Teaching Black children

Uvanney Maylor
Director of the Institute for Research in Education, University of Bedfordshire

Below I discuss two concerns which have preoccupied me for a while now.

Since the 1960s’s in schools and educational policy discourse much has been made about the lower attainment of Black children (but specifically Black Caribbean) and the perceived lack of parental valuing of education, and supporting their children’s educational attainment. So it was no surprise to hear a teacher at a conference (aimed at encouraging Black children to consider careers requiring higher education study) in 2009 point to Black educational failure being cultural and innate, and questioning whether ‘Black people’s culture predisposed them to underachievement’. Some might consider this a statement of fact given the persistent lower attainment of Black Caribbean students vis-à-vis White British students. While the comment by the teacher incensed me, it did not affect me as much as I was by a Black teenager at the conference who said, ‘lots of people say we can’t do it, people like me are a failure’. In fact I was disheartened when he it became clear that the ‘lots of people’ referred to by this pupil were his teachers. If teachers do not believe in the ability and/or potential of Black children to achieve, what is the point of Black children attending school?

A goal of the conference was to encourage high attainment, and as a consequence of attending, the teenager referred to above said that coming to the conference he had learnt that ‘I’m not [a failure] and I’m going to prove that I can do everything I put my mind to’. This sentiment was echoed by a girl who simply stated, ‘I’m a Black girl, I can do it I can be what I want to be’.

Responding to the teacher perception that Black parents do not value education and are unsupportive, over 300 Black teenagers attended the conference, and each of them was accompanied by their mother or father or both. If these parents did not value education they would not have made the effort to get up early and in some cases travel huge distances to attend the conference with their child/children.

My second concern relates to teachers in school who fail to and/or are unwilling to recognise student difference, and education policy which supports this stance. Initial teacher education policy and practice in England emphasises teachers adopting a colour-blind attitude in their teaching, and this is supported by the new qualifying Teachers’ Standards as well as the National Curriculum and inclusion discourses prominent in English schools. Commitment to colour-blindness results in White teachers ‘denying the very significance of race in their practices’ and negating racism. An evaluation of a Labour government initiative with a specific focus on Black children, the Black Children’s Achievement Programme, revealed White and Black teachers adopting colour-blind attitudes and practices in their teaching, and expressing angst that they attend to the educational needs of a particular group of children. 

I get the impression . . . I’ve been given children because they’re Black and I don’t particularly like it being dictated in that way. That you’re going to get extra support when you’re not below average . . . one of them is gifted and talented in ICT [information, communication and technology], he doesn’t need the extra support. (White Teacher—X1)

It’s something I find really difficult, because I don’t think it should just be Black achievement; if you look at it statistically, White boys’ writing is lower now than Black boys writing. . . . It’s got to be more than just Afro-Caribbean children (White teacher).

Here we have two teachers objecting to providing additional support to Black children; support which they feel is unjustified given on the one hand that one is considered to be gifted and talented and on the other, White working class achievement needs to be raised; a contention supported by a recent House of Commons Report.

Another example, from the same study showed a Black teacher who determined being colour-blind was justified given existing perceptions and definitions of the category Black when compared with the concept of White:

‘Black’ is politically loaded. The dictionary describes ‘Black’ in derogatory ways. ‘White’ is pure and good. ‘Black’ is dirty, horrible. (Black teacher, Z1)

In comparison to the category White, which has been constructed as biologically ‘pure’ and ‘good,’ this teacher saw Black as tainted. According to Cox et al positive and negative stereotypes are ‘difficult to change and strongly influence emotions, judgments, and behavior’. Incongruously, though, the teacher referred to above did not consider the category White as divisive. Nor did she consider that her approach is ‘potentially just as negative as a straightforward rejection of people with different skin colour since both types of attitude seek to deny the validity of an important aspect of a person’s identity.

Moreover, it was evident that both the White and Black teachers used their power as teachers to determine who was worthy or more deserving of additional teacher support which provides fodder for Strand’s contention that Black underachievement is not solely at the pupil level. The real challenge presented by these teachers examples is how initial teacher education and continuing professional development can be developed so as to assist all teachers to recognise Black children as an important part of the teaching and learning process, and equally important, to understand the influence of teacher effect on the lower attainment of some Black children.

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