Who's got the attitude problem?

7th February 1997 at 00:00
At the end of the 20th century it is no longer true that there is a shortage of role models for young black British males. Although racism continues to blight the career opportunities of ethnic minorities there is a growing number of prominent black politicians, clerics, writers, actors and trade union leaders, and a glut of media and sports personalities.

But all too often competing pressures exerted by schools, families and youth sub-culture force teenage black boys to choose between stark opposites. Saint or sinner? Trevor McDonald or gangster rapper?

Tony Sewell, a black academic, investigates this phenomenon in a book to be published next week, Black Masculinities and Schooling. His study provides a disturbing account of relationships in an unpopular boys' comprehensive. Local residents, who regularly complain about the pupils' brawling, bullying and vandalism, regard it as an unwelcome squatter, and the staff and children have almost as low an opinion of their school.

Dr Sewell, a senior lecturer at Kingston University, spent two years in the unnamed 11-16 school trying to find out why black exclusion rates are so high and why teachers are generally more critical of African-Caribbean boys, their home background and culture. He also examined the black youth sub-culture, particularly the music, and tested the view that black boys have to deny key aspects of their race and culture in order to avoid being disciplined.

African-Caribbean boys, who made up less than a third (140) of the 497-pupil roll, had outscored their white classmates in GCSE exams in two out of three years. But, inevitably, their exclusion rate was more than twice that of the whites, and it had soared since the arrival of a black headteacher (see far right).

A few teachers, whom Sewell labels as "supportive", did not see the African-Caribbean boys as particularly anti-school or deviant. They pointed to the weaknesses in the institution or teacher racism as the reason for the boys' rebellion. But most of the 30 teachers were critical of the black youth sub-culture and either "irritated" by the boys or "antagonistic". Often both.

Some were also opposed to anti-racist curriculum initiatives. Asked about the idea of introducing more black history, a white teacher said: "If you look at the Benin empire, they were a load of bastards who enslaved their own people. They did the same as the Europeans. What are we supposed to say, 'This is Africa, wow, this is your history'?"

Sewell says this teacher's cynicism and disaffection is fairly typical of the majority of the staff, who seemed too preoccupied with their own survival to address some of the vital issues of race and sexuality they faced. "You look at the car-park in this school at 4pm - it's almost deserted," one teacher admitted. "There's nothing going on in this school after 3pm."

The head claimed that poor parenting was responsible for many of his discipline problems. "Most of the boys I have excluded come from single-parents. These boys are up until 4am - going out to raves #201; You've got relatively young mothers, who could easily pass as big sisters. I am disappointed, I would have thought we had moved on."

He also attributed the high black exclusion rate to the fact that even rebellious African-Caribbean boys are less likely to truant than their white schoolmates.

Sewell disputes that analysis, but does not lay all the blame on the teachers and head. He acknowledges it would be wrong to portray the teachers as evil racists and their African-Caribbean pupils as innocents. The youth sub-culture, though "vital to the creation of an African-Caribbean identity in a hostile world" also encourages boys to be rebellious, rather than creative.

However, he questions the wisdom of trying to change black working-class pupils into models of white (or Caribbean) middle-class virtue. He also warns that it is wrong to look on African-Caribbean boys as one homogeneous group. "The boys came from backgrounds as varied as the Pentecostal church, Rastafarian, middle-class, lone-parent, Conservative and black activist," he points out.

Too much of the research literature on young blacks has concentrated on those who resist schooling, he argues. At least 40 of the 100 boys he interviewed could be classed as "conformists" who kept their heads down, obeyed school rules and were prepared to speak in "good" standard English. Some of these boys even agreed that rap and ragga music were sexist.

The second-largest group were "innovators" who accepted the goals of schooling but rejected the means. Not all of them created as much trouble as Frank, who wanted to go to college, do a BTEC National and find work in a bank. ("I got excluded the other day," he told Sewell. "I had an alcohol bottle with me and Miss caught me drinking. She tried to pull it from me and I cut my finger, so I pushed her.") But many in this category liked to think they had more machismo than white boys and saw their schooling as repressive and racist.

The 16 per cent of boys classified as "rebels" were either black nationalist s, who believed that white teachers and a Eurocentric curriculum were working against their interests, or hedonists. Some of the latter category were members of a gang called the Posse. They had totally rejected mental labour but were all interested in the ragga and jungle electro music that has been accused of making young blacks more aggressive and misogynist and exaggerate their sexuality.

"They felt the schooling process assaulted the thing that was most precious to them - their 'manhood'," Sewell says. "The teachers' ability to 'shame them up' and 'make them look small' was the reason for many conflicts."

The final, tiny, category of boys Sewell identified were the "retreatists" who wandered the corridors, in one case for weeks, before a teacher intervened.

