Something special is going on in a Birmingham school where an exercise in raising self-esteem and aspirations among black pupils is also boosting exam results. Wendy Berliner reports
Dave looks miserable. He's hunched in his chair, jacket pulled tight around him, hands in pockets. Things aren't going well for him. He's been cutting lessons because he doesn't get on with certain teachers and some of the kids are doing his head in.
He is given a piece of paper with a drawing of a tree covered with jelly baby figures. Some look happy, some definitely don't. Some are falling off, one is lying on the ground with his face buried in the grass.
Dave has to colour in a jelly baby that reflects how he is feeling. He picks one that is sawing off a branch supporting a very worried- looking jelly baby. He uses grey to colour in his malevolent figure.
Dave is African-Caribbean and in Year 11 at Moseley school, a comprehensive serving a chunk of inner-city Birmingham. In some schools he would end up as a statistic among those showing that black boys perform worse than any other ethnic group in public examinations - fewer than one in three African-Caribbean boys in the city gets five or more higher grade GCSEs.
Here at Moseley he has a chance because, fed up as he is, he chooses to come to Maureen Ojo's after-school club, set up to build the self-esteem and aspirations of black pupils at the school.
Mrs Ojo is an inspirational special needs teacher who came into teaching in her forties after a series of boring jobs. Mixed race herself - Nigerian and Scottish - she knows all about black children who do badly at school.
Her own bright son, now in his twenties, had a series of run-ins with teachers while he was at school and, she says, has yet to fulfil his potential. In the 22 months since her weekly group first met, confidence among black children at Moseley has grown and the proportion of them gaining five or more A-C GCSE passes is now well above the city average.
The number of African-Caribbean pupils on the gifted and talented register is proportionally higher than their number in school.
"Within the first few weeks of the group setting up," says Dave Peck, headteacher at Moseley for the past two years, "the African-Caribbean children were walking taller and had more pride in themselves. It has raised achievement. It's a bit of magic. Some special stuff is going on there."
Mrs Ojo started the group because she believed the 70 or so African-Caribbean children on roll needed a context as they were in a minority; most of Moseley's 1,400 pupils are from Pakistani families.
Tension in the local community between Asians and African-Caribbeans had also been spilling into school. There had been fights; some black boys were on the brink of exclusion.
Drive out of Birmingham city centre along the Stratford Road, past Muslim supermarkets, sari shops, halal butchers and Islamic booksellers, and you see the context of the African-Caribbean children's resentment: that they were being treated differently, and unfairly, because Moseley was focused on the Asian majority. That's what the first members of the group told Mrs Ojo when they met in a small building known in school as the Ark, on the far side of the all-weather sports pitches.
The boys who had been in danger of exclusion managed to avoid it. "If they need telling off, I tell them off," says Mrs Ojo, "but it's how you do it.
I care about them and they know that. If you want children to achieve, you have to make them think they are part and parcel of the school and its systems. If they feel their contributions are not valued, you are on the way to a problem."
Mrs Ojo's way of showing them they are valued is to treat them so differently once a week that they are "inoculated" to some degree against the forces that might make them fail. The sessions are partly a one-woman confidence-building show in which Mrs Ojo relentlessly tells them how good and how special they are, in a voice that leaves no doubt of her seriousness. Gold-standard advice is sprayed over them and she digs deep and without embarrassment into her own life experiences to make direct contact.
The group sits in a circle that includes Mrs Ojo and other staff, and she listens. When Dave tells the group about his problems, she is on to him immediately. "But this is your education. You have a right to it. You can't throw it away. Don't let people you don't like take your education away from you.
"Think about the kind of job you might end up in. Think about doing a job you don't want to do for 45 years just because there were some people you didn't like when you were at school. I worked at a supermarket for seven years and I came to hate it. Now I get up at 5.45am and I am glad to come here to work."
She carries on in the same vein with Dave watching her intently and occasionally nodding agreement. The other students join in. Michelle, 16, now doing AS-levels at sixth-form college in Solihull and hoping to be a lawyer, has come back for a visit. "I used to hate some of my teachers," she tells Dave, "because they said I would fail. I was determined not to, so I could dash it back in their faces. You mustn't let them get to you."
The atmosphere in the room is warm and uplifting. It's dark and wet outside and it's the end of a long school day, but most of the 18 students present at the start are still there at the end three hours later, when everyone kisses and hugs goodbye. In between they do a mixture of self-esteem games that begins with the jelly babies, and moves on to play rehearsals for a gala later this term.
They also take part in a stress-relieving and confidence-building exercise that involves walking round in a circle, breathing in a particular way and touching the tips of the fingers in turn with the thumb. They are all walking taller and with more authority by the end of it. Then there is tea and talk. And over the Jamaican spiced buns with cheese, the squash, the apple pies and Bakewell tarts, the group pulls even closer.
This is the moment Dave chooses to reveal his problems. Josh, tall and now in the lower sixth, still comes to the group because he says it gives him the support he needs. Andre, another founder member, says the group helps him get things into perspective when the work gets too much.
Michelle confides: "This was the highlight of my week when I was here, sad as that sounds." Dionne, 17 and now at the city's college of food, says:
"Mrs Ojo built up my confidence in the group. She was a big help and it sorted out what I wanted to do. You feel nice and united in this circle."
The group meetings vary in content; subjects covered include black history, black writers, self-management and self-discipline. They also involve meditation, and this session ends with some. But the message remains the same: just because you are African-Caribbean, you are not doomed to fail.
Mrs Ojo tells the class that within 10 years the majority of pupils in Birmingham schools will be black and that there will be 50,000 jobs for professionals in the area.
"They are going to need black people," she says. "They will need them in architecture, in business and in law. As long as you have a bit of va-va-voom and are willing to make an effort, you will have all those chances. Individual people are going to try to stop you, but you can't let the stereotype get in the way. You have to decide what you are worth and then go for it."
On the other side of the circle, Dave's hands are out of his pockets and he is paying attention.
City on the rise
GCSE results have improved across all ethnic groups in Birmingham, although African-Caribbean children, particularly boys, still lag behind. The overall percentage of children getting five or more higher grades has risen from 41 per cent in 2001 to 50 per cent in 2003.
Ethnic breakdown of pupils getting five or more higher grades at GCSE in 2003(2001 figures in brackets)
Indian 73 (65) 67 (49)
Bangladeshi 58 (50) 43 (27)
White 54 (50) 45 (39)
Pakistani 50 (42) 37 (31)
African Carib 44 (34) 28 (17)