Why black boys fail their exams

Institutional racism is the fashion of the moment and now we have it in education. Caribbean boys, we are told by a report from Ofsted, the schools watchdog, do worse in exams than almost any other group.

The inspectors confess their ignorance as to the reasons why: "It is urgent that secondary schools establish what is happening to black Caribbean pupils to cause a good start in primary schools to turn into such a marked decline and take action to reverse it."

I think I can offer some clues. The school system in inner London has had at least one Howe - sometimes four, even five - on its books since 1967. Currently there are three, two in religious secondary schools in south London, and a grandson at nursery school in west London. Both my parents and my older sister were teachers. After leaving grammar school in Trinidad, I earned some extra funds for private tuition which enabled the not-too-bright to get through the Cambridge School Certificate, a much more complete and difficult test than today's GCSE. Later I taught general studies in a technical college in south London.

My girls did better than the boys at exams; one went on to become head of production at a huge television company. Yet nobody who knows my children would dare suggest that my daughters are more intelligent and better educated than my sons. My eldest son explained in an interview with an ethnic journal that he was determined to show his parents that a failure to accumulate GCSEs was not a measure of the man. He always knew what he wanted. The classroom was not the place to touch his intellectual soul. Post-school, both boys, with one GCSE between them, developed careers and personalities that amazed their former teachers.

Caribbean girls, even at an early stage, know mostly through their mothers that all that awaits them outside of acquiring exam passes is drudgery at the hand of some unscrupulous Caribbean male. Even with black freedom, the gender question remains. And they respond by putting their heads down and obeying the harsh learning regime.

The boys begin that way at primary school, but soon realise there are other immediate issues: racial attacks by whites, the police, the local shopkeeper who thinks that every black boy is a shoplifter. Soon the boy is transformed because he has to face directly the weight of the society that surrounds him. He moves into a warrior stance, using language that transforms orthodox English into a series of confrontational metaphors and similes. By secondary school, he is mature beyond his years.

The school system tries to tame the instincts of survival and offer a smooth edge that bears no relation to his reality. I have seen it unfold in my own house. Black Caribbean boys are a new and growing social force and they cannot be compared to Ofsted's mould of who a child is and what he or she is required to learn.

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