Equal, not the same

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Equal opportunities is about levelling the playing field for minority ethnic groups. But the key is in meeting individual needs, Kenny Frederick discovers

SUPPORTING BLACK PUPILS AND PARENTS: understanding and improving home-school relations. By Lorna Cork. Routledge Falmer pound;22.50

This is an uncomfortable read for a white middle-class headteacher. Perhaps that is exactly what it is meant to be. From the foreword by Doreen Lawrence through eight of the nine chapters, we are given many examples of black children and black parents who have been let down by the education system. Many of the case studies are shocking, and I found it difficult to believe that such schools and such teachers are still around. I thought things had moved on. It seems I was wrong.

Lorna Cork has produced a powerful and valuable piece of research. The reality of black children failing in school over the past 40 years has been well documented, but, as this book points out, little seems to have changed. Doreen Lawrence and Lorna Cork suggest that focusing on black parents and their concerns for their children can be beneficial to society as a whole. The book looks in detail at five organisations that support black parents, examines their contributions to home-school relations and discusses the central issues arising from their work with 20 families. I sensed an "us and them" theme running through the book: the schools and their staff (teachers) are usually seen as the enemy, with the agencies, home-school workers and parents colluding against them. However, we cannot argue with the statistics on the underachievement and exclusion rates for black children.

Most of the case studies concern the experience of black children at secondary school: parents speak of a culture of "low expectations, and stereotypical views". One charts the experience of a mother, Michelle, and her 16-year-old son, Trevor. Michelle says all Trevor's problems started in secondary school: he had "behaviour problems" at primary school, but at secondary school "he did something every month till the day they kicked him out". The description of one scenario involving Trevor wearing his hat in school made my blood run cold because it was so familiar from my school (where we now don't allow pupils to wear hats or caps).

Dr Cork's research centres on African and Caribbean parents. However, she says that, "somewhat unexpectedly", parents with children of mixed cultural heritage featured strongly in requests for support in home-school interactions. I don't understand why this was unexpected, as pupils of dual-cultural heritage also feature high on the statistics for underachievement and exclusions.

"Institutional racism" is a term that is widely used, usually in a climate of blame, but not well understood. Chapter two looks at the definition in the 1999 Macpherson report: "The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amounts to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people."

Dr Cork reminds us that the influence of Macpherson is obvious from the amendments to the 2000 Race Relations Act that make it a statutory duty for public services, including schools, not to discriminate. We must all now have a race equality policy and are required to record and monitor racist incidents and show we have strategies for fostering racial harmony. The Ofsted framework for inspection reflects these requirements.

Most forward-looking schools and LEAs have been collecting and analysing data about specific groups for many years. Dr Cork points to two earlier key educational policy documents that focused on black communities: the Rampton report (1981) and the Swann reportEducation for All (1985). Both mentioned underachievement of ethnic minority groups; racism, "both intentional and unintentional"; the role of teacher education in developing diversity in the curriculum; and the recruitment of ethnic minority teachers. She also quotes Maud Blair and Jill Bourne's contribution to the "useful strategies" literature published during the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, which states: "The most effective schools were listening schools, which took time to talk with students and parents, which took seriously the views that students and parents offered and their own interpretation of school processes; and which used this learning to reappraise and where necessary change, their practices." (Making the Difference: teaching and learning strategies in successful multi-ethnic schools, 1998.) Another useful approach is to make pupils responsible for their own learning. Dr Cork's research shows that this works particularly well with those who are gifted but can be perceived as "a handful". She acknowledges that schools cannot ignore the damage that can be caused by pupils whose attitude is: "I'm not going to respect them just because they're teachers."

But instead of ignoring such behaviour, she rightly suggests that teachers learn from each other by sharing good practice. She also suggests a flexible curriculum tailored to the needs of the individual. Getting parents' input on events in Black History Month and cultural celebration evenings is also recommended. This is all good advice.

The impact of race and social class on home-school interactions is touched upon. The chairman of Mediaid, one of the agencies Dr Cork worked with, makes an interesting point: "I would say that the needs are converging. As black parents live longer in this country their needs are converging with the white parents in this country. For those who have just arrived the gap is still very wide - for example, when we're dealing with refugees from Somalia. Their needs are different, but for parents who are born here and whose children are having problems at school, their needs, their mentality, their attitudes, are not far from white working-class parents." This is indeed the case and it is one reason why it is not always helpful to categorise pupils. Equal opportunities is about meeting individual needs, not treating everybody the same.

The book ends with reference to the 2004 Children Act and the Every Child Matters Green Paper, which have co-operation between agencies at their heart. This is a message of hope, as both these documents are extensions of the inclusion agenda where every child really does matter.

I would recommend this compelling book to anyone who has a real interest in change for the better. However, I would plead with Dr Cork and the organisations not to exclude schools and school leadership from their work.

We don't want to be the problem; we want to be part of the solution.

Kenny Frederick is head of George Green's school in Tower Hamlets, east London

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