That was then, this is now

12th May 2006 at 01:00
Black parents have been neglected as a force in educational research. Sharon Geer welcomes a work that puts black fathers' experiences centre stage

Seven Black Men: an ecological study of education and parenting

By Jan McKenley

Aduma Books pound;12.95

The title of this book is intriguing. Jan McKenley examines the extent to which values about education have been transmitted across three generations, and how these values translate into parental choices. It is timely, given the ongoing concern by government, schools, education researchers and parents about the underachievement of black Caribbean pupils (particularly boys). The author, a former HMI, argues that answers to these worries will be elusive while the contribution of black Caribbean families in the UK is so under-researched. The project outlined in this book offers a new perspective and uncovers new truths.

McKenley explores the interplay of immigration, education policies and institutional racism through the experiences of seven men as pupils and fathers. As a black Caribbean woman with a similar background to the men she has studied, McKenley adds her own powerful insight, knowledge and experience.

The author considers the experience of the men in primary and secondary school during the 1960s and 1970s, and as parents of children in compulsory education from 1980 into the 1990s. In a section titled "Critical reflections", she considers the impact of generational and cultural influences on the men as parents, concluding that there are policy implications for educators and their relationships with parents.

The core readership will be teachers, but the book will also be of interest to researchers, government ministers and parents. McKenley wants us "to pay attention to the rarely heard voice of black Caribbean parents and their children", arguing that black parents are undervalued and often criticised for not being "active". She rejects the latter allegation by showing how black parents struggle to counter the impact of institutional racism and structured inequality.

When I read the chapter on "Migration and settlement" I was overtaken by personal memories; echoes of my own history and my parents' journey, long hidden, resurfaced. My parents' aspirations as migrants from St Vincent in the 1960s were for employment and a better education for their children; they wanted to save money and "go back home".

McKenley emphasises that, in the Caribbean, education was the key to gaining employment. Parents had high expectations of schools in their new country; unfortunately teachers' expectations of their children were low.

As the 1978 report Cause for Concern: West Indian Pupils in Redbridge (published by Ilford Black People's Progressive Association and Redbridge Community Relations Council) stated: "Teachers' accounts indicate that doubts about the IQ or perceived ability and potential of West Indian pupils became an uncritical part of the educational discourse."

Five of the seven subjects drifted through the education system; one was permanently excluded and the rest left with no qualifications, but achieved employment and higher qualifications in adulthood. The remaining two went on to university and gained degrees. Two are now management consultants; the others are respectively an educational psychologist, director of a leadership organisation, a librarian, a social worker and a youth project manager. Their ages range from 48 to 56; five live in south London, one in an outer London suburb, one in a shire county.

As parents, the seven make choices in the context of the 1988 Education Act, with its "parents' charter", national curriculum, Ofsted and league tables. They are aware of the failures in the education system and want the right to make choices. The majority choose independent schools at various points in their children's school careers. One is so disillusioned that he sets up his own independent community school. Of the two fathers who went to university, one now has a daughter who is also a graduate.

The author identifies all seven as "privileged choosers": able and willing to engage with the opportunity to choose. They all held "radical" political views, yet their educational choices are inherently conservative. Most are distrustful of teachers and the education system.

Most feel that their parents transmitted important values and strategies which have aided their own survival and influenced their ability to thrive: purposeful ambition; hard work; self-sacrifice; self-improvement; the support of the extended family. One feels that his political consciousness about racism and discrimination comes from early family discussions.

These men and their families are ambivalent about the benefits of mainstream education and are turning increasingly to the independent sector. McKenley identifies a continuing climate of suspicion and fear between parents and schools along the lines of the "schools as battlefields" metaphor defined by Signithia Fordham in Blacked Out, a 1996 study of "dilemmas of race, identity and success" in a Chicago high school.

The seven fathers are typical of a new generation of black parents who expect to play a greater role in schools and to have their voices heard. McKenley suggests that schools might find it hard to adjust to these demands. If this adjustment is her challenge for school leaders, the challenge to black parents is to engage with these debates, to share strategies, to become more involved in their children's education and empower themselves.

As a teacher, I find this book provides a useful overview of education legislation over the past 40 years in the context of race relations, equal opportunities, ethnic monitoring and inclusion. On a personal note, it charts elements of my journey as pupil and teacher in the British education system over the past 30 years. It is a timely reminder of some very important legislation and how it might have affected my personal journey, career paths and choices as a parent.

Every teacher, headteacher and government minister should read this book.

Sharon Geer is advanced skills teacher in raising attainment and ethnic minority achievement co-ordinator at Forest Hill boys' school in the London borough of Lewisham

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