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EDITIONS
Saturday, 16 March, 2002, 13:10 GMT
Ask Labour MP Diane Abbott
Diane Abbott MP took your questions in a live forum.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Academics, MPs and the black community have been attempting to find a solution for the failure of black students in the education system.

Last year only 27% of black pupils gained a good GCSE pass, compared with 44% of their white counterparts.

There have been persistent calls from the black community for the issue to be addressed as a matter of priority.

Labour MP Diane Abbott and the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone will host a one day conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London on Saturday 16th March to discuss inequalities in education experienced by black students.

What do you think of the Government's record so far on tackling this problem? Is there a long-term solution to reducing underachievement by black children in education?


Transcript:

Newshost:
Hello and welcome to this BBC interactive forum. Tomorrow in London there's a major conference on the theme of schools and black children. It'll look into how African and African Caribbean children - of African Caribbean origin that is in this country in schools and how they're doing in schools. It comes against a background of concern over figures which show African Caribbean pupils are up to six times more likely to be excluded from school and that despite doing very well when they begin at primary school they're falling behind when it comes to secondary exams at GCSE and A Level. Why is this? Is it because teachers and schools are not understanding their needs or is it something to do with parents? Is it a matter of racism and if so is that conscious or unconscious racism?

Well to answer these questions and the questions that you've e-mailed in I'm joined now by Diane Abbott, Labour MP, who's the organiser of the conference.

Diane, welcome to first of all and congratulations on getting a conference going on a subject that obviously a lot of people are interested in at the moment. There's a number of questions in, the first one is from Andrew Harvey in Cheshire and he says: "Shouldn't the question of black underachievement be primarily aimed at the black community itself instead of blaming institutional racism within the education system?"

Diane Abbott:
You have to remember that when the children come in at age five they are doing as well as white or Asian children. The big collapse comes during their school careers. So what happens in schools has to have something to do with it. But of course I believe parents, black parents, should do more, governments should do more and obviously the schools should do more.

Newshost:
What do we do about encouraging parents to do more? In a sense it's easier for government to tell schools what to do, it's very difficult for them to tell parents what to do.

Diane Abbott:
One of the reasons I've called this conference is to get black parents together, we've got a lot of black parents coming, and to try and explain to them how important it is to be involved in their child's education in the earliest stages - going along to parents associations, becoming school governors, that sort of thing.

Newshost:
And do you think that the wider range of concerned parents will be able to get across the message that's coming out?

Diane Abbott:
I hope so because parents do have to understand what their role is. In the 21st Century you just can't leave education to schools, you as a parent, whatever your colour, have to be much more active and involved.

Newshost:
Now we have a question from Mark in Leeds and he says, quite a pertinent question I think: "What do you think can be done to convince young black men that it's cool to do well in school?"

Diane Abbott:
I think you need to have more men in the classroom, more men in primary schools, the damage is done in primary schools I think and also we need to have more black teachers. Many of these boys - I mean it's true of white working class boys as well - are coming from homes where there's no father figure, they don't see education and reading of books as something that a real man does. So I believe more male role models at the primary school level is the key.

Newshost:
How do we do that, that's the real problem because there aren't very many?

Diane Abbott:
You need to pay primary school teachers more, that's the key to it, because primary school teaching is a low wage occupation, it has increasingly become a woman's occupation. Pay people properly and you'll get the full range of people applying.

Newshost:
Because we have been recruiting rather more black teachers from countries like Jamaica and from South Africa. Now there are implications for those countries that we pinch their best teachers as well aren't there?

Diane Abbott:
I think it's problematic relying on supply teachers anyway. Personally I'd rather have Jamaican teachers in front of an inner city classroom than someone from South Africa but what we want is to be able to pay our own teachers properly and not rely on supply teachers.

Newshost:
Ok. Now the next question is from Bayo in London. First of all they're flattering you by saying how proud they are of all the work that you've done for the black community but it goes on to say that they believe that there's a need to stop delegating parenting responsibilities. Do you think we need to take a good look at the values then that we're passing down to our children?

Diane Abbott:
Well you know black people do value education. My parents valued education, many of the black parents that are coming tomorrow, all of them, take education very seriously that's why they're coming. But yes I do believe that parents, some of our parents, need to do more.

Newshost:
And do you think there is a distinction to be made, it's a difficult one, between mothers and fathers?

Diane Abbott:
Well where I think there is an issue is with some of the younger parents who themselves had a negative experience of British schools and sort of transmit that negativity consciously or unconsciously to their children and are perhaps less prepared to be involved in the school than they should.

