Diane debates the issue of black and minority ethnic attainment in schools

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29 Jun 2012
I congratulate my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams on securing this important debate.
The first thing to say is that the underachievement of black children is not a new issue. It goes back all the way to the 1950s, when children would come here from the Caribbean—bright and able children, who had excelled in the classroom in the Caribbean—but they suddenly found themselves in units for children who were educationally underachieving.
 
There is a clear pattern to that underachievement. When children of African and Caribbean descent enter the school system at the age of five, they are doing as well as white and Asian children.
 
By the age of 11, their achievement levels, particularly for boys, start to drop off and by the age of 16 there is a huge gap. Although we—my Government—masked that gap, partly by the use of national vocational qualification equivalents for GCSE, it still remains startling.
 
Ministers might say, “Why does this matter to us? We don’t have many of these people in our constituencies? Maybe it’s their families. Maybe it’s them. Why should we bother?” First of all, as hon. Friends have said, it is an issue of equity and justice. If it means anything to be a British citizen—even in austerity and even in the times that we face—it ought to mean that there is the chance to make something of yourself through an educational system that treats people fairly.
 
As the child of immigrants who came to Britain in the 1950s, I know that that generation of West Indian immigrants knew that it would be tough, that they would have to work two jobs, that often they would live in overcrowded conditions and that they would encounter racism, but they thought—as immigrants always think—that for their children it would be better, and that education was the means by which it would become better. All the challenges faced by minorities today—whether about employment, policing or immigration—pale to nothing, in my view, in comparison with the betrayal of an earlier generation of immigrants who came to Britain to better themselves and their families, and thought that education would be the ladder for them, as it has been historically for immigrants all over the world.
 
Education matters because equity matters; it matters because fairness matters; and it matters because justice matters. I throw into the debate a quote from Martin Narey, who is the former director of the Prison Service and the former head of Barnardo’s. He said years ago that on the date and time a child is permanently excluded from school, they might as well be given a date and time to turn up in prison. The link between educational underachievement, social disorder and eventually a life of crime is a very clear pathway. Rather than spending money on rehabilitating young people and on dealing with the consequences of crime, let us focus on and pay attention to what I believe is the root of a lot of these issues—the educational underachievement of too many of our children, particularly black children, in our schools.
 
Post the riots last summer, people talked about the rioters being in gangs, about their parents, about lack of religious leadership and about all sorts of things. People did not talk about the fact that the biggest signifier when we looked at the young people who were arrested and charged with incidents in the course of the riots was that two thirds of them—I think that was the figure—had special educational needs, and the majority of them had been excluded from school. Those were the two biggest indicators. I am not saying that educational underachievement is an excuse for criminality or rioting, but the link is there. If we are talking about a business case, the business case for
making sure that all our children achieve their very best in school is unanswerable.
 
As colleagues will know, this is an issue that I have harassed Ministers about, both in my Government and in this Government and although it seems arid and technical to ask for stats, we cannot have programmes that reach those children effectively without a statistical basis.
 
I  remember, a few years into that same Government, going to see the then Secretary of State for Education and asking for a breakdown by ethnicity of GCSE results. She said, “Sure Diane, of course you can have them,” but her officials looked shifty. At that time, schools were supposed to keep the figures; they just were not published. Months later, I got a letter from my colleague, who is now in another place, saying that unfortunately the data could not be released because they were “not in a usable form”. Even if schools are made to keep data, unless they know that the figures will be made public and used, it is in their interests, particularly those of schools that are failing our children, to keep them in all sorts of higgledy-piggledy ways so that no one can drill down and see what is happening to the children. I cannot stress enough the importance of examination data broken down by ethnicity, because if we do not have it we cannot reach those children because we do not know what is happening to them.
 
I suppose this is the appropriate point at which to raise the question of why. Why do black children fail? It is partly to do with poverty in an absolute sense, although all the research shows, particularly that done by the Institute of Education, that even when we allow for poverty—usually by using free school meals as an indicator—black children systematically do less well than children of other ethnicities. There is no question but that poverty is an issue. Nowadays there is also increasing peer group pressure. I have mentored the children of friends in that situation, and I do not discount its significance.
 
There is also a culture of low expectation in some schools. I am not talking about bad teachers, but about teachers who say, and have said to me, in effect, year on year, “What do you expect?” Well, let me tell Members what communities in areas such as Hackney expect: they expect each and every child to reach their potential. There is a culture of low expectation, of saying, “Well, if we can make school a nice, safe place, and the children come in and make samosas and bang steel drums, isn’t that nice?” That sort of culture masks the failure to give young people the academic equipment they need to fulfil themselves as people and to compete in the world of work.
 
One reason why it is important to keep detailed stats is that it is not sufficient to talk generally about black and minority children. I have worked on the subject for years, and in London, which is the part of the country I know best, the figures and outcomes are complicated. Chinese children, I think, do best in London, white girls do second best, then children of east African, Asian or Indian origin and, going down the list, Bengali boys, who are bumping along at the bottom with white boys and black boys. Black girls always do better than black boys. The London stats show us differences in out-turn between Asian children from the subcontinent, Asian children from Bengal, Asian children from east Africa, African children or Caribbean children, and not keeping detailed statistics about out-turns year on year is failing such children. Only when we see the differences can we start to identify what the issues are.
 
