Misappliance of science

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
Stereotypical images of black pupils are denying them 'status and power' subjects says the Respect campaign. Nadene Ghouri reports

SCHOOLS are failing black pupils in the "status and power" subjects of science, maths and technology, according to organisers of a new campaign.

"What do teachers see when they look at 15-year-old Leroy? They certainly don't see a doctor or a scientist, that's for sure," said Liz Rasekoala of the African Caribbean Network for Science and Technology. She claims black pupils are encouraged into humanities, sports and arts, at the expense of other subjects.

"Wringing our hands about mass black underachievement is a waste of time. Vicious low expectation is keeping black pupils away from the power subjects that can greatly enhance their future status and earning power," she said.

Research from the University of Stirling backs these claims by confirming that black underachievement is concentrated in these subjects, and is especially severe for boys. The researchers blame stereotyped images of what black pupils can and cannot do. They draw parallels with the way in which girls were once discouraged away from science but now outstrip boys.

Ms Rasekoala said: "Twenty years ago people believed girls were intellectually inferior to boys. We know that's hogwash now - they simply weren't encouraged in the 'harder' subjects. Fifty years of race relations and we've yet to apply the same obvious thinking to race in the classroom."

The "Respect" campaign aims to present black British scientists as role models, to encourage pupils to consider careers in such areas. One is Ken George, who says that when he tells people he's a science teacher, they gasp, because in Britain, scientists are rarely his colour. But as he says: "You don't have to look like a scientist, you just have to think like one."

In Birmingham, where the network is based, more than 50 per cent of the school population will come from ethnic-minority backgrounds over the next two years. However, at GCSE level only 13 per cent of black students are achieving A-C grades in science, compared with 26 per cent of Asians and 34 per cent of whites. That contrasts starkly with the fact that African-Caribbean pupils are Birmingham's highest performers in maths at key stage 1.

Ms Rasekoala remembers arriving in Britain to take a masters at the University of Manchester: "Back in Nigeria I was perfectly normal; I didn't realise I was so special - a black, female, chemical engineer - until I came here."

She is dismayed that figures which suggest a rising number of black graduates in this country do not tell the real picture. Black students in further and higher education are disproportionately high on humanities and non-academic courses, with a marked over-representation in low-skilled courses. The irony is that post-graduate science and technology courses frequently have high numbers of fee-paying black foreign students, but few, if any, home-grown students.

"It is ridiculous that black students educated in Africa, in a system copied from the British model, should be able to come here and excel on our science and engineering post-graduate courses, when black students born and brought up here - don't," she said.

Contact: African Caribbean Network for Science and Technology, 0161 877 1480.

BLACK SCIENCE: THE ACHIEVERS

Elijah McCoy: the son of Kentucky slaves, he trained as a mechanical engineer in Scotland. In the 1870s he invented a cup which regulated the flow of oil onto moving parts of machines. Buyers of new machines would ask if it contained an imitation or "the Real McCoy."

Lewis Latimer: invented the carbon filament incandescent light bulb in 1881.

Percy Julian: created new ways of treating rheumatoid arthritis and glaucoma in the 1950s.

Garrett Morgan: inventor of three-colour traffic lights and the prototype of the modern gas mask.

Patricia Bath: an ophthalmologist who designed a device for removing cataracts by laser treatment. Daniel Williams: surgeon who performed the first successful open-heart operation.

Charles Drew: doctor and scientist who developed a process for separating and preserving blood.

Phillip Emeagwali: Nigerian computer scientist, who in 1989 broke the world computational speed record when he hit 3.1 billion calculations per second using the Internet to connect 65,536 computers.

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