Teachers are not racists, Trevor

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Stuart Newton takes issue with the new chair of the Commission for Racial Equality

So now, apparently, teachers are to blame for the underachievement of black children (TES, February 24). (In addition to our alleged responsibility for drug abuse, street violence, teenage pregnancies, and the decline in standards of pupil achievement and discipline.) I know that we should never let facts get in the way of a good story, but let's try. The vast majority of teachers with whom I have worked in the past 35 years have wanted their pupils to achieve their best, whatever their gender, race or socio-economic background. National statistics suggest that Asian pupils perform, on average, better than all others. I am not convinced that this suggests racism.

This week, I began to wonder how other countries deal with underachievement in schools, so I consulted The Jamaica Gleaner (a national newspaper) on the internet.

On September 2, 1999 an article on Jamaica claimed that there was "up to 50 per cent functional illiteracy, fewer than 10 per cent of secondary students sitting (not passing) four or more subjects, and only about one-third of candidates gaining passes in English language, and a quarter in maths ..." It also suggested that equal educational opportunities are difficult in the face of so many factors that are beyond the reach of tax dollars.

On February 15, 2002, another report suggested that "we need to spend more time trying to improve male performance in the teenage years", and "the number of enrolled boys outnumbers that of girls. The gender disparity begins shifting towards the female side when we go up the secondary level".

There were other comments to the effect that achievement is very poor for children from low-income families. It all sounds very similar to the UK. Except that no one seems to be suggesting that Jamaican underperformance is caused by racism.

We could debate forever the validity of comparisons between Jamaica and the UK. But such a debate would merely polarise opinion and generate ammunition for those who wish to define as racist anyone who disagrees with them. And it will not improve the achievement of even one pupil. The only important question is, how do we raise the achievement of all pupils?

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, provides a heartening example of a black boy, excluded from a school in London who went on to achieve spectacular success at a private Catholic boarding school.

Was this achievement the result of inspectors checking that the Race Relations Act was being implemented? I doubt it. It probably had more to do with the boy being away from the negative influences of London's streets, surrounded by a strong ethos of belief, and supported by a firm disciplinary system that had the backing of the large majority of pupils, parents and staff.

I can also provide an anecdote about one pupil. Four years ago some Year 10 and 11 black pupils from my school were involved in a street fight with Asian pupils from another school. The following week, I told pupils in assembly that this sort of behaviour was racist. Later that morning, a black girl in Year 10 remarked to her teacher, "It's not racism - we just don't like Asians." That comment was especially revealing because the girl was a major contributor to the local authority's excellent video on combating racism in schools.

Clearly, her comment was naive and overtly racist, though she was only 15 and, like all 15-year-olds, still had plenty to learn about life. But I am still concerned that she saw racism as something that other people (usually whites) do to blacks.

So long as people in high places nurture the blame culture, then we are destined to failure - and it is the young people themselves who will be the losers. If we are ever to resolve the issues, we must seek the constructive co-operation of people of goodwill who want to make things work. Pillorying teachers is not the best way to do this.

Dr Stuart Newton was head of Selsdon high, Croydon, 1980-2001 Letters, 24, 25

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