Mind the gap: Discussing the poor performance of Black Caribbean boys in education

Hello again and welcome, or welcome back to my blog.

Today’s blog post is going to cover a part of a topic that has been close to my heart, and an area that is of great interest for me since I was a young school student and till now as a teacher.And that topic is the performance of Black students- particularly of Black boys in schools.

mind the gap London tube

This is not a new phenomena, in fact there has been studies and interest covering this topic in the English school system since 1971. However the reason why this is still relevant (as it should be) now is because of the relative lack of change or progress made within this particular ethnic and gender group, especially when compared to the great strides in improvement gained by other ethnic minority groups and even when compared to the performance of their African counterparts!

From the most recent census (2011) out of the 56 million residents living in England and Wales, 3% was made up of Black British people, which covers two major groups: Black Caribbean and Black African people. Of course over time the numbers of Black Caribbean and Black African (and other ethnic minority groups) have indeed increased in England, yet what is so interesting is the pattern in the educational achievement of students from ethnic minorities against the national average. In just over three decades, white English students have went from being over achievers and performing above the national average at GCSE level, to being now underachievers. Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi and Black African students results from the 1970s have been quite poor, yet the most recent results show that Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi and Black African students (in that exact order) being the top performers, however sadly the performance of the Black Caribbean students have not followed this trend, instead they are one of the worst groups in terms of GCSE performance. This consistent underachievement and unsatisfactory performance over decades has puzzled top education researchers, the department of Education and senior politicians. As considering the fact that Afro Caribbeans are overall better integrated in English society and have an advantage in terms of their proficiency of the English language than their African counterparts, and are on average more wealthy. So looking at these advantageous factors then what is causing their children to perform so badly in school?

Ethnicity of students % of students who achieved 5 A*-C GCSE grades 2014-15
White British 65.9
Indian 80.8
Pakistani 62.4
Bangladeshi 72.6
Black Caribbean 58.1
Black African 67.8
Chinese 86.8
National average 66.2


Above is a table showing the GCSE performance of students from different ethnic backgrounds against the national average in 2014-2015. Image from the department of Education. As you can see from the table above, Black Caribbean students have the least number of students who managed to attain 5 GCSEs at A* -C grade in the 2014/2015 academic year, compared to their African counterparts who performed above the national average (at 66.2%) students achieving 5 A* to C grades at GCSE. Even more fascinating is when the data is further broken down within the results from the Black Caribbean students, it was found that Black Caribbean girls performance is notably better than Black Caribbean boys.

So since 1971 when this educational gap between Black pupils and the other groups of students was first noticed and highlighted at a government level, there have been a range of initiatives, studies and interventions launched and put into place throughout the decades, and yet the problem with the educational results of Black Caribbean students still continues today in 2017.

So you may be asking then why? What are the causes of Black Caribbean students, especially the boys doing so badly at school? Some people have put forward the notion of the subtle racism in the education sector that hinders the performance of these students. Other people say the overall and noticeable lack of father figures within the Black Caribbean community compared to other ethnic groups. Other possible causes put forward are the socio economic problems and the negative effects of hip-hop/rap and gang culture that is so popular and prevalent in the Black Caribbean community.

All of the above stated reasons can have detrimental effects to a child’s (regardless of their race) interest and achievement in school. However Dr. Graham the author of, “An Exploration of African-Caribbean boys underachievement” and who has considerable experience and knowledge of the educational needs and history of Afro Caribbean and African students in England. Dr Graham has conducted interviews with many students of African and Caribbean decent over the years and has found that the single biggest impact on the Afro Caribbean students performance, is that of the teachers negative perception of the Black Caribbean students-particularly of the males and the increasing use of the “one-size fits all education and curriculum” that more and more schools in England are providing, which does not take into account nor meets the broad cultural needs of these students. Dr Graham states, “I argue that it is teachers’ perceptions of these boys that are a main reason for their underachievement. There is a lack of understanding of the boys’ subculture…it is perceived to be negative and even threatening”. I would say from my own personal experience, both from being a Black African student and from being a fully qualified teacher who has taught students from all ethnic groups, that I agree with Dr Graham’s final thoughts.

