On racism's front line

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Samuel, a seven-year-old African-Caribbean child: "I always get done and always get picked on...I want to go to a black school with all black teachers...it's better. I want to go to a school with just black people. "

Interviewer: "Why?"

Samuel: "Because when you go to a school with white people they give you horrible food and you're always picked on when you don't do nothing. When it's white people they just say stop that and stop doing this."

This exchange is quoted in Race Relations in the Primary School by Dr Cecile Wright, reader in sociology at Nottingham Trent University. It illustrates, at its most basic, a phenomenon that is by now well-documented in the literature on race and education. In the latest report to refer to this phenomenon, an OFSTED-commissioned survey on ethnic minority achievement pointed to evidence of "an unusually high degree of conflict between white teachers and African-Caribbean pupils" - sometimes despite teachers' best intentions.

Young Samuel, in other words, is not alone. But neither is the problem as black and white, if you'll pardon the pun, as it might appear. As Dr Paul Connelly of the University of Ulster explains it in his paper on "Racism, Masculine Peer-group Relations and the Schooling of African-Caribbean Infant Boys," published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education: "Students' direct contact with teachers forms only a relatively small proportion of their schooling experiences in comparison to their interaction with peers."

He talks of a "continuous feed-back loop" formed by the pupil-teacher relations on the one hand, and the peer-group relations on the other - "the products of each tending to exacerbate and inflate the other" - from the very beginning of a black boy's school life.

Masculinity and class are factors in black boys' behaviour, suggest some of the more circumspect researchers, among them Connelly and Wright, that have to be set in the context of the school environment. How white peers relate to African-Caribbean boys' perceived macho-ness, their toughness and street wisdom, may set an agenda of conflict that is mirrored, if not instigated by, the teacher. This leads to situations where, as documented in study after study, behaviour that might be tolerated in a white boy is not when the boy is black. The "typification" that American researchers say teachers use subconsciously to help them deal with different groups of children in a demanding classroom often results in the equation of black boys, even at primary level, with trouble. And when trouble is anticipated, it is usually not far behind.

Cecile Wright emphasises that an exploration of this dynamic is "not about deriding teachers' professionalism." Teachers themselves often express frustration at having little option but to "shoot from the hip" when confronted with difficult situations, simply because there is no one around to turn to for advice or with whom to share ideas and develop strategies. She suggests that a mentoring scheme, in which black teachers advise white on race-related issues, would give a welcome level of support.

As good an idea as that might be, it might also be a slice of pie in the sky because of the paucity of black teachers, if nothing else. More down to earth is the notion of schools setting straight classroom management, deciphering the guidelines on discipline, coming to a practical consensus on what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. And bound up with that should be the space and forum for teachers to reflect on their own practice in the classroom.

The good news is that with the new teacher training curriculum on the horizon and the Department for Education and Employment's official rehabilitation of anti-racism and multiculturalism, a heightened consciousness of issues around race will, many hope, once again be an integral part of the new teacher's approach. Saris, samosas and steel bands, those superficial cliches of multiculturalism, are irrelevant in the battle that must be fought against black alienation and unfulfilled aspirations.

As Cecile Wright puts it: "Teachers forget how important they are in children's lives. The way in which they steer, guide and jolly along their pupils is terribly important. Children rely on them to reinforce their worth. Teachers need to recognise the power they have and the responsibility that goes with it. They should be constantly communicating that 'you're worthwhile, I'm interested in you learning, I have faith in you'."

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