How do you turn a group of Nike-clad black youngsters from also-rans to front-runners in the education race? Saturday school may help, says Corinne Julius
It is Saturday morning in Brixton, and 14 pairs of gleaming Nike, Reebok and Adidas trainers are planted on worn grey cord carpet, their owners seated around Formica tables clustered within peeling, once-cream walls.
You might think these black youngsters would prefer to be somewhere other than this flat above a former shop. Yet they have come here to school, and there is no mistaking the buzz of active and engaged learning.
The atmosphere at Family Friends, a black Saturday school which pupils pay pound;26 per term to attend, is ordered yet relaxed. The pupils address the teacher and chair of Family Friends, Vivilain Walker, by her first name. It is far more informal than the local comprehensive where she is head of English. Vanessa Thompson, 15, appreciates the difference. "It's relaxed and we get on well. It's at ease here, it's like home."
That may be the key to the success of Saturday Schools, according to the authors of a new report on black supplementary education. The aim of Dr Diane Reay, research fellow at King's College, London and Dr Heidi Safia Mirza, reader at South Bank University, was "to confront the negative media image of black children as low achievers with a discipline problem and to document the desire for education and considerable educational success in the black community".
They looked at nearly 50 supplementary schools in seven inner London boroughs, concentrating on four, one of which was Family Friends. The venture was set up by parent Molly Evans in response to the frustration she felt at the low expectations of her own children's mainstream school. Her experience is that much can be done when much is expected.
The Brixton school concentrates on maths and English, working around the national curriculum but relating the work to the pupils' backgrounds.
In the maths class, teacher Gregory Atari is working on angles at the request of 11-year-old Joyce Mukoro, who is having difficulty with them at school. The group are talked through several examples on the board and then answer further questions out loud, before working on their own. This allows Gregory Atari the time to go round the room checking that everyone has grasped the concepts. The approach is successful for Joyce Mukoro. "In other schools if you don't understand you have to look in a book, here they speak to you and make you understand and they go much slower," she says.
After a short break the same youngsters go on to an English class with Vivilain Walker. The atmosphere is completely different. The maths was calm and ordered, the English is challenging, more physical and at times it's almost electric. But one aspect of the approach remains constant: the teacher always talks to the youngsters, engaging and maintaining eye contact, drawing out of the pupils as much as possible. Vivilain Walker poses question after question, always asking, "Why?" Examining a GCSE text on black underachievement, she pushes her students to think their answers through and to relate their replies to their own experience. She challenges them further to examine how the situation might be changed.
Drs Reay and Mirza found that although black supplementary schools focus on the three Rs, all the teachers aim to start from the child's culture and use that as the building block for learning. Vivilain Walker is convinced this is essential for the many black children who lack self-esteem. "It's not just telling them about Ethiopian prin-cesses. It's about making black achievement central to them."
Dr Mirza says: "British state schooling, despite a recent history of multicultural initiatives, still operates with pre-dominately taken-for-granted assumptions of whiteness as normative. Black supplementary schools provide a space to challenge such assumptions."
Such schools offer an environment where children can learn that education doesn't have to be white-centred. The fact that pupils and staff are all black helps do that. "We can discuss black issues and no one is offended. No one says that the teacher only talked to the black kids," says Ms Walker.
It also allows her to deal firmly with excuses, lack of effort or lapses of behaviour. "I say: 'Don't give me that - I come from the same place you do.' I use my blackness to get to the kids. For example, in mainstream school if a boy who is difficult does half a page of writing when you know he could do better, the temptation is not to push for more because you don't want trouble. But here I have can say: 'Do you know what it's like out there for you as a black male?' I couldn't do that anywhere else."
There is little disruptive be-haviour, which is something the students relish, even while admitting there is peer group pressure to misbehave in normal schools. Richard Mukoro, 12, is happy to work harder at Saturday School. It was initially his mother who made him come, but now it is his own choice: "At normal school my friends want to be musicians or footballers, but I want to be a doctor. Here I get the knowledge while they are on the streets."
In most supplementary schools, pupils and parents sign a contract which deals with their rights and expectations as well as those of the school. Dr Reay says: "There's a sense of ownership, a real feeling of collective action towards a better life. In mainstream schools parents don't feel in control, they lack information and they speak a different language from the teachers. Here they don't."
Parents like Roslyn Mukoro appreciate the accessibility and responsivenes:
"In normal school I feel anxious and embarrassed, but here they listen to me and give the children the help I think they need."
The supplementary schools consider they have an advocacy role to help parents get the best from their children's full-time schools. Molly Evans feels this can be threatening to mainstream colleagues. She encourages parents to forge a partnership between schools, supplementary schools and home, but regrets that it's not always successful. The Saturday schools are seen by some as inherently critical or as centres of black rejection of mainstream and white values.
To Dr Mirza they are indeed subversive. She says that whereas black men tend to seek institutional change, black women (and it's mainly women who teach in the school) tend to promote change through education. The schools may seem conventional, but she sees them as black women redefining what education for black children can be about: a place to succeed. As a member of the Schools Standards Task Force she willbe promoting supplementary schools as models for all underachieving youngsters.
Pupil Vanessa Thompson shares her enthusiasm. "If you need help in furthering your educationIor just want to learn more about yourself, it's the place to come."
'Uncovering Genealogies of the Margins: Black Supplementary Schooling'. Published by the British Journal of Sociology of Educationvol. 18, No. 4 1997