Let me first begin with a few examples of when I student, firstly from primary school and then of my secondary school experience. In my primary school years, was when I had the most difficulty learning, as I had just arrived in England due to my parents fleeing the civil war, being that I was so young (under 3 years old) I therefore had no understanding of the English language nor the customs and traditions of the country. So of course these were significant barriers to my learning, to give credit to my teachers at primary school, from year 1 to year 4 I had very caring, patient and kind teachers who really put in effort to help me learn English and to model for me good behavior. I was slowly coming to terms with the language and each year my levels were rapidly improving I went from being on the lowest performing table to in year 4 moving up to the 2nd highest performing table, so I was able to complete more challenging class activities. Then my teacher had to take maternity leave and we had a new teacher. The new teacher for some reason never took a liking to me, compared to my other teachers who were always thoughtful and kind. I could notice the slight undercurrent of fear towards me and I was only eight years old then! So quite often because I was the only African child in the whole class, and the fact that my spoken English was not that amazing, kids being kids did what they do best, which was to bully and make fun of me mostly based on these factors. They would do things like take my hair ties, ruin my artwork, break my pencils, pull my chair out etc. And each time I was being bullied like this I would tell the teacher like I was expected to. However she never took me seriously nor looked into any of these issues. So more and more as the year went on I started to resent this teacher and not care about my behavior in class, so I started acting up, not doing my work and being extremely disruptive. The biggest incident that occurred between me and this teacher was during our class reading session every Friday afternoon. She was reading us the first Harry Potter book, and we were all really engaged. Then one of my friends next to me was giving out chewing gum to some other classmates and then handed me one. I took it but only put it in my dress pocket because it was against school rules to chew or eat in class. The teacher, to me did not seem to notice any of this was going on. Then one of my classmates a girl with blonde hair (to protect her identity we shall call her Blondie!) unwrapped her gum and put it in her mouth, I looked over and saw that our teacher was looking straight at her and just continued reading as if she did not see it. So I thought then I could get away with chewing in class too, I started unwrapping my chewing gum, until our teacher slammed the book shut quite loudly and screamed my name! I was so scared I dropped everything. She told me to stand up, which I did and she questioned me what I was doing, which I replied to I wanted to chew gum. She then pointed to the school rules on the wall and she said that it is against school rules, and said that I would get a half an hour minute detention after school scraping chewing gum off of the bottom of the chairs and tables. Now some my classmates looked at me with pity and others triggered and chuckled. I at that point got completely pissed off and pointed at blondie girl and said to my teacher that I know she saw her put chewing gum in her mouth way before me and you didn’t say anything. I noticed my classmate turning red and looking extremely frightened. And our teacher just told me to, “ Get out of the classroom, and wait by the door I will deal with you in a minute”. And me being even more angry by this non answer, I said, “ No I am no leaving! It is not fair she should get the same detention as me too!” The teacher then started screaming at me and saying, “You people never listen and always make problems bigger than what they should be!”. Now at that young age I did not realise the full scale of her words and the true meaning behind, yet I still can remember how I felt from hearing it and I felt really sad and feeling that I am not a part of this class, so I left and ran into the school field to hide until it was home time and I could go home with my mother.

So as a result of my refusal to wait outside of the classroom, my teacher took this issue up with the head teacher and wanted me to have a one day exclusion from school! This was all explained to my father on the phone after I went home, and he insisted on meeting with the class teacher and head teacher as I am generally well behaved and this is quite an extreme punishment for an eight year old child. Of course I told what happened in class to my father so he could here my side of the story, and the next day after school he had the meeting with my class teacher and the head teacher. The head teacher listened to both sides. Then my father interjected his final thoughts, that I have had barriers to my learning with being a new arrival to the country and my lack of English, however with help from home by my parents and from my past teachers in school I have made rapid progress and even better progress than a lot of the native English students in the class. He also did say that my behavior has been consistently good, however my behavior in this situation is of course unacceptable however it had arisen from the teacher showing a clear lack of interest in my well being, by not listening to my bullying problems and the double standards in enforcing school rules with me than compared to other students who have done a similar misdemeanors. The head teacher agreed and said that my punishment is far too severe for a student with a good behavior record, the head teacher also said that she had done some investigating into the incident by interviewing other students and most of the class had said that the teacher was unfair and had seen the other girl also breaking school rules but did not address her at all. To which then my class teacher really got a telling off from the head teacher, about how fairness is important and that this is what causes good relationships to break down. My class teacher defended herself with the point that she has never worked with a student who was of my background or with English as an additional language, she had in her head misconceptions about black students that we are loud, that we challenge authority and do not respect the rules. So she said as a result of her ignorance that is why she had reacted so badly to me, and with regards to the other girl she did confirm that she had seen what she had done, but she was too embarrassed by what I had said and so got angry that I was questioning her authority. My father was very upset with her words and replied, “I thank you for being open and honest about your lack of experience with students of immigrant backgrounds and of your ignorance, I have entrusted this school, its staff and you my daughters class teacher to give her a good quality education and to role model good behavior. It upsets me that from a class of 29 students you only have 1 student whose English is not as high as the others, how would you cope in your job in the future when there will be far more students of an immigrant background? How would you learn to be empathetic to their cultural backgrounds and needs? It is people like you who despite all the hard work my daughter does in school and at home, her love for education and all of the sacrifices her parents make to ensure that she is getting support from home it is your racist views and ignorance that is causing her to not reach her potential. And for that you should be utterly ashamed of yourself as a teacher”. Strong words from my daddy huh? So to wrap up this long story, in the end I did not have to do the detention or exclusion however the damage was already done for me as I did not trust nor like my teacher anymore. So upon my fathers request I was moved to another class and since then my primary school education was great and I left with the highest levels I could get in English, Maths and Science in my SATs and was the best performing student in my class and the 3rd highest performing student in my whole school for that year.

