Susan Young reports on research that shows a cycle of inequality in the early years of school. The body language and behaviour of African-Caribbean boys in south London schools are to be examined by teachers and pupils to try to cut high exclusion rates.
Boys are to be helped to realise when their stance might be perceived as threatening, while teachers will learn about black culture and how to interpret behaviour as part of a wider project.
The three-year, Pounds 200,000 project, funded by the National Lottery Charities Board and organised by the Runnymede Trust, follows a study of African-Caribbean youths in Brixton. It found, disturbingly, that some boys were excluded from schools having previously shown great academic promise, and then found themselves on a downward spiral of failure which often led to prison. Their desire for "respect" sometimes led them into problems.
African-Caribbean boys were twice as likely to be excluded as others, and their levels of attainment were very poor. At 16 they were far less likely than all other students to enter a sixth form or sixth-form college, and twice as likely to become immediately unemployed. About half of all African-Caribbean men under 25 in Lambeth, the borough which includes Brixton, are unemployed, more than twice the rate of their white counterparts.
Sukhvinder Stubbs, director of the Runnymede Trust, which advises on race relations and cultural diversity, said: "The idea of role models, issues of respect and the cultural package of what seems to be going on between teachers and kids a lot of the time is something we need to look at. We need to reduce the gap between what is and what isn't an aggressive stance and making an environment more conducive to learning."
Examining why African-Caribbean girls do better than boys will also be an important feature. "Perhaps there is something there for the boys to learn, " said Mrs Stubbs.
The project hopes to involve three Brixton schools fully while another nine take part to a lesser extent. The intention is to use mentoring schemes, look at the role of parent-governors, improve links between schools and industry, and identify best practice.
The Runnymede Trust report, This Is Where I Live, was commissioned after disturbances in the borough last December. The author, Angela Haynes, interviewed young people, teachers, and youth workers. She found young African-Caribbean men had to show respect at home but demanded it on the street. Sometimes there was pressure to engage in petty crime in order to keep the respect of friends.
The report says: "Truancy is not a problem for this group. But white teachers' misinterpretation of young black male behaviour, dress and language often results in sanctions, and these sometimes have long-term effects if they contribute to the young men's reputations as trouble-makers. In particular problems and confrontations arise from the tendency to question requests and instruction. It's not necessarily insolence, but a desire to be treated with respect, which means being given reasons, not just orders.
"Black professionals . . . were aware of such perspectives but were adamant that African-Caribbean pupils need to recognise that sometimes they must do what they are told without question, if only because this is what is required in the outside world.
"Black teachers were perceived as tending to punish black pupils more frequently and for lesser offences than their white colleagues but at the same time they were perceived to be more interested in the development of the black students."
A third of the youths interviewed had been excluded. Others had suffered bad reports, detentions, suspensions and labelling as troublemakers.
The report's recommendations included improved reading and writing in primary education, modification of secondary transfer to decrease the likelihood of disaffection, help for pupils in avoiding conflict with teachers, conflict management training for school staff and mentoring schemes.
This Is Where I Live: stories and pressures in Brixton, 1996. The Runnymede Trust, Pounds 3. Available from 133 Aldersgate Street, London EC1A 4JB.