feared as a disaffected mass. This view is totally incorrect. The majority buy into the ethos of school and are in favour of education. The problem is they get little positive attention and are not being pushed in the right direction."

Ms Bradshaw's concerns are echoed by many who see the climate of apprehension and fear about black boys resulting from policy rather than of individual failings.

Dr Tony Sewell, a leading educationist, believes 20 years of inner-city policy organised around low expectations is largely responsible. "The official focus has been on the handful of marginalised black children. If you ask any headteacher, those black boys considered marginal and problematic number 10 per cent or less; 90 per cent of black males are, in fact, average to brilliant. Why are we focusing on the 10 per cent?"

Janette Burnett, a teacher in the Midlands funded by the ethnic minority achievement grant, questions looking at black boys as delinquents. "Kids will say 'Miss, you only see the naughty kids and never come and see me'.

Jobs like mine reinforce the idea that there is a problem, when in fact many children are doing very well, going to university and gaining good jobs.

"`Let's invest in those who do OK. For 40 years investment has been in a deficit model and things have got worse."

Such a model is interesting . It is not a case of teachers focusing their energies on the tiny number of dysfunctional black pupils and ignoring the majority. It is also about society constantly proclaiming that all black youths are criminal or dysfunctional and relating to them accordingly. The consequences are well documented: more exclusions, underachievement and teacher-pupil conflict.

The acceptance of the idea that black boys are trouble can only work if teachers see themselves as victims. A body of adults that perceives itself the victim of children has serious problems. The main one is that all parties agree that the promotion of difference is the key to educational success and that people from different cultures should be treated according to their own special values and needs. Unfortunately for black boys, the profession chooses to define black male difference in terms of transgression.

According to Tony Sewell, this approach hides a number of structural weaknesses within teaching. "I would not be so naive as to say there are no racist teachers in the profession, but if you are looking for reasons why certain teachers collapse with black boys it is largely due to their inability to manage the interaction between themselves and those boys.

"Teachers who have problems with black boys will also have problems with white students and Asian students. What is needed is much more teacher training on how to make lessons engaging and training on how not to get drawn into children's power plays."

Such power plays (acting up) in class are often misconstrued as acts of aggression. This can easily degenerate into teacher-pupil conflict.

Ironically, where some teachers perceive a threat to themselves, many young males (black and white) ferquently participate in youthful role-playing involving attention-seeking, expressing powerlessness or, more worryingly but rare, the attempted humiliation of a teacher as a form of revenge for some insult, real or imagined.

The obsession with black male behaviour has been with us for more than 30 years (see story, below). In the 1970s, black pupils were portrayed as apprentice muggers. The 1980s and 1990s saw them as mini- drug-dealers.

Today, they are disaffected gangsta rappers. The only way their treatment will change is when society accepts black males as equals and inspires them by setting high educational standards across the board.

Emmanuel Ohajah is a writer.Dr Tony Sewell is launching Generating Genius, a project aimed at promoting excellence among black school children in mainstream education. Contact him at:

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