Newshost:
Now we have a question here from Saphra Thomas, who clearly is a parent who is very involved and concerned about their daughter's education. Now she says that her daughter's at a school with a poor level of academic achievement, the school closest to her house is in a, what she calls, a drugs and crime ridden estate, the next nearest school is a beacon school but it's oversubscribed so she can't get into it, so what's actually happened, she applied to have her daughter assessed at a private school and she was offered a place there. But her point is - and that's going to cost her an awful lot of money, and why should she have to pay for her daughter's education if that's the only good one that she can get?

Diane Abbott:
Well of course, I mean she's quite right, and one of the reasons I've taken an interest in this subject for many years is that I've seen struggling parents, single parents and couples, struggling to try and pay private school fees because they're so frightened about what will happen to their children in the state system. People, black people, ought to be able to look to the state system with confidence and not feel they have to take their children out, send them back to Jamaica for education or put them in private schools.

Newshost:
Well it's interesting you mention that because we have had people asking, Patricia in particular from Manchester said: "What do you think of this practice of some black parents sending their children to either the West Indies or Africa?"

Diane Abbott:
Well I know people who have done it and they find that the same children that they were told were failing in British schools, when you send them home to Jamaica, Nigeria or Ghana are doing very well indeed. It tells you it's not the children, something about some of these British schools.

Newshost:
It's a difficult question, I spoke to people in Jamaica who had sent their children back there and others who talked about the problem that sometimes the children are sent back but the parents can't go with them for natural reasons to do with work and so on. That can be a bit of a problem can't it - the child goes back and the parents aren't with them?

Diane Abbott:
That's very stressful for the family. Some people are fortunate to have grandparents or close relatives that the children know and the children can be sent back to but it's very sad in fact that families should be split up, that some families do this as the only way to get a decent education for their children.

Newshost:
Ok, we have a question from a teacher now, from Carol Tobin in London and this, I suppose, brings out the fact that it's quite a sensitive area, she says that she's very hurt by the recent allegations that it's racism that continually holds black children back, she feels that black girls are actually very successful and she wonders whether it isn't really an issue of gender rather than of race?

Diane Abbott:
No the figures don't lie. Black boys are way behind white boys, so if it was just gender that would not be the case. Black girls do better than black boys but they still have issues. A recent Rowntree survey showed four times as many black girls are excluded as white girls, so there is an issue around race here.

Newshost:
Another question that sometimes gets raised is whether it's actually more to do with class and if you actually looked at the figures for, say, white working class boys you find that they're not doing very well either - is there a class element to this and a poverty element?

Diane Abbott:
Well of course class and poverty are an issue but what I'm fighting against is an idea that you can just ignore race and take a colour blind approach because a colour blind approach means that our children continue to fail, continue to underachieve.

Newshost:
Now you mention you having to fight on this issue to get past the colour blind approach, do you think you're getting anyway with the government?

Diane Abbott:
Yes I think that Estelle Morris is interested in this issue, I think she's positive, I think she wants to hear from black parents. I had a meeting with Baroness Ashton yesterday and I believe the government is reaching out and does want to listen to the voices of black parents and the black community on this issue.

Newshost:
And what about teachers, cos I've found in some of the reports I've been doing recently highlighting this issue that actually you get quite a lot of criticism from teachers who say it's a dangerous way you're leading us, that actually we've got to treat all children equally?

Diane Abbott:
Yeah well people all treat children the same, black children, particularly black boys, continue to fail, generation upon generation. Of course teachers are very defensive about this but in the end we can't afford to write off a generation of black children.

Newshost:
The next question's from John Andrews in London, I find it particularly interesting having just come back from looking at schools in Jamaica. He says that bearing in mind that most schools in countries like Jamaica seem to adopt an old fashioned system of one desk per pupil with desk separating, children facing the front and so on and that this seems to command both discipline and respect shouldn't such ideas be reintroduced in this country?

Diane Abbott:
Well I think certainly with boys and with black boys a little bit of formality and discipline does seem to work.

Newshost:
That's interesting you mention particularly boys, now I suppose that leads on to another thing that people often ask about - are you suggesting that therefore it would be a good idea to educate the boys separately from the girls?

Diane Abbott:
No I'm not suggesting that. I think particularly at secondary level us girls have a humanising effect on boys. What I'm suggesting though is we do have to accept that black boys are failing specifically and we do have to work out why that is and do what's necessary.

