African-Caribbean boys continue to underachieve, starting when they get to secondary school. Janet Graham argues that it is teachers’ professional duty to change this.
As a black teacher in London I am horrified by the underachievement of African-Caribbean boys in secondary school, and in GCSE exams. This is happening at such an alarming rate that, according to a leading black authority, these boys are becoming a ‘new underclass’ in British society. My study in an inner London school revealed that many African- Caribbean boys do not get to sixth form to do A levels – they have not achieved the required GCSEs. They go to college or become a NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training). Very few make it to university and a good job.
The education system is failing African- Caribbean boys. Despite doing well at Key Stages 1 and 2, they start to fall behind on entering secondary school. The fate of most of these boys is sealed from leaving the school gates at the end of KS4. This leads to social deprivation and a one-way ticket to the streets, gang culture, crime, prison or even getting killed.
This deplorable problem has severe consequences for society and the teaching profession. It was Bernard Coard in his book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain (1971) who shamed the authorities into making changes. Bernard argued that the black child laboured under three crucial handicaps:
1 low expectations on his part about his likely performance in a white-controlled system of education
2 low motivation to succeed academically because he feels the cards are stacked against him
3 low teacher expectations, which affect the amount of effort expended on his behalf by the teacher, and also affect his own image of himself and his abilities. Coard said: “If the system is rigged against you, and if everyone expects you to fail, the chances are you will expect to fail too.”
He classified these barriers as systemic and institutionalised racism.
African-Caribbean boys experience some of the same problems as their counterparts who were branded educationally subnormal (ESN) nearly 40 years ago. But rather than being sent away to special schools, they remain in mainstream education.
In my study I identified three main contributors to the underachievement of African-Caribbean boys:
1 They are often sent to Learning Support Units (LSUs) and Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) because they are said to have behavioural and emotional problems.
2 Their masculinity and subculture is sometimes perceived as threatening and some teachers form negative views about them.
3 In schools with a diverse ethnic population they can become ‘hidden’.
Tony Sewell, another black authority, says: “Black boys are seen as angels and devils in British and American schools and they are heroes of a street fashion culture that dominates most of our inner cities.” This is mostly to do with a general Americanised youth culture which some teachers perceive as negative, hostile, often threatening and difficult to comprehend.
The boys’ subculture and masculinity are not sufficiently understood in schools. This is a form of institutionalised racism.
The ways some teachers perceive African-Caribbean boys can affect their learning. Sewell says the experience of being the “darling of popular youth sub- culture and the sinner in the classroom” has led to a range of behaviours.
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