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Last Updated: Monday, 10 July 2006, 14:30 GMT 15:30 UK
Scheme aims to 'grow' black boys
By Kate Taylor
Producer, Generating Genius, BBC Radio 4

students at summer school
The boys grew in confidence during the trip
When Robert grows up, he wants to be a doctor.

He's only 12, but the odds are already stacked against him.

This is because he's a boy - and because he's from an African Caribbean background.

Black and mixed race boys of African Caribbean origin are among the very lowest achieving groups in our school system.

The gap starts to widen around Robert's age, and by GCSE level this group has among the lowest results in the country.

In 2005, for example, just 33.3% of these boys achieved the equivalent of five A*-C grades at GCSE, compared with 57% of the school population as a whole.

Most will never catch up. In many areas there are more black men in prison than in higher education.

But Robert could be one of the lucky ones. Last year he took part in a pioneering new project, boldly named Generating Genius.

The privately-sponsored scheme is the brainchild of Dr Tony Sewell, a high profile black academic who has spent years studying academic performance in boys.

Advanced science

"My philosophy is: brighter, younger, longer," he said.

This means targeting the top pupils rather than those who are struggling, catching them before the age when achievement traditionally falls off and sticking with them.

"With Generating Genius we're going to grow a group of boys. Not for one year but for five years.

"That way we can begin to break the cycle of underachievement."

All this takes place in the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Jamaica, where the British boys are joined by 10 Jamaican boys of the same age for a month over the summer.

Together they are taught advanced level science and medicine while surrounded by what Tony calls "a critical mass of positive black role models".

When the British group return, the hope is that their sense of their own potential and their cultural identity will be stronger, and that they will act as ambassadors, catalysts for change within their communities.

Pushed hard

The idea is a grand one, but the reality is predictably messier.

Dr Sewell has packed a lot into the month. Lectures, lab work, cultural excursions. Inevitably, recreation time sometimes get squeezed.

The boys all seem to be coping well, but they are being pushed hard and there are grumbles.

"I don't think they're thinking about us emotionally," said Troy, who is from Hackney, East London.

"It's like they've never been kids!" agreed Temar, who lives in Clarendon, on the south side of Jamaica.

The classes present more teething troubles. The boys watch a live heart surgery by video link-up, something unlikely to be allowed in most British schools.

"Well, in Jamaica things are a bit different," said Dr Sewell, "and nothing has gone wrong so far. But then, we've only done it once."

Antonio, from Kingston, finds it difficult.

"I have a weak stomach. I went outside and put some water on my face and then I went back," he said.

"I had to bear it, it's something I had to do. But I wish I hadn't seen it."

Within half an hour, though, he is back to normal, joking around with his 19 new friends.


The scheme has attracted criticism. Some feel the policy of targeting the best is elitist, some that the whole approach is tantamount to segregation.

Toyin Agbetu is from Ligali, an organisation that aims to challenge media misrepresentation of African-British people.

"It's unsustainable. We can't take thousands of African children every year to Ghana, Trinidad, Jamaica," he said.

"And when these boys come home, all the issues that they were facing are still here. So all that excellence starts to unravel.

"We can't outsource our education system."

Gloria, whose son Ashley is part of the project, disagrees.

"You can't help but feel sorry for all the other boys who can't go," she said.

"But Tony is trying to do something to help our boys, so all praise to him."

She believes Ashley is benefiting enormously from the project as he is now ahead in his studies and his teachers are setting him extra projects to keep him challenged.

over this month he's really come out of his shell, it's been great to watch his confidence grow
Amanda Wladysiuk,

For the boys themselves, the experience has been hugely rewarding.

Amanda Wladysiuk, a British teacher who has been helping to looking after the boys in Jamaica, says Aaron is a good example.

"He's very quiet, someone who'll just sit in the corner and hope no one notices him.

"But over this month he's really come out of his shell, it's been great to watch his confidence grow."

Tony Sewell agrees.

"Boys need to learn to stand up for themselves, and that's what this experience has done for a lot of them."

Robert has mixed feelings about leaving.

"It's been really good. I'll miss the Jamaican boys because we've all got on really well. But I'm looking forward to seeing my family at the airport."

As the boys pack up their belongings, scribble down each other's e-mail addresses and say goodbye, Dr Sewell is already looking to the future.

"I think we're giving them an experience they'll treasure for the rest of their lives," he said. "

"Twenty boys this year, but there's no reason why it shouldn't be two hundred."

Robert and his friends should be able to return each summer for the next four years, as long as the funding is available.

Generating Genius was broadcast on Radio 4 at 1100BST on Monday 10 July. You can also listen to it online for 7 days at Radio 4's Listen again page.

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