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Monday, 11 March, 2002, 01:49 GMT
London teachers' Jamaican lessons
Boys of African-Caribbean origin fare badly in England's schools - and are more likely to be excluded for bad behaviour. So some teachers, mostly white, went to Jamaica to learn how schools there do things.
Teachers in English schools could help raise the educational achievement of black boys of African-Caribbean origin if they had a better understanding of their culture and family background.
This was the advice given by Caribbean experts to 10 teachers from the London Borough of Newham, who have just returned from a fact-finding visit, sponsored by the British Council, to schools in Jamaica.
The teachers are involved in a long-term project looking into why boys do not do as well as girls at school.
The Newham group learned that in Jamaica, girls out-do boys at every level of education - but that Jamaican schools are now developing strategies to narrow this gender gap.
It is understood that the government in Britain will shortly unveil a new strategy for dealing with ethnic minority under-achievement in secondary schools.
According to Jamaica's Minister of Education, Burchell Whiteman, raising the achievement of boys in Jamaica is vital to the country for both economic and social reasons.
He believes the under-achievement of African-Caribbean boys in England has the same family and cultural causes as in the Caribbean.
"Caribbean males are showmen", said Senator Whiteman, "and boys are assertive, but that is because they are playing out their masculinity - it does not always mean they are being rude."
Experts say schools tend to have a feminine ethos, with a majority of female teachers and an emphasis on good order and conformity. Boys can find this hard to adapt to.
"We are trying to get our teachers to recognise that, in the attitude they show to them, teachers are inhibiting boys' development," he said.
Differences in upbringing
He argues that Caribbean families bring up girls and boys in very different ways, with parents keeping a close eye on daughters but allowing boys more freedom.
He says schools need to adapt to this. Boys are harder to control in school not because of "innate wickedness but because of the way they are socialised".
During their visits to Jamaican schools and teacher training colleges, the Newham teachers saw special efforts being made to involve fathers in primary schools.
At Shortwood Primary in Kingston, classrooms are plastered with notices proclaiming "Fathers Are Special" and "Father Is A Trusted Friend".
Shortwood has initiated a special "Father's Day", when sons bring their fathers into school. The girls are not allowed into school that day.
Fathers are also enrolled on a mentoring programme which aims to provide successful male role models for all the boys in the school, including those without fathers at home.
"I see many children who don't have fathers to come into school but on Father's Day we act as if all the boys are our boys," said Maurice, "and we talk to them about their futures.
"Boys are often left to fend for themselves and the guys are seen as rough and not given much TLC, but they still need encouragement."
Elaine Cunningham is head of education at the nearby Shortwood Teachers' College in Kingston. She thinks it is important for teachers of African-Caribbean boys to understand their cultural background.
The result is they are used to more independence and experimentation so, she argues, Jamaican schools are now "making a big effort to address the differences of the boys".
This means giving boys practical problems to solve through experimentation, using topics which relate to their interests in music or sport and, if they are reluctant to read books, getting them to read using computers.
Jamaican schools encounter many of the same difficulties as British schools in trying to raise boys' achievement. There is a shortage of male primary school teachers and the early upbringing of children is largely in the hands of mothers, not fathers.
But there are also key differences - some of which may help the boys. Discipline is stricter and, although now officially banned, beating and caning are not unknown.
Jacqui MacDonald of London University's Institute of Education said "corporal punishment is still used and if a child doesn't get it at school they will get it at home".
She says teachers in Jamaica "expect homework, expect no answering back from pupils, and encourage respect".
According to Professor Peter Kutnick, of the University of Brighton, corporal punishment was banned only recently in places like Trinidad and Jamaica.
He said research which involved asking Caribbean children what they thought made a good teacher produced the answer: "A good teacher beats you to make you learn, a bad teacher just beats you."
Jamaican schools still use traditional, whole-class teaching methods with pupils sitting in formal rows facing the front. The pupils stand up to answer a teacher or when visitors come into the classroom.
Primary schools place pupils into ability streams and sometimes take advantage of this to target extra help to boys, who tend to be in the lower streams.
By contrast, the bottom or "C stream" has just 22 pupils and the gender proportions are reversed: there are only five girls but 17 boys.
By keeping the lower ability group much smaller, the teachers are able to give closer attention to under-achieving boys.
Julie Frost, who teaches at Godwin Primary school in London, was impressed by what she saw of the lower stream boys.
"They were remarkably polite, self-disciplined and calm and had a good attitude to learning," she said.
Her colleague Nina Panayis said: "The principals of the schools we visited have all mentioned that in Jamaica boys are raised differently from girls and, having recognised this, the whole country is now moving towards meeting the needs of the boys and how target learning to suit not only boys but also girls as well."
Many of the issues seem highly relevant to Britain, both for boys in general and, especially, for British boys of African-Caribbean origin.
The Newham teachers now intend to pass on their findings, through papers and presentations, to colleagues back in the UK.
In Part Two on Tuesday: How some British-Caribbean parents choose to send their children back to the West Indies for a more traditional education.
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