Learning to believe

24th September 2010 at 01:00
A leadership academy is trying to address the inequalities and low expectations that are too often the norm for boys from British African and African-Caribbean backgrounds.

Dressed in a pink and yellow African trouser suit with matching head wrapper, Del White peers at the whiteboard, pretending she cannot quite find Ghana on a map of Africa.

Behind her, the class of eight to ten-year-old boys, all from British African or African-Caribbean backgrounds, are urgently raising their hands to the ceiling, begging for the chance to come and point it out.

Unlike the familiar images of starving children with swollen stomachs covered in flies, or news stories of political upheaval and gruesome massacres, the class is today focusing on the Africa that they know personally. This seems to consist of swimming pools, forests and "massive houses", whether they are talking about South Africa, Uganda or Sudan.

These children make up the first cohort of Suffolk's Leadership Academy, a three-week course for local black boys held at Suffolk New College, a further education college in Ipswich. Pictures of Barack Obama are scattered around the walls, along with Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela. There are hopes that the course will take place at weekends and during school breaks in the future.

The course content is based on the key stage 2 national curriculum, but black heritage is an integral part of these lessons, and the focus is on promoting black culture - something that the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE), which set up the academy, feels they are not getting at school.

This may be less of an issue in areas where there is a substantial ethnic minority, but for black pupils in largely-white Suffolk, school may be the only place where they come into contact with black culture.

An hour later, over a plate of jollof rice and chicken drumsticks, JP says when he has been taught black culture at school, it has been about the history of slavery "or when some black guy was electrocuted," he says.

While the leadership academy is "more fun" than regular school, the main appeal for these boys is the novelty of being taught by black teachers, many of whom are male. "At school, all of my teachers are women, and I'm the only really black pupil," says JP. "There are other light-skinned kids, but not as black as me."

The academy was the brainchild of Leon Hall, project manager at ISCRE. A secondary teacher until January, Mr Hall was appalled by last year's key stage 2 results, which showed young black pupils in Suffolk achieving 16 per cent less than their peers. The attainment gap between white and black pupils is even wider at KS4, with 21 per cent fewer black pupils achieving five or more A* to C grades at GCSE than their white peers.

Mr Hall decided it was time to take action. "There's always been underachievement for this group, but it reached a crisis point last year," he says. "When you look at the data for exclusions later on, it points to black boys, fixed-term and permanent, and that's why there was a need to do something for boys before it gets to that stage."

On a national level, black Caribbean and mixed white and black Caribbean boys are almost three times more likely to be permanently excluded than their white peers.

After speaking to teachers at two similar organisations in London, Eastside and Southside young leaders' academies, Mr Hall followed their model. He forged corporate links with a local insurance company, Blyth Valley, which will provide educational speakers and work experience opportunities later on.

But Suffolk's population profile is very different to that of urban London areas. The British African and African-Caribbean population in the area is very small: just 3 per cent of school pupils in Suffolk are of black or black-mixed background, compared with 51 per cent in Southwark, home of Southside Young Leaders.

Surveys carried out by ISCRE have found that local people believe there is no need for equality measures, despite evidence to the contrary.

"What we're seeing in Suffolk is that the racism of the parents or what's happening in the media is spilling over into schools," says Jane Basham, its chief executive. "It resulted in a spike in racist incidents last year, mainly in Year 8. Suffolk is in denial and quite deluded about the race inequalities that exist."

Schools and teachers are just as reluctant to address inequalities or even to acknowledge there is a problem, she says. When the organisation sent out information about the academy to 50 Suffolk primary schools, only 10 responded.

Many of the boys at Suffolk Leadership Academy feel isolated by their skin colour. Some have experienced overt racism, either from pupils or from teachers. Baker, an articulate 10-year-old, says his best subject is maths, "but I kept on getting in trouble in Year 4, especially in maths," he says.

"Even my mum noticed. The teacher used to put me out in detention all the time. My friends kept on lying about me and she never believed me."

Low expectations of Black African and African-Caribbean pupils is a big factor in this group's low attainment, says Dr Steve Strand, author of a government-commissioned report on ethnic-minority achievement.

His study, published in 2008, looked at how race, class and gender affect achievement. But once these factors are taken into consideration, Dr Strand found that teachers make the biggest difference: for every three white pupils entered for higher-tier KS3 science and maths papers, two Black Caribbean pupils with the same scores were entered.

These findings confirm Leon Hall's experience of teachers' prejudices. At his previous school he was the only black teacher, even though 40 of the 950 pupils were black African, African-Caribbean or of dual heritage. Mr Hall carried out research into the high proportion of exclusion and underachievement.

"One of the teachers interviewed said: `I believe African-Caribbean kids don't achieve because they're lazy.' That stereotype was told to me as if it were a fact," says Mr Hall.

"I was really upset knowing that he was teaching black kids with that perception in his mind. The child in his class who isn't doing well, maybe because he doesn't understand or something hasn't been explained to him, is going to be classed as lazy."

When Mr Hall presented his research to the headteacher and the other staff he got a frosty response. "The reaction from teaching staff made the head so uncomfortable with the situation that it ended up being quite difficult after that," he says. "Racism is almost like a dirty word. It showed me that there was an issue there that didn't want to be raised."

Teachers' low expectations for their black pupils emerged as a major problem during a workshop for parents on the first day of the academy programme. Some parents revealed they had been told their children were doing well at school and had nothing to worry about, when they were in fact achieving level 3 in their Sats - below the level 4 national target.

Part of the motivation for setting up the academy was to help parents feel they can raise any issues they have with their children's education, even if they do not feel supported by the school.

Del White, one of the course leaders and who also trains teachers in cultural competency, says that problems do not have to become antagonistic if parents and teachers are educated about culture. "It shouldn't be about `them and us' - it's about community," she says.

"There should be an openness to exploring a problem if a parent feels there is a problem."

This year's pilot is on a small scale, with fewer than 20 pupils recruited from primary schools, attending over three weeks. Leon Hall and the Suffolk Leadership Academy staff are under no illusions that this project will change things overnight. Mentors from the academy will continue to work with the schools involved.

But within these three weeks, one of its principal aims is to raise pupils' expectations. On the first day, every boy said they wanted to be a professional footballer, apart from two - one of whom wanted to take part in a Grand Prix.

"In a staff meeting at the end of the first day, we all realised that this was something we needed to try to change," says Mr Hall. "We wanted them to aspire to other professions, and this will be one of our measures of success."

Over lunch, the intense debate about which Formula One car is the best continues, as figures and statistics are swapped and refuted. But in the classroom, a handful of boys have changed their minds: they want to be a lawyer like Barack Obama, the pinnacle of black achievement.

The boys' afternoon history lesson ends with an exploration of famous black figures of the past and the present. Finally, they are asked - who are the people of the future? When presented with an image of themselves as the future, there are smiles all round and even a satisfied "cool", from one of the more savvy pupils.

It will take time to change these school-boys' dreams and aspirations, but by targeting them at such a young age the Suffolk Leadership Academy hopes to make a real difference in years to come.

"At the moment, the system is making sure that they don't achieve," says Mr Hall. "The leadership academy is about taking ownership of our black African and African-Caribbean boys' education."

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