Elizabeth Pears, Contributor
IT IS a question that has stirred emotions from as early as the 1950s when West Indian migrants grew concerned about their children's education. For many, Great Britain was supposed to be a land of promise and as residents of the Commonwealth, the virtues of a British education had been drummed into them. But that dream failed to deliver.
They encountered widespread racism which seeped into schools, fuelling the widely held belief that black children were somehow educationally subnormal. For teachers in Britain's state schools, black underachievement was not an anomaly that needed to be addressed; it was to be expected.
Grenadian teacher Bernard Coard was the first to identify institutional racism in schools in his seminal work How The West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal, published in 1971. It was this, he argued, that was preventing black Caribbean children from reaching their potential.
He explained how the low expectations of teachers damaged pupils motivation and confidence, thus dooming them to a life of underachievement.
The issue was also one of negative connotations being embedded in the students' minds. In his book, he highlighted how the word 'white' was associated with good and the word 'black' with evil.
Coard gave an example of a children's book in which the 'white unicorn' and the 'white boys' were able to repel an attack by the violent and evil 'black pirates'.
He further pointed to disturbingly high numbers of exclusions among black pupils as one of the ways in which teachers exercised their bias.
Coard's findings kick-started the growth of supplementary schools dedicated to tutoring African and Caribbean children, whose parents could afford it, to help redress the balance.
These students do well but more than 40 years later, there is evidence which proves his concerns are still valid. Furthermore, not a single policy, initiative or intervention has been able to reverse this depressing trend.
None of the initiatives, from the Thatcher Government's 1985 Swann report Education for All to Ofsted's 1993 Access and Achievement in Urban Education or Labour's 2007 REACH report which highlighted the need for black children, specifically black boys, to have middle class professional role models instead of rappers, have achieved the desired effect.
Black children can be high achievers and we know this because hundreds do so every year. But when exam results data is compiled the statistics are undeniable: black children are trailing behind every other racial group despite having exactly the same talent and potential. Clearly, there is something happening within society, possibly the home and, most crucially, within our schools that is holding them back.
Leading black educationalists Dr Keith Davidson and Dr June Alexis recently published Education: A pathway to Success for Black Children - a Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Educational Excellence.
The authors, with more than 60 years between them as teachers, researchers and Ofsted inspectors, are unequivocal about what is to blame when it comes to black children's attainment: "It is the education system that is underperforming", the book notes.
Alexis, a former headteacher of the predominantly black John Loughborough School in Tottenham, north London, said: "I am tired of the negativity surrounding black children. Don't get me wrong, we know there are some problems but it lies not with the children, it's within the schools.
"There are all these initiatives to help black children and still there is no change. Who is evaluating them? Are they even effective? Because, quite frankly, they are still letting our children down."
But there is some good news. For the past six years, the GCSE results of black children have been improving year on year. This is a statistic that elected officials, head teachers and Oftsed are eager to point out.
However, this upswing is a part of a trend - overall exam results have improved. And even though the performance of black children is improving at a faster rate than white British children - a positive sign, certainly - collectively they are still underperforming.
GSCE figures for 2011-12 published last week, revealed only 54.6 per cent of black children achieved five or more A-C grade including core subjects of maths and English.
This represents an improvement of approximately 18 percentage points from their 2005-06 GCSEs results but still falls short of the national average of 58.8 per cent.
Comparatively, for white British children this figure rose from 46.1 per cent to 58.9 per cent - the equivalent of 13 percentage points. The gap between the two groups has narrowed from nine percentage points to a promising four percentage points.
For Indian children, this has risen 14 percentage points between 2006 and 2012, and for Chinese pupils - the highest achievers - this has increased from 70.7 to 76.4 per cent, or five percentage points.
Davidson said: "We have spent the past four decades talking about these problems but we are still in complaining mode. Yes, our supplementary schools have been able to inject social capital enjoyed by white middle-class parents. Black parents need to take ownership and articulate ways to solve the problem."
This year, to mark the 20th anniversary of its first publication, Ofsted's chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw will revisit the Access and Achievement in Urban Education report which focuses on the lack of educational success in deprived communities, of which black children are disproportionately represented.
