By Rani Ali
Education is a universal right for every child, but not all children and young people have the same experience throughout the education system – and that is a problem. The education system is there to support young people and guide them towards success, however, Black children, especially boys, are discriminated against as soon as they start school. They are perceived as disruptive, hopeless, and inferior and something needs to be done about it.
The unconscious prejudices within the education system result in many teachers being biased against Black Caribbean boys, the Centre for Education and Youth found. These prejudices are reflected in the way these students are disciplined at school, how their work is assessed, and the academic ability set that they are put in. Professor of Critical Race Studies at the University of Birmingham, David Gillborn, found that Black boys are more likely to be impeded by race, expectations about behaviour, and academic performance. For example, there is a significant difference in how White teachers treat pupils in terms of pushing them to do their best. Gillborn found that if a Chinese pupil is achieving a C grade, the teacher is much more likely to encourage them and push them to fulfill their potential by achieving a better grade. Whereas, when this is the case with a Black boy, a C is regarded “good enough” and they are not pushed to achieve anything better. This teaching attitude is reflected in the educational attainment of Black boys and their future educational career. Black boys are amongst the least likely to obtain five A* to C GCSEs, good A-levels, and entry to good universities. Compared to the national average of 40%, only 31% of Black African and 23% of Black Caribbean boys achieve five A* to C GCSEs. This limits how far they can progress into further education and restricts the education opportunities that are available to them, for example, achieving the grades required by Russell Group universities.
It is easy to point the finger at the individual and blame Black boys for their poor educational attainment, but it is clear that the structures that underlie the education system put Black pupils at a disadvantage. It is important to consider the amount of knowledge that schools have about Black culture. For example, numerous stories have emerged of Black students being told off for their hairstyles. This reflects the prevalent racial bias and lack of understanding which, understandably, Black pupils can see as disrespectful and upsetting. No wonder many Black young people do not think that education is made for them, especially young men. Something needs to be done to ensure Black boys have a positive experience and want to remain in education, however, the rate at which Black boys are excluded does not help this goal. The Runnymede Trust published a report that stated Black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be permanently excluded from school, than their White counterparts. Narrowing it down to gender, Black Carribean boys make up 53% of the permanently excluded school population, whereas White boys only make up 18%. Although we all know that exclusions are the result of bad behaviour, it is important to consider the role of discipline in this. As mentioned, Black boys are disciplined differently to other pupils, so behaviour deemed as ‘disruptive’ or ‘bad’ when performed by them may not be deemed as such if it was another pupil acting in such a way. Therefore, it is vital to address teacher attitudes towards Black boys, particularly the aspect of fairness in their role.
Teachers play the most important role in a pupil’s education, therefore, they should treat each pupil with the same amount of respect, but as it has been found, this is often not the case. Various research projects have concluded that schools must develop their knowledge and understanding of Black British history and culture to improve the experience of Black boys in education. By understanding the dynamics of Black British culture, schools can begin to understand why Black boys may act a certain way. What at first may appear as troublesome or disruptive behaviour may actually be a way that Black boys have been socialised to express their masculinity. Uanu Seshmi MBE addressed how the expression of masculinity is an important factor to consider when trying to reduce the exclusion figures for Black boys. In his report for the Runnymede Trust, Seshmi identified two main areas that schools with high exclusion rates are failing in. Firstly, they lack in supporting BME males in KS3 and 4 to have a healthy understanding of masculinity and adulthood. Secondly, schools must then nurture BME males’ prosocial behaviour, so they can compete with other males in a healthy way, both intellectually and physically. It is narrow minded to assume that everyone is brought up in the same way. Britain is made up of numerous diverse cultures which socialise children in different ways, so schools, which play a key role in secondary socialisation, must realise their role in developing individuals into prosocial members of society. No pupil is the same, so the approach cannot be the same.
Since identity is a reflection of one’s environment, it is necessary to analyse how male gender identity translates from the home to school. Academics Kerr and Cohn (2001) found that Black men are constantly having to prove their masculinity. The behaviours that cause Black boys to be labelled as problematic, such as disruptive behaviour and becoming part of gangs, are a strategy used by them to earn their masculine rights. It is important to realise that when Black boys lose interest in education, it is not because they cannot be bothered or they are not clever enough – it is because they are having to prove themselves elsewhere. Schools need to be equipped with the correct support structure to guide them. For Black boys to receive the correct guidance, it is essential that they have the correct role models they can aspire to be. Sadly, this is not accessible in many schools.
Tony O’Connor became Britain’s first Black headteacher in 1967, which could be seen as a turning-point in the amount of BME role models in education. However, in 2016 there were only 39 Black secondary head teachers in England. This equates to under 10% of secondary schools in England being led by a Black headteacher. Without BME leaders, how can racism and racial biases be tackled in schools? What can Black boys aspire to be without having “someone like them” in a leadership position? Similarly, the teaching workforce is made up of only 2.2% Black teachers. This once again raises the significant issue of the lack of understanding and empathy there is towards Black British culture. There is such a shortage of Black teachers in schools that we need to ask, who is there to understand Black pupils?
To overcome the racial biases in school, however unconscious it may be, there needs to be a re-education of education professionals. As stated straight away in the beginning, education is for everyone, but access to education is not the same as access to educational opportunities. Black boys can access education but cannot access the same opportunities as their counterparts. To truly make education for everyone, we must ensure that education is a positive experience for those that are excluded from it now.