The point of me retelling that incident is to give readers a glimpse of despite how many obstacles that could be in the way of a student from an African or Caribbean background, the biggest factor on our achievement in school is that of the teachers and the school as a whole. What I have found in my teaching career is that the majority of students from ethnic minority backgrounds want to do well in school, wish to enjoy school and do not want to get into trouble. So if most of these students already have this mentality and aims, it is therefore the job of the school and teachers to help support their dreams. So yes the other factors stated above: lack of an active father figure, socio-economic difficulties, crime, drugs, rap and hip hop culture etc can all play a part in hindering a childs progress in their education. Yet there are many students who have severe difficult home lives, however with their motivation, effort and having good quality teachers they can overcome these barriers and do well in their education as highlighted by the progress shown by the other ethnic groups. Compared to when they first arrived to England: Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi and African students have vastly improved in their educational achievement.

As a teacher who had worked in a range of schools, I have also noticed a worrying trend. That is on average from what I have seen in my years of teaching, is that students from Black African or Afro Caribbean backgrounds were far more likely to be given exclusions from school than any other ethnic group. Also I had found that despite some Black students having similar grades or levels to students of a different background, the class teacher would put them in a lower set or enter them for the foundation paper in GCSE.

There was a time when I saw the absolute unfairness right in front my eyes and I challenged that teachers thinking. It was a year 10 double science class, they were the second set so they quite able. I shared this class with another teacher from a white middle class background. We were both analysing our class data and planning which students should be moved up or down ready for next year. When it was time to compare our results, we both found that our new class plans matched similarly. However there was one boy an Afro Caribbean boy who she put into the lower set for next year and an Eastern European boy who had the exact same working and predicted grades as him into the higher class. Now please remember we both teach this class, so I was not jumping to any knee jerk reactions or conclusions based on the “race card”. I do not want to go into another long story, to get to my point, instead of putting both boys into the higher performing set and putting one of the other students who had a lower average grade into the lower set she said because the Caribbean student made too many jokes in class, and due to that she felt that his work ethic is not as good, because in her eyes he is more lazy than the Eastern European boy. I clearly saw here a mountain being made out a mole hill, and injustice, so I sadly had to report this to our head of science, who immediately said to move both boys into the top performing set. The sad thing is that other teachers view of the Caribbean student was damaging because despite him getting A* grades throughout the whole year in science, she lowered her expectations of him and called him lazy for his comedic nature. When as teachers we should be trying our best to make fair judgment of our students academic potential, instead of creating our own limiting or stereotypical ideas of them.

Another example of what I have seen as a teacher in secondary schools on how Black Caribbean students were mistreated by school staff, is by the exclusion rates. Throughout all of my teaching career I can say with data backed up from every school that I have taught in. That the students who received the harshest and longest exclusion sentences were students of a black background, mostly Black Caribbean boys. Black Caribbean boys were also far more likely to be sent out of class with fewer warnings given beforehand, kept behind for after school detentions or given behavior report cards than compared to students of other racial backgrounds. A longitudinal study done by Strand and Fletcher (2014) was looking at the number of exclusions from school. In that study they tracked and analysed the number of fixed term exclusions for over 560,000 English national students between the age of 11 in 2007 until they were age 16 in 2011. The number of students experiencing one or more fixed-term exclusion was around 16% of students experiencing one or more fixed term exclusions during their secondary school career. However, the figure was substantially higher for Mixed White & Black Caribbean (31%) and even higher for Black Caribbean (33%) students, whilst when compared against Indian and Chinese students, the exclusion figures were at 8% and 4% respectively.

In one private school that I worked on the weekends as a private tutor, one of the experienced Language teachers was making small talk to me about a group of black boys, he said how the school is trying to help their GCSE grade improve by putting them into weekend tuition. Which I thought is naturally a good and logical idea. However when I was tutoring these same boys in English, Science and maths they were very open to me about their time in a private school. They were talking to me about how they were viewed in a “posh almost all white private school”, they said how a lot of the teachers there do not give them much attention, but they were quick to blame them for problems in the classroom for example when a female student lost her watch, the teacher was quick to say that the Black boys had stolen it! When in the end the female student left it in her locker. Even worse than that, two of the boys in the group had very good GCSE grades from their previous year and they asked their form teacher/tutor for advice on how to prepare themselves to enter Oxford university to which their form tutor said that they should not aim that high and instead apply to a lower ranked university?! I found it very disheartening to hear of the prejudice and negative experiences they faced even in a private school in which their parents pay for.

