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Last Updated: Friday, 10 September, 2004, 22:01 GMT 23:01 UK
Black schooling 'a class issue'
Kwame Kwei-Armah in his BBC One Casualty role
Kwame Kwei-Armah in his BBC One Casualty role
A leading black actor and writer argues that underachievement of black pupils is often about class rather than race.

Kwame Kwei-Armah says everyone has a duty to improve their educational prospects, for the sake of the economy.

The Casualty star was speaking on the eve of the third London Schools and the Black Child conference.

Last year's conference set up an education commission which this week called for more black and Asian teachers and school governors.


It also said urgent action was needed to reduce the number of black pupils, especially boys, being excluded from school, such as not taking action over a series of minor offences.

Wherever I go in the world - and I travel a lot - I see similar trends in the working class and underclass in any society
Kwame Kwei-Armah
The actor, who will be one of the speakers at the conference on Saturday, said "black" was often not a very useful term of reference.

"Wherever I go in the world - and I travel a lot - I see similar trends in the working class and underclass in any society," he said.

"We tend to ignore class very much in this. If you look at these boys who are underachieving we can look at their class and the overwhelming majority belong to certain social classes.

"Education is a way out of that: it needs to fulfil its brief of giving the best chance to everybody."

Reaching for the stars

He applauded the government's Aiming High initiative as showing that it was taking the issue seriously and putting money into helping schools tackle it.

students in computer room
Statistics on ethnic achievement show a mixed picture
It was important to be positive, with media reporting of underachievement tending to accentuate the negative.

He had been struck by the fact that he had only known about Aiming High because of a conversation with a government minister, David Miliband at the Department for Education and Skills.

Another education minister, Stephen Twigg, is at the conference to promote that strategy.

But black boys' behaviour could be an issue, Kwei-Armah said.

"They may speak to their teachers in a way they are not used to being spoken to and that can create fear in the teaching establishment which can affect the way they are taught," he said.

So their mindset also needed to change - but there was a collective responsibility to do better.

"It's part of our responsibility to let everybody know that we are taking this problem seriously and actively channelling funds to reverse this, because the economy of our nation and our capital city in particular depends on it."


The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said when he launched the education commission report this week that it should not be taken as a criticism of the teaching profession of today.

But it did strike some people that way. Gary Haines, who describes himself as black and a product of an inner city school system, is training to be a teacher having worked in London as a learning support assistant.

He found the report "offensive" in recounting the racism of previous decades.

"These attitudes have long since been buried in London schools, as later, more integrated generations have stepped into teaching roles," he said.

"This is not to suggest there are not any 'racist' teachers but simply to point out that the majority are of a very different mentality and thinking than in previous years."

There were thousands of white teachers "who sweat blood and tears" to enable all of their pupils to succeed - black, white, and Asian.

"They must read such reports from the government and wonder why they bother."

He added: "Recruiting more black and Asian teachers will prove vital to reverse the trend, but this is only one solution and should not be at the detriment of the fantastic work white teachers currently carry out, and have done over the last 10 years."

'More black teachers are needed'
07 Sep 04  |  London
Call to end educational 'racism'
06 Feb 04  |  Education
New scheme to help black pupils
24 Oct 03  |  Education

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