Phillips puts black boys centre stage

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Media coverage of Trevor Phillips's suggestion that black boys could be taught separately from their white peers illustrates the enduringly powerful hold issues of race have over our society. The proposal, the latest in a long line of suggested remedies for the underperformance of black boys, whipped the media into a frenzy and has been vehemently criticised for raising the spectre of segregation (see Another Voice).

Although he talked about the need for shock treatment, Mr Phillips, the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, actually ventured quite tentatively into these tricky waters. He was not advocating complete separation of pupils by race, merely suggesting that the idea that black youngsters could be taught apart from white children for some lessons should be investigated.

He was right to be cautious. Several practical questions follow from the suggestion. Would these classes only be for underachieving black boys? This already happens by default in some British and American schools, where African-Caribbean youngsters are over-represented in lower sets and streams.

Even if separation could be shown to have a positive effect on the youngsters' exam results, many would argue that it would come at an unacceptably high price. Is separation really the best way to encourage inter-racial understanding? Recognising that underachievement among some groups is an issue does not have to equate to teaching black boys separately. There is no denying, however, the seriousness of the problem.

Ministers have highlighted figures showing black pupils' GCSE results improved faster last year than those of other races. It is also true that white working-class boys are doing slightly worse at GCSE than their black classmates. But other official statistics show a widening white-black gap at GCSE over the past 15 years.

If Mr Phillips's comments mean that fresh attention is focused on a seemingly intractable problem that has dogged education, in Britain and the United States, for decades, perhaps he has done us all a favour.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today