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United front to preserve cultural practices

Tony Sewell questions the future of supplementary schools for minority ethnic children and celebrates one success story. Contrary to public opinion, inner-city areas such as Lewisham in south London are not awash with juvenile criminals destroying the fabric of society. On a Saturday morning, nearly 2,000 of the borough's children are working at their lessons in more than 30 small schools.

Local minority ethnic communities have seen the supplementary school and heritage class as a way of combating underachievement and preserving national, religious and linguistic practices. Although these schools continue to grow, my own research questions their future direction.

In November 1995, Lewisham council commissioned me to conduct research into the needs and future direction of supplementary schools and heritage classes in the borough. Lewisham wanted to "modernise" its ad hoc funding system and favoured a consortium model which gave the schools the power to organise and raise extra funds for themselves.

One of the key purposes of my research was to establish how this could operate. The notion of a consortium where schools would be forced to work together, electing a council where each school would have one vote, had a mixed reception. It tested their notions of pluralism, survival and tolerance. For me, it was an exciting means of making changes to the rather archaic ethos of some of these schools.

Lewisham, like most boroughs with a sizeable African-Caribbean population, has had supplementary schools since the 1970s. African-Caribbean parents and community leaders were the first to set up what were known as "Saturday schools" in response to the "failure" and "disaffection" of their children in mainstream schools. Other ethnic groups following the African-Caribbean lead have since established schools which exist more for religious and cultural reasons than for academic ones.

The high exclusion rate and poor reading scores of African-Caribbean boys are only part of the reason for the massive spread of supplementary schools in the area. The arrival of refugee groups in Lewisham has stimulated recent growth.

Approximately 300 Vietnamese families live in the north of the borough, including about 400 children under the age of 16. Many of these families are recent arrivals from the Hong Kong camps. They come needing help in terms of language skills and support in dealing with their past hardships and in understanding a new environment.

Women refugees from Somalia have also been running a school. Many of their sons have had a hard time trying to recover from the trauma of civil war while coping with the trauma of a tough inner-city school.

I visited 20 of Lewisham's council-backed supplementary schools, with a total of 1,487 students. However, such was the rate of growth that, by the end of my study, the attendance must have grown to nearly 2,000.

In the first phase of my project, I distributed a questionnaire to the co-ordinators of the schools. The next stage was to conduct interviews with children, co-ordinators, teachers and parents.

Overall, the smaller schools were academically poor. The problem seemed to lie in a notion that schools had to adopt a back-to-basics 3Rs curriculum. Hence, in some African-Caribbean schools, students "at the command" of their parents spent Saturday mornings filling out work-sheets.

The Bengali Islamic school was also guilty of following a tedious curriculum, which meant copying endless pages of a children's version of the Koran. I spoke privately to children in these schools who respected the intentions of their elders but found much of the work "boring" and "irrelevant".

Another example of this struggle to come to terms with "modernity" was to be found in some African-Caribbean schools that taught what can only be described as a pseudo black history. Joe, the co-ordinator of a small school, said: "They must know that African civilisation did not begin with Europeans in Africa, nor the slave trade. We believe that this is the main philosophy of supplementary schools: to celebrate the glories of ancient Africa, to tell our children that the black man was the original man."

Co-ordinators like Joe feel that the key purpose of black supplementary schools should be to teach children the 3Rs and revise black history. This approach, however, fails to take on the challenge of an alternative curriculum that relates to the children's interests. One seven-year-old boy complained: "I only come here because my mum makes me. All we seem to do is write and do sums. It's boring."

This is in sharp contrast to his mother's perception. "If I didn't send my child to the supplementary school, I think I would send him home to Jamaica to be educated," she said. "Back home they don't fool around with children, they teach them the 3Rs and they learn discipline. Here, all they seem to do is fool around in sand and cuss the teachers. I prefer the old-fashioned approach. "

Like other parents, she had romanticised the schooling in Jamaica, where there are great differentials in the quality of schools. She had also failed to realise that the key to successful learning is to direct curricula to the perspective of the child.

It is also true that some supplementary schools are still obsessed with the flawed theories of an imported African-American perception. What has been missed here is a radical critical history. As dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson recently said: "Black kings and queens - so what? Who wants to identify with absolute rulers?" The new ethnicities speak more strongly of a "south London youth culture" than one based on the old ethnicities of these children's parents. This new reality of the cross-fertilisation of cultures, which is the "made" experience of black, African, Turkish, Chinese and white youth goes unrecognised by mainstream and supplementary schools.

The Lewisham experience points to the need for other types of supplementary schooling which need not be based on ethnicity or learning the 3Rs. What about schools based on the cross-fertilisation of youth cultures in Lewisham, where children learn not only about the diverse composition of their local area but how these cultures have fused and changed in their new context?

Too many of the schools were poorly managed and in danger of closing down, but the situation in Lewisham is not all bad. The co-ordinator of a successful African-Caribbean school said: "Teachers in mainstream schools don't believe me when I tell them that we've never had any discipline problems. They see black kids, especially black boys, and they think 'no chance'. When we get reports on some of these children, you wouldn't want to touch them. Yet, with us, they are excellent students. They just find school boring. We work with them and they enjoy it."

My report defended the consortium model of funding supplementary schools. Economics dictate that these schools have to work with others to survive. I estimated that, with the cost of a development worker, the council should invest Pounds 120,000 each year. The advantages for the schools are that they would keep their independence both culturally and financially, and the consortium could go to bodies such as the National Lottery and ask them to match council funding.

However, like most initiatives of this kind, the real test is in the practice. Though Lewisham is committed to the consortium in principle, the plan is still at the consulting stage.

Dr Tony Sewell is a senior lecturer in education at Kingston University, Surrey, and author of Black Masculinities and Schooling: How Black Boys Survive Modern Schooling, to be published by Trentham in January 1997.

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