How should the education system address the problem of Black boys?” It’s a question commonly asked in response to the statistics on exam performance and exclusion rates in the UK when broken down by race.
Jeffrey Boakye, a Black male teacher – a rarity in British classrooms – turns that question on its head in his account of what he’s learned over the years. Instead we should be asking: “How should we address the problem of an education system that fails to cater for Black pupils?” In fact, he adds, the system fails to cater for any pupils growing up in a multicultural society, who need to understand the different communities that make up modern-day Britain.
Boakye, whose main subject is English, asks why it is that many children only encounter Black people in GCSE texts if they study the 1937 novella Of Mice and Men – in which the leading Black character is a helpless victim and the n-word is liberally invoked. In my own children’s case, the only other book they’ve studied that demonstrates an awareness of race is To Kill a Mockingbird, written in 1960 – the same text I studied for O-level in the 1970s. Why, this left me wondering, had there been so little change in the intervening decades? No James Baldwin? No Andrea Levy, or Zadie Smith, or Ben Okri? As Boakye puts it: “They call it a ‘canon’, which, as far as I can work out, is a euphemism for ‘things no one can be bothered to update’.”
If Black children find themselves either ignored or written about in patronising terms with only a white saviour to rescue them from their pitiful plight, is it any wonder some start to question the point of education? “We can’t expect young people to engage with a curriculum that feels irrelevant and out of step with the world they are growing up in.”
Boakye describes painful conversations with pupils who feel they’ve been unfairly labelled troublemakers by white teachers, while their white peers are given the benefit of the doubt. “It really hurt, sir,” one girl says about being blamed for something she didn’t do. This book feels timely – the scandal of Child Q, a 15-year-old girl from east London who was taken out of an exam to be strip-searched by the police, tells us how pervasive negative stereotyping remains within our schools. Even Boakye, as a teacher, was not immune to a feeling of disconnection: “It’s a subtle but palpable thing: knowing, instinctively, that the Black parts of my identity had no place in an institution of learning.”
So he decided to do what too few of his colleagues were doing: to listen to what his pupils were saying, and to respond thoughtfully. He reframed his teaching in a way that allowed them to express themselves: encouraging them to tell their stories in their own ways, to show off their creativity, imagination and intelligence. They would discuss music lyrics and write poetry. Soon even those who had been seen as problem children became more engaged.
We’ll never get the best out of students if we see them as square pegs to be beaten into round holes – the kind of holes only the most privileged can seamlessly pass through. Schools have to recognise the multiplicity of identities and experiences that children bring into the classroom.
The curriculum is a significant part of this (and don’t be distracted by those who make the ludicrous claim that campaigners want to ban Shakespeare – they don’t); but it’s also about how individual teachers engage with children from different backgrounds, making them aware of the reality of Britain’s history, and the contribution of all races and nationalities to it. “The average person who has undergone a mainstream British education is historically illiterate,” Boakye comments.
This book is essential reading for teachers, those who run educational institutions, parents – but perhaps most of all for those Black children who may be currently going through school not realising why they are made to feel small, out of step and unworthy. For them in particular, it could be a ray of hope.