Look beyond class for race answers

5th January 2001 at 00:00
I would like to comment on your report "Fear of racist label hampers teachers" (TES, December 15). It refers to the Office for Standards in Education's David Moore's forthcoming report, Attendance and Behaviour in Schools, and also the book I co-authored, Uncertain Masculinities. Our survey was of 262 white, Asian and African-Caribbean boys - not, as stated in the article, only African-Caribbean. I have not yet read the full OFSTED report but as far as I can see it is broadly complementary to our book, rather than contradictory. Joined-up analysis is needed.

Mr Moore is reported as saying that some teachers are intimidated by some African-Caribbean boys and so respond in a way that alienates the boys. We would argue that what is occurring in such instances is a complex cultural interaction which is currently working against the best interests of teachers and the boys. There is overwhelming evidence that the confrontational and anti-school attitudes of some of the boys are fostered partly in their powerful and highly-creative peer group cultures. One of the reasons why many African-Caribbean boys are assertive and demanding of respect is their sensitivity to racism. They have every reason to be. Their culture has been built on resistance and they continue to resist - but at times inapproriately. What Paul Willis said of the anti-school working-class peer groups of the 1960s70s is true of African-Caribbean peer groups now - there is an element of self-damnation about them.

However, one of the surprises of our research was that the boys - white and Asian, as well as African-Caribbean - did not regard their teachers as routinely racist. In fact, they saw their schools as committed to anti-racism. In contrast, what they described as racist "joking" was part of their own everyday lives outside the classroom and many had been involved in some racial confrontation with other boys. It is this gap between the formally correct and informally racist in the boys' own lives that we believe needs further consideration in policy formation.

No doubt some teachers would benefit from anti-racist and multi-cultural training. They would also manage their students better if class sizes were smaller and they were better resourced. OFSTED's forthcoming study on the achievement of black pupils in secondary schools is welcome. It will need to look outside as well as inside the classroom for answers - not only at the peer group but also at the labour market where the most serious price of racism is exacted.

Mike O'Donnell Westminster University 309 Regent Street London W1B

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