Home is where the hope is
Mark Lobban was five when his mum and dad brought him and his brother to England from Jamaica. The family settled in south London, where Mark's father found work as a storeman with London Transport and his mother was a mail-order accounts clerk.
As a boy, Mark would come home from school and pore over the dictionary as he did his homework, painstakingly searching for the right word. "I used to get high marks for my homework, but when it came to exams that's where I always used to fall down."
It wasn't until he was 20 that he discovered he was dyslexic. But throughout his schooling he was aware of another factor holding him back - the limited expectations of his teachers. "The teachers didn't direct me at all or say to my parents, 'Mark can do well in these areas but you have to push him'. It seemed that they really didn't care whether I got any better at what I was doing. It's a syndrome that a lot of black kids go through."
With five CSEs and a vague notion of what he wanted to do, he went to see the school careers officer. "I decided I would make my trade using my hands. I used to like taking photographs, so I said I wanted to become a photographer. She just said, 'Forget it'.
"We were being funnelled into jobs as mechanics, on the buses and the trains. She could have said, 'If you want to do this, this is what you need'. But she killed my little ambition straight away. I left school very disenchanted and decided that I would never enter education again."
Eventually Mark secured an engineering apprenticeship, rising at 5.30 every morning to travel across the capital from his home in Norwood to work near Heathrow airport. "We were right under the flight path and I would be doing my turning and shaping and I said to myself, 'One day, I'm going to be on those planes'."
Around that time he got involved with a local youth project, and, together with a group of black youngsters, raised enough money to go to America. It was his first trip away from home and a turning point in his life.
While in America, the group met a black magazine editor. "He sat us down and gave us this pep talk about not sitting back and just expecting things to happen," says Mark, now aged 37. "We got back to England and started our first company, organising dances and parties. There was a song at the time called 'Ain't No Stopping Us Now'; that was like our theme song."
After several unsuccessful job applications (one was returned with "Place of Birth: Jamaica" circled), he left engineering when he was taken on by a Guyanese shipping company. "When I heard I got the job I was bouncing down the road," he recalls.
Seven years ago he set up his own business, MPS Travel and Shipping, a one-stop shop for people moving back to the Caribbean, employing six people. "When I was at school I didn't realise there was something called setting up your own business. It has been a very hard learning process."
Mark and his wife, Linda, are determined that their sons, Sean (11), Timothy (5) and one-year-old Nathan, will have a happier time at school than they did. Sean has just started at a grant-maintained secondary in the London borough of Lewisham - although they live in Lambeth - after an interview and maths and English tests and following what his father calls the "lottery" of trying to find a place.
"When I was his age we just went to school, there was no worry about whether you got in or not. Now everybody waits for the tables to come out; it's like a competition."
Mark and Linda thought that a private education might give Sean a head start in life - and for three years they believed it did although he was bullied at the independent primary school he attended. "He was told never to hit back just to tell the teacher, which he did - about 20 times. The teacher just said, 'Stop telling tales', and sent him away. I went down and said, 'I didn't pay for my son to come here to be bullied'. After that it changed," says Linda. But paying fees proved too difficult after Timothy was born so Sean, aged 8, went to a state primary.
When she was a girl, Linda was told she could take only two O-levels. Her father protested to the headteacher and she was eventually allowed to sit six.
"Black parents have to realise that they have to keep an eye on their children at school," she says. "Our parents spent all their time working. They had the attitude that they could trust the teachers to treat their children in a way that would realise their potential."
Linda observes that teachers don't have enough sanctions to discipline children and that children take advantage. She is worried for the future. "The system is breaking down. More and more black kids are being excluded. It's getting to be a grave situation."
So the Lobbans have decided to get out. In a couple of years, they will leave England and go to live in Jamaica, a move they have already started planning. "When you look at the next 15 or 20 years you ask yourself, should we just get on the treadmill or should we try to make a change that could benefit ourselves and our kids?" says Mark. "A lot of people are sending their children to Jamaica to be schooled. People are coming to realise that there has to be a better way. I'm not suggesting that everybody should go home, but people are making that choice.
"Life's what you make it. I was lucky, I found something to wake me up and give me a new direction. You have to pick yourself up and move into a more positive environment."