The majority of black pupils are educated in inner cities; 7,523 sat GCSEs last year in inner London (and represent the largest ethnic group) while a further 8,606 are educated in outer London.
A review panel of leading experts will try and answer how the educational system can mitigate issues of isolation and disconnection that emerged through the last two reports and still exists.
Unsurprisingly, top-performing students from Indian and Chinese backgrounds are from more high-income families. In 2011-12, only 7.5 per cent of all Chinese GCSE pupils were eligible for free school meals. The figure is 10.07 per cent for Indian pupils and 11 per cent for white British pupils.
For students of Caribbean heritage this figure is more than double at 24.26 per cent, but even higher - 34.25 per cent - for pupils of African heritage. So why then is it that more black Africans are from low-income families, yet perform almost as well as white British pupils, and outperform their Caribbean counterparts?
In 2012, 58 per cent of African pupils achieved five GCSEs at grade A-C including maths and English, while only 49.8 per cent of Caribbean pupils did.
So poverty cannot be solely blamed for underachievement. It also raises questions over the need for more black representation on a Eurocentric curriculum void of black role models, as some experts would argue.
The question is, if Indian and Chinese pupils can excel in that environment, why can't black children?
For a start, black Caribbean pupils are almost four times more likely to be excluded and 11 times more likely than white British girls, according to a report by the Children's Commissioner. Eighty per cent of all exclusions are boys.
Knox Daniel is the father of seven-year-old Joshua Beckford, who defies all the stereotypes and statistics attributed to black Caribbean boys. Joshua is the youngest person to achieve a clean sweep of distinctions in a course for gifted children at Oxford University.
But despite being advanced for his age, speaking Japanese and some Mandarin, Joshua was repeatedly excluded. He was diagnosed with having autistic traits, which his teachers simply dismissed as bad behaviour.
Daniel told The Voice: "Instead of support, he got punished. Joshua went from enjoying school to preferring learning at home.
"But I challenged and engaged with the school," Daniel said. "And it has gone from a negative environment to something more positive - at the very least, they are more careful about what they do with him because they know I am watching. The exclusions have stopped but things could have easily got worse. Joshua could've ended up permanently excluded like many black boys across the country."
The dedicated father, who is a full-time carer, says he is no different to any other parent, except that no matter what, he always finds the time to encourage and interact with his son.
"The parent is the primary teacher and that's what makes the biggest difference. I started teaching Joshua myself at 10 months old and by two he had mastered phonics and was able to read fluently. That gave him a headstart in school. When he asks me questions, I answer and explain things to him. If I said I was too tired or too busy, eventually he would stop asking questions and that's not a good thing," he said.
DISCIPLINE IS KEY
Race and education academic Maud Blair has argued that what makes a difference for black pupils is strong leadership, clear management, a positive ethos and open discussions about racism, sexism and bullying. In simple words: discipline.
A lack of discipline is something award-winning supplementary school teacher Yemisi Akindele, founder of High Achievers Tutoring, thinks is one of the biggest challenges for black children.
She said: "Sadly, comprehensive schools in the inner city have become less about learning and more about class management. Teachers can't discipline and they are undermined in front of their students. Children realise this gives them the power to do what they want without repercussion. Michael Gove [Education Secretary] thinks more Teach Firsts [Oxbridge graduates who are fast-tracked into teaching] in inner-city schools will raise standards, but it won't make a blind bit of difference. You can have the subject knowledge, that doesn't mean you can impart it."
Akindele is unapologetic about preferring grammar and selective schools that grant admissions based on academic ability to the average comprehensive. She says that while white middle-class parents work the system in their favour, black parents are too happy to rely on "the school down the road", because it's convenient.
Her students have won places at independent schools like Harrow with full scholarships or at some of the few remaining grammar schools like The Latymer School, in Enfield, northeast London, or Dulwich College in southeast London.
"Unless black parents pull their finger out and take on responsibility of teaching their children themselves at home or in a supplementary school, their children will continue to fall behind. Middle-class parents whose children attend high-performing schools still feel the need to pay for additional tutoring. What does that tell you?" she said.
Alexis notes the trend of private tutoring with some dismay. "It is sad when parents must rely on extra tuition to see their children advance."
She added: "Something is very wrong in the state school education system and black children are suffering because of it."