Master class in victimhood

Black boys used to fail at school because of racism, now they fail because they don’t pay attention
September 22, 2010
Tony Sewell: we’ve given our kids only the discourse of victimhood

Recently, one of my former students invited me to her inner-city primary school in London to give an “inspirational” lesson to her students. She was particularly concerned about a group of black boys who she described as “very bright but very naughty.” When I saw the class I immediately spotted her problem pupils, who were play-fighting at the back of the room.

I began my lesson by dividing the class into five groups. Their task was to draw “a wonderful African mask.” But there were a number of restrictions. I gave the first table, which consisted of well-behaved girls, lots of sugar paper, felt-tip pens, paint and glitter. Table two got a little less equipment, and I reduced the amount for each remaining table. Table five—let’s call it the “bad boy table”—was given one pencil, a pair of scissors and one piece of paper. They were, however, allowed to go to the other tables and trade resources.

One of the boys from table five put his hand up and said, “Sir, it isn’t fair. Why have you given everyone else all those papers and pens but we’re suffering in the ghetto?” Another boy said he was going to tell his mum I was racist (though table one was all black girls). Meanwhile, one boy went over to table one to beg for some pens, but the nice girls turned nasty and refused to trade. The boys on table five all began to moan that their white teacher was always picking on them and that the school was “prejujuice”—a word they had trouble pronouncing but not applying to me. “Everyone thinks we are gangsters and we are going to beat them up,” one said. Teachers were “rude” for telling them off.

Ignoring their complaints, I told them that I wanted the mask completed. I also produced a box of Quality Street and told the class that the team with the best mask would win the prize. Suddenly, the boys found some inspiration and got down to work. There we have it: the trauma of 400 years of racism, slavery and oppression overcome by the desire for a soft centre.

At the end of the lesson I called on the headteacher to come in and judge which was the best mask. Table one, with all its resources, looked grotesque. The winner was table five. They had worked together with their meagre resources and come up with something magnificent.

At the end of the lesson I asked the bad boys what they had learned. They started predictably enough by saying “we are the best.” They then explained how bad they felt having to beg for resources, but were then determined to beat everyone else against the odds. I told them I had disliked their whingeing but was proud when they became focused and used their talent.

In the early 1950s, the British government, hungry for cheap labour, encouraged the mass immigration of Caribbean people to Britain. But they did not prepare the hosts or the guests. My generation, the children of those migrants, were burned out in a racist schooling system. In schools, many able Caribbean students were assigned to the lower streams, with teachers refusing to deal with them, or ill-prepared to adapt to a changing school population. In 1971, education expert Bernard Coard wrote a pamphlet, “How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system.” He described the notorious units for struggling students, where a large percentage of children from the Caribbean were placed on the basis of linguistic difference, cultural attitudes and a belief that black children were intellectually inferior.

African-Caribbean boys are still at the bottom of the league table for GCSEs. They start school at roughly the same level as other pupils, but during the course of their education fall further and further behind their peers, including white working-class and Bangladeshi boys. In 2008, the department for education reported that only 27 per cent of black boys achieve five or more A*-C GCSE grades. African-Caribbean boys are also the group most likely to be excluded from school; in some areas they are three times more likely to be excluded than other groups.

As someone who has experienced the education system throughout this period—as a child in the 1960s, as a teacher in the 1980s, and as a researcher today—I can say that, while the level of underachievement for black boys has remained the same, the reasons behind it have changed.

The MP Diane Abbott has claimed that “teachers are failing black boys,” arguing that “black boys do not have to be too long out of disposable nappies for some teachers to see them as a miniature gangster rapper.” Researchers such as David Gillborn and Heidi Mirza claim that teachers and schools indirectly discriminate against black boys. Gillborn cites the reason that schools try to protect their position in league tables: teachers enter black children into GCSE exams in which they can only get a maximum grade of C because if they were entered for harder exams they might fail, lowering the school’s results.

My challenge to these claims is that times have changed. What we now see in schools is children undermined by poor parenting, peer-group pressure and an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour. They are not subjects of institutional racism. They have failed their GCSEs because they did not do the homework, did not pay attention and were disrespectful to their teachers. Instead of challenging our children, we have given them the discourse of the victim—a sense that the world is against them and they cannot succeed.

