'I would be afraid if I were a white teacher'

25th August 2006 at 01:00
Writer risks wrath of her community with views on educating black pupils and her explosive new film, reports Michael Shaw

The beginning of the story is all too familiar to schools: a dedicated teacher sees his career fall apart after he touches a pupil on the arm and is falsely accused of assault.

But from there on, Shoot the Messenger, which was shown at the Edinburgh film festival this week, takes a highly contentious direction. As the young black teacher marches out of school he sprays "Fuck Black People" in large letters on its wall. "Whenever I think about it, everything bad that has ever happened to me has involved a black person," he tells the camera.

The film, showing on BBC2 next week, was written by Sharon Foster, who has written scripts for Eastenders and Babyfather.

It has been praised by critics and won the Dennis Potter award for screenwriting but is criticised by pressure groups for its "unremittingly negative" portrayal of black people.

Although Ms Foster has never taught, she worked as a children's tutor in London until last year to supplement her income from screen-writing.

In the film, Joe, the teacher, places underperforming black boys in detention because he is concerned about their futures and feels they need "enforced education".

But he is falsely accused by Germal, a disaffected teenager. He is then pilloried by the black community and plunges into madness and paranoia.

As Joe tries to rebuild his life he repeatedly bumps into the teenager, leading him to question his attitudes to education and his race.

Ms Foster, who was brought up by Jamaican parents in Hackney, said she had drawn on her experiences as a tutor.

The 41-year-old said some white teachers appeared afraid of challenging black boys for fear of being accused of racism. "I would be afraid if I were a white teacher." She said that several black teachers had told her that, because they were strict with black pupils, they had been treated more aggressively than other staff by black parents.

Ms Foster said black parents were often understandably wary of schools because of their own experiences of racism as pupils, but that they needed to take responsibility for their children's education and stop blaming teachers. "How can you expect a teacher with 30 children in a class to find time for your child if you don't do it yourself?" she said.

"It's also naive to hand over your child to be educated entirely by another race - black parents should look at supplementary schools and tuition in the community as well."

Ms Foster said black boys might face a greater challenge because of peer pressure and because more were likely to come from single-parent families, but that they also needed to be taught to stop blaming others.

Ms Foster also suggests that white people should not teach lessons on black history, something Ian Thomas, white founder of the educational Black History Month magazine, described as "utter nonsense".

"We had a letter recently from a parent whose child is mixed race, but is at an otherwise all-white school in Scotland, saying the lesson they did in Black History Month was one of the only times he had learned about the positive side of being black," he said.

Shoot the Messenger will be shown on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday August 30

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