Peer group downsides

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Some African-Caribbean pupils struggle as a result of their anti-school attitudes rather than the prejudice of teachers. Mike O'Donnell reports.

NEGATIVE labelling by teachers is often blamed for the relative under-performance of African-Caribbean boys.

But there is remarkably little research evidence of significant racial prejudice - conscious or unconscious - among schoolteachers.

The research that Sue Sharpe and I have conducted in four London schools suggests that peer group, on the other hand, is one factor that can have an important bearing on educational success or failure.

The 262 boys who took part in our questionnaire survey were much more likely to define themselves in ethnic and gender terms than as either working-class or middle-class. And this trend was particularly pronounced among African-

Caribbean boys.

Although individual African-Caribbean teenagers differed as much from each other as did boys from other ethnic groups, their anti-school cultures are probably as deeply rooted as those of working-class boys in the 1960s and 1970s.

The African-Caribbean boys we questioned as part of our research into masculine identities often found school boring and irrelevant. One group ironically labelled itself "the under-achievers", and some of the boys had developed a defensive, aggressive peer culture - hardly surprising given the historical and contemporary reality of white racism.

Many were sensitive to racism and resentful or angr about it. But they often managed to appear confident and "cool".

They identified strongly with their own cultural folk heroes and - alone among the larger ethnic groups - no African-

Caribbean boy chose role models from another ethnic group.

Boys with African-born

parents, however, sometimes said they admired white athletes. One boy, whose parents were born in Nigeria, even said that the person he would most like to be was Michael Heseltine.

The African-Caribbeans often said they most admired black American sports stars such as Michael Jordan, the legendary basketball player.

Our findings illustrate why schools alone cannot change embedded ethnic identities and patterns of interaction. It is

therefore unjust to blame either the teachers or the boys. Understanding, rather than criticism, is what is required.

The relative educational

success of Indian children and the relative failure of African-

Caribbean children clearly owes something to how their cultures interact with the British school system and dominant culture.

If anti-racist and multicultural policies are to be effective they not only have to be society-wide but should also address the needs of different ethnic groups.

Mike O'Donnell is a senior lecturer in sociology at Westminster University. He is co-author, with Sue Sharpe, of Uncertain Masculinities: Youth

Ethnicity and Class in Contemporary Britain, published earlier this year by Routledge

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