Still far to go

6th September 1996 at 01:00
It is just over 4,000 miles from the Punjab to the English Midlands. The distance from Handsworth, a multi-ethnic district of Birmingham, to Oxford University is less than 70 miles.

But Sukhvinder Stubbs, director of the Runnymede Trust, found that the second of these journeys took her far further than the first. The fact that she was able to obtain an Oxbridge education (TES 2, page 28) apparently testifies to the British school system's ability to nurture its brightest pupils, irrespective of class, creed or colour. But two reports published this week show that while ethnic-minority students are winning more glittering prizes, there are no grounds for complacency. A study by the Institute of Employment Studies reports that although 12 per cent of higher education students are from ethnic minorities - twice their representation in the general population -many are still deterred by the older universities' white, rugby-playing image.

The long-awaited report that David Gillborn and Caroline Gipps have produced for the Office for Standards in Education offers a similar mix of good and bad news. The children of most minority groups are faring better in schools than they did 10 years ago, but too many African-Caribbean pupils are either being excluded for misbehaviour or are falling behind academically (only one in 12 African-Caribbean boys in Birmingham obtains an A-C grade in maths compared with nearly one in three whites).

It is a disappointing conclusion, given all the discussion there has been about black underachievement. It is now 30 years since London schools first introduced black studies courses in an attempt to combat the alienation experienced by too many young African-Caribbeans, and it is 11 years since the Swann report raised hopes that a serious attempt would be made to tackle racial inequities in education.

In retrospect, the great controversies over anti-racist education in the 1980s did not help the cause of multicultural schooling one whit. The combination of town hall zealots, who appeared to believe that all whites were irredeemably racist, and a right-wing press that salivated over "race spies in the classroom" stories was utterly disastrous.

Kenneth Baker's education reforms have not encouraged schools to focus on ethnicity either and only one school in 200 is said to have an effective ethnic-monitoring system. The national curriculum may not be as monocultural as its critics claim. But the Education Reform Act certainly diverted attention from race equality issues, even if schools and local education authorities can point to politically correct policy statements. New funding patterns have been unhelpful, too. A 1992 report on multicultural education by the National Foundation for Educational Research drew attention to the shortage of money for in-service training and demonstrated how local management of schools and the consequent shrinking of LEA staffing had led to the loss of many advisers' posts.

Nevertheless, the picture is not totally gloomy. Some authorities such as Tower Hamlets are showing the political will to combat ethnic-minority underachievement. And, as schools have now adjusted to most of Baker's reforms, this is perhaps as good a time as any to focus on ethnicity. Schools cannot tackle external factors, such as unemployment, that hinder African-Caribbean children's progress, but both they and local authorities must try to reduce the black exclusion rate. Central government must stop vacillating over the allocation of essential Section 11 funding and OFSTED must heed the message of its own study by producing inspection reports that are more conscious of racial differences. Sometimes colour-blind can be a synonym for rose-tinted.

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