Posted on June 1, 2005

We Must Tackle Failure of Black Boys — Phillips

Rebecca Smithers, Guardian (London), May 31

The failure to tackle academic underachievement of African-Caribbean boys is threatening to turn them into “a permanent underclass”, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality warns today.

Trevor Phillips says it is not good enough to blame their underperformance on the “racist attitudes” of white teachers which lead to low expectations among black pupils.

Instead, ministers and education experts should look at the evidence, debate its meaning, and “come up with some answers” even if they involve controversial proposals such as segregation, he argues.

In an article in today’s Education Guardian, Mr Phillips says the problem has developed into one of the school system’s “most intractable” failures, which now risks alienating the group completely.

He writes: “The hand-wringing of liberals like myself feels increasingly irrelevant in the face of the accumulating inequalities that are slowly detaching the African-Caribbean community from the rest of society.”

Mr Phillips points to the stark evidence: three out of four African-Caribbean boys fail to reach the basic threshold of five or more good passes at GCSE, and there are twice as many black men in prison as there are at university. The problem has become generational, he warns, passed on from grandfathers to sons to their sons: “The critical mass of failure is threatening to turn this community into a permanent, irrevocable underclass.”

Mr Phillips says it would be comforting to suppose that the main issue was gender or deprivation. But the evidence did not support this: “Nearly half these boys’ sisters make the grade, despite growing up in the same homes and being of the same social class.

“Though very poor white boys are more likely to fail than blacks, the difference is tiny, of the order of 1%. But alarmingly, among those boys who are better off, African-Caribbeans are twice as likely to fall below the threshold, indicating that the main cause of the performance differential is definitely not poverty.”

He goes on to say that “the simplistic argument” that underachieving black boys are the victims of the “racist attitudes” of white teachers does not account for the fact that Chinese and Indian children, who are just as likely to come from poor backgrounds and to face racism, typically do nearly three times as well as black boys.

Mr Phillips adds: “We have to accept that our historical bleating about racist teachers, class barriers and irrelevant curricula has not moved the performance of these kids one iota. We can apply the brakes to this cycle of failure. I for one refuse to sit back and watch another generation fall by the wayside.”

Mr Phillips’ article coincides with a one-day seminar tomorrow, organised by the CRE. Speakers include Professor Stan Mimms of East St Louis, Illinois, who has recommended that black boys be taught separately from others, and the British academic Dr Tony Sewell, who has advocated “Caribbean-style discipline”.

Recently Mr Phillips stoked controversy after looking at Prof Mimms’ proposals that segregating black boys could provide an answer in British schools.

But he defends this policy, saying: “Complex proposals were reduced to ‘segregation’. Many accused me of stigmatising black boys and said they would now be targets for bullying. But what can be more stigmatising than the absolute certainty that in every school, the pupils most likely to fail are black boys?”

He points to examples of segregation in the UK which have already yielded good results. The Windsor fellowship, for example, runs a programme exclusively for ethnic minority children, where they are mentored and given extra lessons.

In London last year 100% of their students passed five or more good GCSEs; in Birmingham the proportion was 75%. In addition, a boys’ school in south London that provides a six-week course for black pupils has seen the proportion getting five good GCSEs rise from 25.6% to 44.4% in two years.