To degrees the hard way

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Black students are reaching higher education, but many have to do it by themselves, reports Nicolas Barnard.

When Memzie Duncan was at school, her teachers suggested she should become a typist. She was not impressed. The Birmingham teenager had her eye on better things.

Today, she is spending the last days of summer juggling, getting her daughter to school and reading for her second year of a social sciences degree at South Bank University in London. It's taken her 17 years to get there, but she says it's the best thing she's ever done.

"I feel I could have got here a lot quicker if I'd been given a pathway at school," she says. "We were just told, 'You can't do that - be a typist or go into sports.' Even though I got eight CSEs I felt I could have done better. But I became rebellious because I could see what the teachers were doing."

She would probably laugh to hear it, but Memzie is one of the African-Caribbean women whom leading black educationist Heidi Safia Mirza says are spearheading "a new social movement" by finding their own way into higher education.

Dr Mirza, reader in sociology at South Bank and a member of the Government's standards task force, argues that black students - and black women in particular - are creating their own routes to degrees because the traditional system is failing them.

She says that African-Caribbeans may be stereotyped and marginalised at school as trouble-makers and underachievers. But education is important to the black community and despite a lack of help from the mainstream, they will pursue it, often using stepping stones of training and further education courses to get a degree.

That is precisely what Memzie did after leaving school with eight CSEs. A haphazard career working part-time, full-time and as a volunteer has taken her through youth work, social work, running playgroups and day nurseries and advising shopworkers on handling customers with hearing difficulties.

Along the way she accumulated a sheaf of certificates, diplomas, a daughter and a South London postcode. Finally, an evening Access course in Brixton took her away from a frustrating job with Lambeth Council to South Bank. She already has her sights on a doctorate.

"The reason I'm at university now is because I've taken the long way round, " she says. "I wouldn't want that for my daughter. If you know what you want to do and you're shown the right path, you can do it."

The lack of information and access to routes and networks offered to black students - and working-class whites - is one of Dr Mirza's key criticisms and the main reason it can take them so long to get to university.

Black and Asian students are heavily over-represented in higher education compared to the general population. Figures in 1993 showed African-Caribbeans over-represented by 42 per cent, Asians by 162 per cent and Africans by 223 per cent. Whites were under-represented by seven per cent.

Like working-class whites, black students tend to be mature students concentrated in former polytechnics such as South Bank which has set out to attract students from non-traditional backgrounds.

"There is a new social movement, a quiet covert movement for change among these excluded groups," Dr Mirza said. "They seek change through knowledge and learning but feel denied it.

"It's spearheaded by women. Instead of rebellion and riots and masculine displays of dissent, they get on quietly with the business."

Dr Mirza said black students were more likely to use their achievements to help their local communities - for example, by running the Saturday schools which set them on the first rung of the ladder.

Supplementary schools, run by volunteers and community-funded, have sprung up in African-Caribbean and other ethnic minority communities around the country, illustrating the importance attached to education and parents' frustration with mainstream schooling. The classes usually run on Saturdays, teaching what parents feel their children are missing during the week.

Although their character varies from the relaxed to the very formal - some teach black history while others concentrate on the three Rs - Dr Mirza, who is shortly to publish a paper on supplementary schools, said they were all a mirror image of mainstream schooling.

They provided a setting where black rather than white was the norm, where parents were included rather than excluded and where the curriculum was negotiated between teachers, parents and pupils.

"They tell us so much about what is missing from the mainstream," Dr Mirza said. "The image of mainstream schooling is that these children don't want to learn, that they are not interested in education. But that is not true - these schools would not exist if it were. There is a desire and motivation to learn. I just want to know why, when they have to give so much up to go back to education, why do they do it?"

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