Keeping black boys in the ghetto?

For all the sound and fury, the CRE's proposal for segregated lessons is the logical outcome of mainstream multicultural policy.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

In 2004 Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), caused a storm for arguing that ‘multiculturalism suggests separateness’. ‘We need to assert that there is a core of Britishness’, he said. Now he has caused a storm for suggesting that black boys should be taught in separate classes, to tackle their special cultural issues.

How does this tally? How could Phillips attack separateness, then propose segregation? And why did both statements draw the same kind of shocked reaction, from the same kinds of people?

For all the sound and fury, there is actually no debate in the education establishment about the pros or cons of multiculturalism. They all agree about the promotion of difference, and that people from different cultures should be treated according to their own special values and needs. The argument is over the often-unpalatable consequence, which is to divide people from one another. We end up with a situation where the fundamentals aren’t questioned, but public figures take turns to attack this or that ‘segregationist’ policy. The underlying problem goes unchallenged.

So when Phillips criticised multiculturalism for encouraging separation in April 2004, he still affirmed the assumptions that underpin it. The ‘core of Britishness’ that he wanted to assert included the country’s ‘tolerance, its eccentricity’ – that is, its respect for difference. Now Phillips is the one in the firing line. Education consultant Tony Sewell said that the proposal to teach black boys separately would amount to ‘crude segregation’ (1); Lance Dunkley, the chairman of the Black and Ethnic Minority Foundation in Wolverhampton, said that Phillips was ‘reverting back to an apartheid notion of segregation’ (2).

Phillips’ proposal is certainly crude, but it is just taking mainstream policies to their logical conclusion. He blamed black boys’ educational failure on their cultural problems, and argued that they should be taken aside and engaged on different terms. Apparently black boys suffer from a lack of self-esteem and lack of positive black role models; they have built a ‘wall of attitude’ against the world, and don’t try to succeed educationally. Potentially ‘unpalatable ideas’ should be considered in response, says Phillips: ‘We may need to have some specific tailor-made solutions for them which don’t apply to other people.’ (3)

For all the educational officials lining up to criticise Phillips, it was noticeable that nobody proposed inspiring black pupils by setting high educational standards across the board. Nobody argued that schools should sing the value of learning, to help to lift up pupils from more marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Small wonder, because everybody else is designing special programmes to deal with black boys’ ‘cultural issues’ too. Martin Ward, the deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said that he would be ‘wary of any programme that singles children out because of their race’ – but then went on to support ‘mentoring and having more black male staff as role models’ (4). Sewell criticised Phillips, but he is director of the Learning Trust, which flies promising black students over to the Caribbean in the holidays to study in Caribbean schools. ‘It’s the critical mass of black role models [in the Caribbean] we think that’s going to help them.’ (5) So putting black kids in a separate classroom is segregationist, but flying them back to their ‘homeland’ isn’t?

Indeed, the vocabulary of self-esteem, role models and special learning needs is so accepted in mainstream education that some wondered why Phillips’ proposals had caused so much furore. One leading headteacher said: ‘Right across the education landscape, arrangements are being made because the education system is fundamentally about meeting the basic needs of young people…. [T]hese proposals are not radical, they are common sense.’ (6) One example comes from Moseley School in Birmingham, where black boys are taken aside for special sessions in meditation, black history, African drumming and British black poetry – a policy that has been much praised.

Of course, there is a real problem with black boys’ educational results – just 27.3 per cent get at least five grades A-C at GCSE, compared to a national average of 52.3 per cent. But special teaching isn’t the solution. It’s easy to blame gangsta culture and failing fathers, but mainstream education might bear more responsibility for black boys’ educational record than it would like to admit.

Teachers obsessed with difference are less likely to demand the same educational standards from black pupils as from other pupils. Rather than aiming high in maths and English, better that they stick to their mentoring classes and vocational training. Phillips’ proposals would just rub salt into the wound. If black boys feel marginalised, ghettoising them into separate classes will surely confirm these feelings.

While Phillips blames street culture for spreading the idea that learning isn’t cool, we should note that the educational establishment doesn’t hold learning too dear either. After all, the new adverts for teachers feature kids dancing around the classroom and larking about – ‘be a teacher – you can have fun with them’, is the message. And the government is constantly talking down the importance of the more academic subjects, and saying that vocational training is just as good.

So this latest spat about multiculturalism is all smoke without fire. Everybody agrees that black boys need special teaching, it’s just that some balk at Phillips’ ‘unpalatable ideas’.

Rather than trying to find black kids substitute fathers or cultural mentors, it would be better if schools could just offer them bloody good teaching, which sets high standards and inspires them to learn alongside their peers. But far from taking the kids out of the ghetto, some seem to want to take the ghetto into the school.

(1) ‘Phillips’ education comments cause controversy’, PA News, 7 March 2005

(2) ‘Blacks-only classes are common sense, declares principal’, The Times, 8 March 2005

(3) ‘Race chief defends “classroom apartheid”’, The Times, 7 March 2005

(4) Quoted on, 7 March 2005

(5) ‘Phillips’ education comments cause controversy’, PA News, 7 March 2005

(6) ‘Blacks-only classes are common sense, declares principal’, The Times, 8 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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