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Saturday, 16 March, 2002, 00:45 GMT
Raising black performance
Highlighting the issues facing one particular group of school children is always a tricky matter.
It is sensitive enough if you are highlighting gender or class. But when you start to talk about the particular needs of one ethnic group you are tiptoeing into a minefield.
Yet this is exactly what Saturday's conference on "London Schools and the Black Child" is doing.
Its organiser, the Labour MP Diane Abbott, says she has had to fight hard to get government, schools and parents to recognise that children of African and African-Caribbean descent have particular needs which are not being met by the school system.
The biggest obstacle is what is known as the "colour blind" approach. This, like political correctness, is rooted in the best of intentions, namely to counter conscious or unconscious prejudice.
But perhaps we have now got to the point where a simple "colour blind" policy is not only not helping those it is meant to protect, but may be putting them at a disadvantage.
But by the start of secondary school they are starting to fall behind and statistics show that black African-Caribbean pupils are between three and six times more likely to be expelled from school.
Although there is an absence of detailed statistics, GCSE results also show that African-Caribbean pupils do less well than other ethnic groups in formal examinations.
Government statistics on the proportion of students getting five good GCSEs or their equivalent show the pattern.
Breakdown of statistics
For white students the figure in 2000 was 50%, for Asian students it was 49% but for black students it was 37%.
Where it is possible to do so, a further breakdown of these figures produces interesting patterns.
Clearly social class, poverty and whether or not children speak English in the home is a factor in educational achievement.
Bangladeshi immigration to Britain, for example, is mostly more recent than immigration from India.
But the Caribbean community in Britain is fairly well settled and fluency in English is not an issue. So it is reasonable to ask why they are lagging behind in exam results at the end of schooling.
Of course, these are broad generalisations. The official definitions of ethnic group do not always match the way communities define themselves and they hide important distinctions.
There are problems with using, interchangeably, descriptions such as: Black, Black-African, Black-Caribbean, African-Caribbean, Black British or West Indian.
But such sensitivities, while they must be observed, should not mean - according to Diane Abbott - that we simply lump all ethnic minority students under the umbrella term Black.
It is not just that there are differences between Asian and African-Caribbean students. There are also important distinctions between pupils of Black African background and those of Black Caribbean origin.
The evidence is pretty thin (and this highlights the failure of the education authorities to collect statistics based on ethnic-origin), but an Ofsted report in 1996 did suggest that "pupils of Black African background often achieve relatively higher results than their peers of Black Caribbean origin".
So we have a very complex picture of differing achievements within ethnic groups. No doubt these reflect cultural as well as class and language factors.
All this suggests to me that, however well-intentioned "colour-blind" policies are, they are not very helpful in finding solutions.
However, as soon as you identify one group as having particular problems you run into criticism.
When I wrote about the issues facing African-Caribbean boys this week, I was told I was contributing to the problem by focussing on the negative image of Caribbean students.
Such complaints are made with genuine feeling and I understand why they are made.
Stereotypical images of certain groups amount to racism. What is more, they appear to throw a blanket over entire communities which, of course, contain a variety of different personal achievements.
But if, as Diane Abbott believes, the first step in doing something about the average under-achievement of African-Caribbean pupils is to openly recognise the problem, then I don't see any alternative to running the risk of political-incorrectness or of appearing to focus on negatives.
This is a sensitive area. It is, perhaps, particularly difficult for white commentators and educators to enter into. But what is the alternative? To ignore it and focus on other issues?
The government is sending a minister to Diane Abbott's conference. It will be interesting to see whether that minister is willing to accept that the issue of African-Caribbean achievement needs a separate strategy than that for other ethnic groups.
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