Newshost:
Ok, we have a question now from Bola and she asks: "Considering your achievements and how hard you must have worked yourself," I think she's thinking particularly about your own educational achievements, she wonders, "do you think that black children of today have what it takes to meet the expected criteria?"

Diane Abbott:
Oh yes, they do. When children from Hackney come up to the House of Commons and we have them here on visits and you know at primary school level they're so bright, so sharp, so eager, so full of interest and somehow by the time these same children are in secondary school it is as if a light has gone out inside them. And I want to find out what is happening to them so that those children could continue to be as eager and willing to learn as they are when they come into schools aged five and six.

Newshost:
It is a strange phenomenon isn't it, I know in Birmingham where they've done baseline assessment and they find that African Caribbean pupils are doing very well when they come in at age five and as you say by 16 it's gone wrong, can you pinpoint where you think it is going wrong? At what age it is that they particularly ...

Diane Abbott:
Well I think it's about the time they go up to secondary school. That seems to be when it all starts to go wrong for them. And there are a number of issues: the boys are reaching adolescence, they look quite big, literally quite big and threatening and I think some teachers do have a problem with this. I think it's a complex thing but I mean it's sad that children that come in so bright and so eager should end up disaffected and disillusioned.

Newshost:
Now you're obviously focusing on the problems and things that need to be put right but we have a question from Harry in Peterborough who says: "It may not be as we want it to be but do you feel that the situation is improving for black school students?"

Diane Abbott:
No I don't, no I don't. In my own borough of Hackney black boys have continued to fail year on year and we've privatised the service, done all sorts of things and their results are not improving and I find that very scary. And I don't think we can afford to be complacent. Other ethnic minorities are doing better, black girls are doing better but black boys, as a whole, are not doing better.

Newshost:
Do we have enough information do you think on the achievements because the government doesn't tend to break things like exam scores down by ethnic groups?

Diane Abbott:
No we don't have enough information. Actually schools have been tasked for many years to break down SATs results by ethnicity and they continue not to do so or do so in a way which is unusable. London boroughs particularly are very much at fault. They either cannot or will not produce the figures.

Newshost:
Do you think - you say will not, why do you think they are reluctant perhaps?

Diane Abbott:
Well, you know, they do run the risk of black parents thinking they won't produce the figures either because they think the figures would be too embarrassing for them or they just don't care.

Newshost:
Now as you know there are some Saturday morning schools, particularly aimed at the black community, do you think they're successful and would you like to see more of them and do you think they should have government funding for them?

Diane Abbott:
Yes, I mean for nearly 30 years there's been a tradition in the black community of running it's own voluntary Saturday schools to make good what our children are not getting in the mainstream schools and people have struggled to keep those going on a purely voluntary basis. I want to see more government funding directed at the classic Caribbean black led Saturday schools.

Newshost:
Now George in Birmingham asks: "Do you think that British teachers could learn some lessons from their colleagues, I guess their counterparts, in the West Indies and in Africa?

Diane Abbott:
I think they could, I think they could, I mean we could all learn from each other. And certainly if teachers in the Caribbean and Africa are able to make these same children believe in themselves and succeed they must have something to teach teachers in Britain.

Newshost:
May be some teacher exchanges or visits would be a way of helping that?

Diane Abbott:
I think that would be excellent, yeah, teacher exchanges, more teacher exchanges.

Newshost:
Ok, Terry in Sheffield has a point which is that, he says: "We often forget how many well educated black professionals there are within the community and how about a government sponsored mentoring programme whereby these professionals can go into the schools to talk to the children, especially the young men and show them that education's not about being 'geeky' or 'uncool' but it actually is the way to fulfil their potential?" Do you think that would be a good idea?

Diane Abbott:
Well to be fair the government is doing a lot about mentoring and I haven't forgotten how many well educated black professionals there are because I am one.

Newshost:
And do you think it would - you would find enough people willing to go in if that did happen?

Diane Abbott:
I think they would and I think, as I say, it's particularly important to get male role models into those primary schools.

Newshost:
And how about the government paying people to do that?

Diane Abbott:
Well I think they need to look at the schemes they've already got and expand them.

Newshost:
Ok, Diane Abbott that's all we have time for, thank you very much for coming in and good luck with the conference tomorrow and to everyone out there thank you very much for the e-mails that you've sent in and that's the end of this forum, goodbye.

See also:

11 Mar 02 | Education
17 Feb 02 | Education
07 Jan 02 | Education
05 Dec 00 | Education
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