The Conversation: Raising achievement

5th December 2008 at 00:00
Ava Sturridge Packer talks to her friend and neighbouring headteacher Sue Robinson about the future for the largely black intake at their Birmingham primary schools

Ava, I remember you once said that black children should be encouraged to do ballet. What did you mean?

Fancy you remembering I said that! I first said it when we were on a new heads training course together. I guess it's about making sure that ethnic minority children are not pigeon-holed and stereotyped into boxes where they are only expected to do and enjoy what is traditionally seen as their heritage. You know, the old saris, samosas and steel drums thing.

I want the black children in our school to have choices. I want them to cross-cultural barriers and be what they want to be, in terms of their ambitions for employment, leisure activities and lifestyles. You won't be surprised to know that I've stuck to my guns on that one.

Can you give any examples of how you've done that?

We have an annual dance festival where each class performs for the parents and the community. I have a real passion for dance, so I'm the producerdirector. I make sure that, as well as celebrating the children's heritage - so we always perform Bangra and African dance - there is also traditional European dance, including ballet. This ensures that all the children's heritage is celebrated, but they also feel comfortable and a part of what is usually associated with the white middle class.

Why is this so important to you?

My parents came from Jamaica in the 1960s when I was five, so my whole education experience has been British. I spent my school years being stereotyped, to the extent that when I said I wanted to be a lawyer, the careers teacher said: "Oh, usually the good coloured girls want to be nurses."

As it happened, it wasn't really me who had the ambition; it was my parents, and particularly my mother. She told me that I had two choices: I could be a doctor or a lawyer. Her ambition was drilled into me from a young age. I was also constantly told that if I wanted to be successful in this country, I had to be twice as good as any white person.

So, Sue, that statement I made about ballet all those years ago was a very loaded one and had come from my personal journey and very much from the heart.

Do you think barriers to achievement still exist for black children in schools today?

Gosh, how can I answer this truthfully without alienating my white friends and colleagues? I don't want to apportion blame because we are all in this together, but the simple answer is that I'm disappointed with the slowness of change in education during my 26 years of teaching, including 13 years as a head. Racism exists in our country and schools function within that context. The barriers preventing achievement for black people in this country, and in particular black children in schools, are complex and economic and socially inter-dependent. They can also be very subtle. There are no easy answers.

Given that this is the case, what do you think those of us in the education system can or should do?

The Department for Children, Schools and Families, the various local authorities and schools across the country are on their own individual journeys, the early stages of which are dependent on the drive, awareness, determination, knowledge and skills of the different contexts.

I see our staff, parents and governors at St Mary's as a close team working together to get the best outcome for children. Like many schools, we are aspirational for all our children, the majority of whom are African-Caribbean or Asian. Taking into account their age, we are appropriately honest with our children about how racism can operate in society. We try to ensure that they are equipped to deal with this and become positive British citizens. Schools do not operate in a vacuum, and whatever happens in the country mirrors and affects what happens in school.

What are your hopes for the future?

Like many people across the world, I celebrated the historic election of Barack Obama and was delighted that our children could see that what we tell them regularly - that you can be what you want to be - has been demonstrated in practice. I am cautiously hopeful and optimistic that if this can happen in a country like America - where black people were slaves and, during my younger days, could not even ride at the front of a bus - then our country can use their aspirational light to shine on us.

So, as we look at black and Asian children in our schools today, we should hope that among them we have a child who can one day effect economic and social change.

Ava Sturridge Packer CBE is head of St Mary's CofE Primary, and Sue Robinson is head of Cherry Orchard Primary, both in Handsworth, Birmingham.

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