Gillborn and Abbott imply that white teachers have low expectations of black boys and this is partly why they underachieve. I have never been convinced by this. I believe black underachievement is due to the low expectations of school leaders, who do not want to be seen as racist and who position black boys as victims.

And consider this initiative, introduced by the previous Labour government. “Reach” takes 20 “great black role models” around the country to inspire black boys to success. This is desperate and patronising. Why can’t black boys be inspired by anyone around them who is positive, including white teachers?

The bad boys in that class had a default reaction—all their experience was seen through the lens of racism. They had no measure to understand their lives other than that of the victim. It was only when they felt they could control their world that they realised they could succeed. I was not teaching them to accept their lot but to move on from being a victim.

Young black boys are constantly on edge, feeling that the world is against them but unable to find the real source of their trouble. We have a generation who have all the language and discourse of the race relations industry but no devil to fight.

Much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy. An Observer article in April (“Black pupils ‘are routinely marked down by teachers’”) referred to a study by Simon Burgess at Bristol University. He had compared teacher assessments of thousands of pupils with independent Sats results and found that teachers tended to underscore for black and white working-class children, but overscore for Indian and Chinese children.

But the truth is that the study proves little. The black pupils were still underachieving in the real Sats scores compared to their peers, and the research showed that teachers in predominantly black schools did not underscore. Moreover, teachers were also underscoring white working-class pupils. At the age of 14, 63 per cent of white working-class boys and 55 per cent of black boys have a reading age of seven or less.

I had a hunch that if I worked with African-Caribbean boys over the period when they were most vulnerable to a victim mentality, then I could help them succeed. I set up a charity, Generating Genius, to work with black teenagers. Through a programme of summer schools, internships, and other interventions, we encourage them to realise their potential and aspire to professions in the sciences. (I chose science because it is perceived to be harder.)

I picked the students carefully, from schools with children from poor backgrounds and little history of sending students to university. Over a period of four years we worked with 60 boys. Our group met every summer for a residential science camp at a number of top universities. The result was fantastic: by 16 the boys had scored mainly A and A* in sciences and maths. All are now going to university.

In 2004 we took our first group to Jamaica for a summer science camp. Some black activists commented that this might cleanse the boys of white racism and help them to be proud of being black. In fact, going to Jamaica made the boys feel “raceless”—96 per cent of the population looked like them, and they were judged on the content of their character. They met university lecturers, policemen and leaders who talked about their work but never once mentioned race. The boys returned more confident in their own abilities.

What did we do right? We allowed them to see their potential in mainstream society. There were no talks on black identity, black history, or mentoring with black role models. The programme is not dissimilar to the way the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools work in the Bronx in New York. KIPP did something simple for poor children in the US—it gave them shorter holidays and a longer school day. Their school results went through the roof.

Generating Genius gave the boys the resilience to move away from the negative peer pressure in some of their communities. They loved being intelligent and joining a group with the same values. It took us four years to shield them from those who want them to wallow in self-pity.

Other articles in Prospect's special feature on the failings of multiculturalism today:

Lindsay Johns on dead white men

Swaran Singh on psychiatry

Sonya Dyer on the arts

Munira Mirza on her hometown of Oldham


1965 Race Relations Act First legislation on racial discrimination; Race Relations Board set up.

1968 Race Relations Act Made it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services on grounds of race.

1976 Race Relations Act Extended protection against discrimination and replaced the Race Relations Board with the Commission for Racial Equality.

2000 Race Relations (Amendment) Act Introduced a duty on public authorities to promote “good relations” between different groups and conduct equality impact assessments of policies.

2006 Equality Act Created the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which took over a year later from the Commission for Racial Equality and other equality bodies.

2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act Rendered inciting racial hatred an offence in Britain (failed attempts were made in 2001 and 2004-05).

2010 Equality Act Comes into force on 1st October. Fulfilled a Labour manifesto promise of 2005 and codifies all anti-discrimination law.