For instance, one of the reasons why Bengali boys do so badly compared with Asian boys from other backgrounds is to do with rural Bengal and the conditions that they come from. Unless we have the detailed statistics, however, we cannot identify that. One of the things I have seen as the years have gone by is that first-generation African children tend to do better than Caribbean children. That is an interesting fact, which is worth contemplating. In my opinion—having studied this, held events and looked at the figures—the results of first-generation African children may speak to more stable families in the African community at this point and a stronger sense of personal identity. Until we have the figures and can analyse why there are differences, we cannot help those children.
 
We have not spoken much about higher education, which the debate is not primarily about, but we cannot talk about educational underachievement without mentioning what is happening to BME children in higher education. A case in point is London, where it is striking that universities within a few miles of each other and in theory serving the same population are very different in their demographic make-up. In fact, some of the former polytechnics in London educate more BME young people than some of our Russell group universities put together. I do not accept the argument, “Well, that’s because it’s all they are capable of.” A lot of things are going on, such as poor advice at school level or poor A-level choices. Email me when Diane Abbott speaks
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The issue we are debating has engaged me for many years, almost since I first entered the House, and there are two specific things that I have done about it. I set up an initiative called London Schools and the Black Child. Over a decade we have had annual conferences at which we brought together parents, community leaders and teachers, not to say, “Oh, the system is terrible and these teachers are terrible,” but to ask what we could do to help our children. The heart of those conferences—officials can tell Ministers about them, if they look through the files—were workshops, where parents dealt with issues such as how to cope with exclusions, how to help black boys to achieve, and how to help children to achieve higher standards.
 
The extraordinary thing about the conferences was that every year more than 1,000 parents would turn up. We held them at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre just across the way. The first one was due to start at 10 o’clock, and at 9 o’clock we had people queuing outside the door. Parents really want to help their children. There is an assumption that perhaps black children do badly because the black community does not value education. No. If I only ever say one thing in this House let it be that the black community does value education. That is why it is so important to me to keep making the case for focusing and having practical strategies.
 
The other thing that I have done, with the support of UBS, the international financial services company and bank, is to run an awards ceremony for London’s top achieving black children. One is always trying to counter stereotypes. The Minister might be surprised to know that there are black children at inner-city schools turning out 10 or 11 A* grades and four As at A-level, and going on to study medicine or law at Russell group universities. One year, we got Lenny Henry and the newscaster Trevor McDonald to hand out the awards, and we rang the Evening Standard and said, “We are having this awards ceremony—London’s top achieving black children; would you be prepared to cover it?” They asked, “Are any of the children gang members?” In other words, unless those children fit a stereotype they do not get coverage. We can open a London newspaper any day and see gang atrocities, stabbings and shootings. We do not hear enough about the children, of all ethnicities, who are achieving, and trying their very best. I thank UBS for its support. After this debate, I have a meeting with UBS to plan this year’s awards ceremony in the autumn, which will be held in the House of Commons.
 
I want to talk about what I think the solutions are. I have never doubted that part of the solution is to get parents to engage. The children who come to the awards ceremony are often from underachieving schools in socially deprived areas. One of the problems is that the room is always packed, because they bring their mum, dad, aunt and gran; the children who do best are those whose parents are most engaged in their education. It is important to get parents to engage, and that is why I have held conferences every year. Often parents do not quite know what to do for the best. The education system is very different even from when I was at school in this country. It is important to get parents to engage, but it is also important that the education system should recognise that. It is important to recruit more black teachers, not because only black teachers can teach black children, which is clearly absurd—I have mentioned Sir Michael Wilshaw—but because, particularly in metropolitan areas, unless the demographic in the staff room bears some relationship to that of the children who are being taught, there is unlikely to be the overall cultural literacy that will help teachers to engage with the children. It is also important, for all working-class boys, to recruit more male teachers. I deal with boys in Hackney—black, white, Asian, Turkish—who throughout their education have engaged only with women and have never seen a man as an educational role model. More male teachers are important. Teacher training is also important so that teachers have cultural literacy.
 
In closing, it is not good enough to adopt a colour-blind approach. With a colour-blind approach, ethnic minority children continue to slip under the radar and are palmed off with substandard qualifications, education and life chances. A colour-blind approach will not work. Comprehensive statistics are vital, as is recognising the importance of parents.
 
We need statistics, recruitment of black and male teachers and teacher training, but above all we need to recognise that the issue is easy to ignore or to utter pieties about. If we abandon a cross-section of the community in our inner cities, they have a way of bringing themselves back into the political narrative—a way that is not good for them or for society. Better people than me have worked on the issue over their lifetime. I implore the Minister: let us not lose the advances made under the Labour Government. Let us continue to move forward.
 

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