Black Boys Held Back by 'Out of School' Factors

There is clear evidence to link family life, peer pressure and anti-school culture to disproportionate levels of Black Caribbean exclusion from school. However in a document produced by the education department called 'Getting it, Getting it right' they failed to focus on what they called 'out of school causes', and instead took the easy route of blaming Institutional racism.

Black Caribbean exclusions are three times higher than white. What the report fails to mention is that black Caribbean exclusions are also three times higher than black African exclusions. The clear 'out of school' difference is family and culture; black African fathers are present in their families much more than those from a black Caribbean background. This leads to significant behavioural outcomes, particularly with boys.

Martin, a mixed–race 15 year old from south London, had just downed half a bottle of vodka. The boy has already gained a reputation for attention-seeking, bad behaviour, and aggressively challenging authority figures. But in his drunken state, with his inhibitions gone, he wasn’t acting wilder, or in a more threatening manner. He was crying - violently sobbing, in fact - for his father: “I want my Dad. It’s not fair. I’ve only spoken to him once on the phone. Why does he hate me? I […] want to see him now.”

Martin was taking part in a residential summer camp run by my charity, Generating Genius, which takes black boys and offers them educational coaching and mentoring. Martin had smuggled in the alcohol without us realising. Raised by a single white mother, he had never known his dad. 

Another boy at the summer camp just couldn’t get along with the others; he told me that he just loved fighting. He displayed an excessive amount of attention seeking. He had to be up front in every photo call and would never allow other boys a turn during play activities. The head teachers of both boys' schools - who were also both black - later told me that the mothers blamed the school for making their sons behave badly. The heads spoke of a personal dislike shown by the students, which they reported as a wider dislike of black male authority. When the boys did open up at our camp, it was to our female staff that they felt they could trust.

Psychologists have known for some time that children’s attachment to their fathers and mothers derives from different sets of early social experiences. Specifically, mothers provide security when the child is distressed, whereas fathers provide reassuring play partners. As part of our orientation we played a simple game called “Trust”; I stood behind Martin who had to blindly fall into my arms. He refused to do it. Typically, this kind of tough play love would never come from his mother. Instead of allowing him to fall, she would probably grab him from behind and whisper in his ear: “This game it’s too dangerous, I’ll buy you a PlayStation instead.” Whereas a typical father would say: “Come on, son. Fall, I’m behind and you’d better not look back.”

We have been running summer camps for five years now, where boys are taken from their familiar environment and work on high-level science projects at universities. All the boys have bucked the trend for inner-city African-Caribbeans, scoring an average of nine high-grade GCSEs each. We’ve found that our biggest barrier was not repairing the damage of racism in the education system, but getting boys to overcome the psychological damage of not knowing their fathers. As they dropped their sons off, mothers would often warn us: “By the way, he doesn’t like men telling him what to do!”

National statistics reveal that among those with a partner, 73 per cent of whites are in formal marriage compared with only half of Caribbeans. Among those who have married, Caribbeans are twice as likely to have divorced or separated as whites across all age groups under the age of 60. We need to understand these matters and find solutions, otherwise we will continue to see a disproportionate amount of violent crime committed by black young males, higher exclusion rates from school, and the lesser-told story of the high levels of mental illness amongst African-Caribbean males.

When we set up the Generating Genius programme, we had high aspirations that we would train and nurture the next generation of black Britain’s intellectual best. However, our academic ideals soon became secondary; many of the boys, once freed from the arms of their single mothers, suddenly had to cope with a world run by adult black males - figures who, in their lives, were mostly absent, unreliable, despised by their mothers, and unsuccessful.

These boys kicked up against us. It was like we were their dads who had walked out of their lives without any explanation and suddenly we demanded their respect. According to research: “A father who is dead may be carried within the child’s mind as a very alive figure depending on the mother’s way of talking about the father ... A father who is physically present might nevertheless be lived as symbolically lost, absent or dead in the child’s inner world” (McDougall, 1989, p 209).

More than racism, I now firmly believe that the main problem holding black boys back academically is their over-feminised raising. Firstly, because with the onset of adolescence there is no male role model to lock down the destructive instincts that exist within all males, and to provide guidance on what a man should be. Second, in his own mind no child is without a father. In the absence of such a figure he will seek out an alternative. This will usually be among dominant male figures, which are all-too-often found in gangs. This is the space where there is a kind of hierarchy, there is a ritual, there is education and, of course, a sense of belonging.

The black gang is really a cadre of black male caricatures that replaces the father figure that never played the trust game with his son. It is the nearest they will get to the love usually given by a father. I believe we have wasted years, and lives, looking in the wrong direction as to the causes of failure in education and participation in crime. We have had endless studies attempting to prove institutional racism, obsessed with the prejudice of white teachers and police, while all along the psychological needs of our boys were never met. The current government policy of rolling out suited and booted role models to black youngsters is another attempt to externalise the problem that lies within.

It has left us with little research and knowledge about the group that gets kicked out of school the most. Meanwhile, the black family continues to disintegrate and it seems that no one dare say a word.

Dr Tony Sewell and Dr Tracey Reynolds debated their views live in a discussion thread.

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