High-achieving African pupils are bucking the decades-long trend of underachievement among black pupils, a study has found.
The research, conducted in a South London borough, reveals that African parents' insistence that respect should be shown in school, with pupils wearing the correct uniform and standing up when teachers enter the classroom, plays a key role in their children's success.
Dr Feyisa Demie, of Lambeth's Research and Statistics Unit, examined the GCSE results of all pupils in his authority over the past seven years, and interviewed parents and teachers at six secondaries. His findings were presented at the annual British Educational Research Association conference, held in Manchester this autumn.
In Lambeth, 71 per cent of black African pupils achieved five or more A*-C grades at GCSE last year, surpassing both local and national averages. Nationally, 53 per cent of black African pupils achieved five A*-C grades, compared with 44 per cent of black Caribbean teenagers.
A key reason for this, Demie believes, is the high value that African parents often attach to education. "Africans invest in education because we need it," one African parent told him. Another said: "Without an education you cannot earn a decent salary. Without qualifications, you cannot get a good job. The best thing is to push your children as hard as you can."
Others contrast their children's educational opportunities with their own. "I wasn't able to go to school, due to lack of money," one parent said. "When I sit down with my kids, I tell them I do not want them to have the life I have had. Children now have choices - education is the key."
Another added: "Being a black woman, if you don't have an education in this country, what job will you have to do? Clean people's toilets?"
Parents also talked about the importance of respect for teachers. One commented that, in Africa, "the teacher is an authority figure in the classroom. There is a good tradition where the start of the lesson is marked by students standing up to greet the teacher."
The strong religious backgrounds of some African families often ally well with the aims of schools, and particularly church schools. The formality of school uniforms, morning prayers and lining up to enter a classroom reflect parents' ideas about respect and courtesy.
This attitude was also noted by the teachers Demie interviewed. They remarked that African parents regularly attend school open evenings, taking advantage of any opportunity to discuss their children's progress with staff.
"I know I have the support of African parents," one teacher said. "If I advise them what to do, they will do it, whereas other parents might not. African parents may sometimes be poor, but their standards are higher. They expect and want their children to achieve...It is not so important to other groups."
Teachers commented that both mother and father will attend parents' evenings. And many African parents liaise with teachers about schoolwork and about the kind of discipline they should mete out to their children. African teachers, in particular, were often asked by parents for advice.
"There is a cultural assumption that teachers are the 'third parent' and have their children's interests at heart," Demie says. "This is a real asset for African teachers, who enjoy their role-model status and their insider knowledge."
But Demie points out that African pupils are not a homogeneous group. In fact, when pupils were divided linguistically, it became clear that, while three-quarters of Luganda, Krio, Igbo, Yoruba and Ga speakers achieved five A*-C grades at GCSE, fewer than half the Lingala speakers did.
"Language data can provide greater insight into which students may be in need of particular support," Demie says.
Demie, F. "The achievement of black African students in British schools: an ethnographic study of success factors". A paper presented to the 2012 British Educational Research Association conference
Feyisa Demie: bit.lyOFaooP
WHAT AFRICAN PARENTS SAY
"Africans invest in education because we need it. Back home, we do not have the opportunity that these children have. Education makes a way for you."
"I wasn't able to go to school, due to lack of money. When I sit down with my kids, I tell them I do not want them to have the life I have had."
"Without an education, you cannot earn a decent salary. Without qualifications, you cannot get a good job. The best thing is to push your children as hard as you can."
"Being a black woman, if you don't have education in this country, what job will you have to do? Clean other people's toilets?"
"Without knowledge, you are nothing. Even if you get money, you wouldn't be able to manage it without wisdom."
"Knowledge is a lifetime investment. Money comes and goes, but knowledge lasts for ever."
"Behind many of the African students' achievements, you will find some of the most dedicated parents supporting their children, to ensure their children are high achievers. It is not always the school you go to - it's how strong the parental support network is behind you."
"To be a person in life, her education must be better than (mine). I want my daughter to achieve so many things in life, so that they are a credit to you back home. I do not want to be ashamed in the future."