"The practices of both teachers and students need attention," Sewell concludes, adding that neither "unrelenting niceness" nor "ferocious regimentation" is likely to improve relationships between teachers and boys.

He suggests that schools such as the one he studied should draft a policy for social justice in tandem with the pupils, white working-class as well as black.

Conflict resolution programmes and confrontation avoidance strategies (see box, left) should be adopted, and curriculum policy should be revised to make it less assimilationist.

"We must tackle the notion that to be good in school means one is 'acting white'," he says. "Schools need to do more than give African-Caribbean boys textbooks that feature black characters. There must be a commitment by staff to emancipatory teaching #201; African-Caribbean boys need to move through a racial identity development process, to secure dignity and self-esteem. "

Black Masculinities and Schooling: how black boys survive modern schooling, will be published by Trentham Books on February 11, price #163;14.95

How to avoid confrontation

* Avoid negative comments on cultural styles Students should be allowed to dress themselves and their hair within the agreed limits of a school's dress code and to move as they please if this does not encroach on the space of others.

* Respect students' personal space Students may feel threatened and become agitated if their personal space is constantly violated. This does not mean, however, that teachers should ignore bad behaviour.

* Use friendly gestures, not aggressive ones Avoid pointing the finger. Open hands with upturned palms are less threatening.

* Use the student's preferred name Ask each student how he or she would like to be addressed in the classroom and then respect that preference.

* Get on their level physically If they are seated, try kneeling or bending over, rather than standing over them.

* Ask questions rather than make accusations Assume that the student is a responsibl e person. "Are you ready to begin?" is less confrontational than: "Put your magazine away. It's time to start class", especially when spoken in a concerned and kind tone.

* Deal with problem behaviour in private Reprimanding or "shaming" students in front of their peers causes unnecessary embarrassment. Speaking to them privately respects their dignity and self-esteem.

* Listen carefully when students speak Remain open-minded and objective. Consider the messages of students carefully. Avoid interrupting them or offering unsolicited advice or criticism.

What pupils and staff thought of each other

Tony Sewell's interviews with the school's teachers and pupils produced the following candid responses.

Head (African-Caribbean male) "I have excluded 53 boys so far and all have been African Caribbean. This has been the situation since I began teaching 20 years ago and nothing has changed.

"These are African-Caribbean youngsters who have lacked the type of domestic curriculum [that they need]. These boys have got to a stage where they feel very bitter, very angry. So they have engaged themselves in a sub-culture of anti-authority, anti-work, anti-academic prowess."

Deputy head (African-Caribbean male) "What you've got to understand about our children is the lack of any formal structures in their lives. They have no concept of the family because in many cases their fathers have fucked off. Gone are structures like the Scouts or Sunday School.

"That is why particularly African-Caribbean children enjoy coming to school because they encounter adults who are willing to instil some discipline and routine in their lives. That's why I don't come down to their level in my teaching style. It's not that I don't like them. It's what they expect of me. I am probably the only male adult in their lives who is consistent."

Teacher (white male) "What has been missed by most people is the aggravation caused by white boys in this school. There are a small group of white boys who are deeply racist and have a negative influence on the school. They do this through graffiti and victimisation of other boys, and they've got away with it.

"I think we have an exclusion policy that is based on the one-off incident, which I think is wrong. African-Caribbean boys tend to be involved more with the one-off incident that is seen as more dangerous than other acts of anti-school behaviour."

Teacher (white female) "My politics are very left-wing - that's why I wanted to teach in schools like this one - [but now] I think I'm a circus ring-master cracking the whip to try to make animals jump through hoops. A lot of them are rebelling against it. It's like a wild tiger: you can't really train it.

"I hate the job. I hate coming in here in the morning, being verbally abused. We all are. It's happening to all of us. It's only that some people are burying it. It's killing me before my time. "

Teacher (white female) "I've had African-Caribbean boys who, when I told them to wait until the bell goes, say, 'Let me go, you white bitch!' I've never had that kind of talk from the Asians. "

Pupil (African-Caribbean boy) "If you look at Indians, they work hard and own shops. Black people are into other stuff. They got more social life, they go out more.

"Black people aren't thinking about work, they've got other things on their mind. They just like to express themselves, to show everyone who they are.

"A lot of my friends don't like to be told what to do. If a teacher tells them to do something and they don't respect the teacher, they're going to turn round and tell them to shut up."

Pupil (African-Caribbean boy) "My mum says I shouldn't hang around students who get into trouble. I must take my opportunity while I can.

"The students I avoid are fourth-years. You can easily spot the way they walk around in groups, they are mostly black with one or two whites. They're wearing baseball hats and bopping [black stylised walk]. It's really a kind of walk for bad people. I might walk like this at the weekend with my mates but not in school in front of the teachers. It sets a bad example."

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