It's quality that counts, not ethnicity

3rd October 2008 at 01:00

Recently, Ken Livingstone's former race adviser, Lee Jasper, suggested that black children should be educated in "all black" schools, with black teachers and a specially designed curriculum. It seems to me an appalling idea. Mr Jasper thinks it would help tackle gun culture. I can't for the life of me see why.

It's not the first time this kind of thinking has reared its head. In the late 1980s, under the "Section 11" initiative, local authorities were required to recruit ethnic-minority teachers to teach children of a similar background with learning difficulties.

Somewhat naively, it was assumed that such teachers would have a special understanding of these children. It didn't work. The teachers often came from gentler cultures that had immense respect for education, and they couldn't understand or cope with the poor behaviour they encountered. Within months it became almost impossible to recruit suitable teachers.

Sadly, high-profile figures often comment without having a real understanding of the issues. A while ago, a leader in the Commission for Racial Equality castigated our inner-city secondaries, saying black boys didn't achieve because the schools were grim and the teachers incompetent. He didn't, of course, sample some schools to see what they had to contend with every day.

Neither did he appreciate that many of these children, who came to regard the gangs they belonged to as their families, often came from desperate homes on awful estates. Invariably, a single parent, usually mum, was either struggling to keep her head above water or had simply given up and abnegated responsibility.

When I was first appointed to my headship, back in 1981, my school was filled with the children of white, indigenous, working-class people. It was never an easy school. Camberwell was, and is, an area of exceptional deprivation. Gradually, over the years, the population of my school has changed completely. A high proportion of the children are now from black and ethnic-minority families. Frankly, I've hardly noticed. Children are children - unique and endlessly interesting.

What hasn't changed, though, is the expectancy of the parents. With few exceptions, they want the best possible start in life for their children. They want them to be happy and settled, they want school to be stimulating and exciting, and they want their offspring to be able to read and write and add up.

Our parents couldn't care less whether their children are taught by black or white teachers, as long as the teaching is of a high quality, and no black parents have ever told me they'd like an "alternative curriculum", whatever that means.

All our Ofsted reports have commented positively on the racial harmony within our school, and this undoubtedly emanates from the staff and their interaction with parents and children. The teachers like each other, they are enormously talented, and they thoroughly enjoy the children they teach. The children sense this and respond to it. As children do, black or white.

In my second year of headship, I appointed an outstanding class teacher as my deputy. She was wonderful to work with. She was also black and undoubtedly this made for the ideal combination - an ethnically balanced leadership team.

Two years ago she retired, and given the ethnic nature of our school now, it would have been helpful to have another black teacher to replace her. However, the teacher we appointed was white, because we felt she was the best candidate for the job.

And this, surely, has to be the ultimate criterion.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London.


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