Escape route from the fire of alienation

10th February 1995 at 00:00
What can reduce the exclusion rate among black boys? Reva Klein meets two men with one answer. Guy Woolery had a dream a while back. In it, there was the image of the face of a young black man on which was etched anger and frustration. Fire was coming out of his head, but so, too, was a phoenix.

The African-Caribbean graphic designer interpreted this vision as a metaphor for all the black boys and young men "dying" in the British education system: being cast out, becoming angry at spending their school years being ignored, misinterpreted, denied. The fire is the anger engulfing them, which they need to kill. And the phoenix is their potential.

Guy Woolery is determined to eradicate that image from the psyches of black pupils and their parents. A father living in Birmingham, he has decided, together with a dynamic black primary headteacher, Gilroy Brown, to do something about the disproportionate numbers of boys from the African-Caribbean community in Birmingham - and nationwide - being excluded from schools.

In Birmingham, this group makes up around 9 per cent of the school population but represents 33 per cent of all permanent exclusions in 199394 - up from 23 per cent four years ago. Elsewhere, the trends are similarly worrying. In Croydon, south London, African-Caribbean children accounted for a third of all permanent exclusions in the last academic year. A survey of LEAs carried out by the Advisory Centre for Education indicates an upsurge in overall numbers of permanent exclusions in the country of 66 per cent from 1988 to 1991.

Guy Woolery and Gilroy Brown are concerned about these trends and about the implications for black boys, who often get caught in a downward spiral of alienation, disaffection and despair. They set out to combat the under-achievement and lack of motivation that they had identified as frequent forerunners of exclusion. With the endorsement of Birmingham education department, they are developing a programme, inspired by community projects in the black ghettoes of Washington DC and New York, which communicates positive messages to young black boys at school.

The project is based on black male mentors, ordinary members of the community chosen for their ability to present positive role models to young boys who often have no father to look up to. In Mr Woolery's words, the idea is "to put men into schools to show that we're serious about our boys".

Why men? "Social breakdown in the community has meant that so many young boys don't have a male presence in their lives. This can lead to low self-esteem and sometimes crime . . . We have to find surrogate fathers."

Mr Woolery and Mr Brown are in the process of recruiting, screening and training black men to act as mentors to mainly primary school-aged boys who may be headed for exclusion because of behaviour problems. Their job, once the project is up and running next autumn, will be to visit a designated child in school for one hour every two to three weeks. They will act as counsellors, offering the boys help, encouragement, advice (when it is sought) and "a sense of direction", says Mr Brown.

The mentors will also act as intermediaries between children and schools and parents and schools: the gulf between schools and black families is often dangerously wide. Mr Brown, who is head of Foundry primary school, just down the road from Winson Green prison, believes that that gulf is responsible for the alienation that many black parents experience with regard to their children's education.

"Inner-city schools don't expect parents to come into school the way schools in the suburbs do. And if you don't expect it, you aren't welcoming. There's still a culture that says that schools are sacred places where the unclean shall not enter."

Parents brought up in the West Indies, where the system is more highly structured, may feel disoriented when dealing with their children's schools. Those whose own experiences of school were negative may also have difficulties. Gilroy Brown thinks that the mentoring blueprint "can be widened to all disenfranchised groups in the community - Muslim girls, white working-class boys and others - who feel alienated, along with their parents, from school. "

The project is called KWESI, a Ghanaian name and also an acronym for knowledge, wisdom, experience, common sense and insight - the attributes Gilroy Brown and Guy Woolery are looking for in the mentors. The men must also be good communicators and have, in Brown's words, "heart and a natural touch".

It is envisaged that the mentors will work with individual boys or small groups identified by headteachers as being under-achievers or at risk of exclusion, starting with seven-year-olds. Between 20 and 30 primary and secondary schools will be involved, depending on the number of mentors available.

A guidance pack for parents on issues such as talking to children and discipline is to be developed, very much from a Caribbean perspective, and mentors will meet with parents once a term. There will be seminars and workshops for teachers in schools with a high proportion of African-Caribbean children.

One aim will be to create a positive school culture that embraces and respects different backgrounds. Gilroy Brown isn't anticipating apathy from schools or teachers. "They know something's got to change . . . They've been able to ignore it for a long time."

Birmingham's chief education officer Tim Brighouse has been interested in KWESI from the start, and the LEA has given start-up money, with more pledged.

Whether the mentoring project works will be very much down to the calibre of the mentors and the level of support from schools and parents. It is obvious that the need to buck the dangerous trend of black pupils' alienation, under-achievement and exclusions is long overdue. Until now, how to do it has been less obvious.

Gilroy Brown is convinced that the sooner the buck-passing stops and a real partnership is brokered, the greater the chance of change.

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