So if you are still here after reading my long essay, you may be wondering then how do we tackle this complex problem? What can be done?

As I have said earlier this problem is complicated and has many factors which lead to the poor performance of black Caribbean students in school, however as I have stated from research done, the factor which has the largest impact is the actual teachers, thus I will be giving practical advice and tips in which teachers or school staff can use to help tackle this problem.

Below I have some advice and practical methods that I have learnt from experienced teachers and from observing good practice in outstanding schools, these methods once implemented properly and consistently have had great effect on the behavior and the achievement of not only Black students but students from all racial backgrounds. I myself have used these ideas and methods in my teaching career and have found them to also be very effective for my students attainment and their satisfaction in school.

1) Have varied teaching and learning methods in your lessons:

When teachers use a range of different learning methods or techniques in their lesson, this in general leads to more students being engaged and interested in learning. For example, in my science lessons, I plan them carefully to include a range of activities to include as many students as possible, as every student learns in different ways. So in most of my lessons I try to include pair share, group work activities, experiments, out door or out of classroom activities, projects, competitions and problem based learning. This is because studies show that boys more than girls learn better through kinaesthetic (hands on) and competitive type of activities so for example I try to make my starters like mini competitions: who can find as many words in this keywords winner gets a merit (positive school point), or which group can design the best experiment, and their work is displayed on the classroom display.

The problem that we find in a lost of schools, is that due to pressures of completing the curriculum and meeting coursework and revision under these time constraints, is that as a result many lessons lose their creative edge which then leads to more lessons of wrote learning or from the text book. Which in abundance causes students to become disengaged and bored, more so for boys than girls. Then by having varied lessons this would help to tackle this issue, and engage more students.

2. Have positive black and ethnic minority role models in your lessons:

This is a simple concept to grasp, if young people such as school students do not see or know about positive images of people like them, then they are less likely have such high future aims. In English schools, many students know about Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, Tony Blair etc., but when you ask students to name famous black scientists, or Caribbean inventors, Asian artists they struggle to name them.

For me as a teacher and a form tutor, I include where possible in my lessons references to scientists, researchers, doctors, leaders, engineers, philosophers, travelers etc who are people of colour and highlight the importance of their work throughout history and to our lives. So that students have role models and figures that they want to aspire to and emulate, instead of the usual black athletes, footballers and rappers which they are used to seeing and usually want to mimic. In my form class I had a whole wall dedicated just to famous important people of non white backgrounds, which I asked my form students to research and make posters of and bring it in, and this simple act made my students more cohesive as a class and respect each others cultures and backgrounds more, and myself as a teacher I learnt new things such as Cyrus the great which my Iranian student made a wonderful poster about.

3. Make time to get to know your students both inside and outside of the classroom:

For myself I try to take time during lunch or break time and talk to my students outside of a classroom setting, have an interest in their hobbies, their goals, fears and family life. Have a strong and regular communication with the parents and carers so that teachers can better understand their situation and provide tailored support to them in school.

4. Have a good relationship:

Make it your aim as a teacher to develop and maintain good relationships with your students, all of them. They all are varied and unique, treat them fairly regardless of how well you get on with them, students are honest and are very good at observing injustices against them or others.

5. Do not give racial stereotypes a chance:

This is a destructive and lazy way of trying to understand your students and why they do certain things. Certain stereotypes are often perpetuated by school staff such as black boys are aggressive or lazy, instead of falling into this trap, try to uplift them and have high expectations of them.

6. Take your students on trips or events designed for ethnic minority students:

Be up to date with workshops, conventions or events that are specific to inspiring or helpful to raising standards in Black/African students. And if you yourself are not aware of such events, talk to school staff who do know or have a special interest in this. Search university or college websites, Eventbrite for interesting (and usually free) events around England which you will get tailored emails to your interests or just a general google search.

For example I took twenty year ten Afro Caribbean and African students to the London school of Economics Black achievement day, which was a whole day event on Saturday to celebrate the successes of black students and to inspire them to go on to university and enter apprenticeships. They had inspiring speeches, workshops on succeeding in GCSE and A level exams, how to apply and enter top universities, information about funding and financial information for students from ethnic minorities including bursaries, scholarships and they had live interviews with successful black British people such as company owners, doctors, researchers, rap artists, Olympian athletes and more. Then a tour of the university and a fun comedy sketch, dance battle event and free goodie bags full of useful educational products. My students loved the day and most of them told me afterwards how inspired they are, and how they learnt things such as they didn’t know how there was a lot of financial help available for them to starting their own business or going to university, other students were surprised that their misconceptions of there being few black students in prestigious, universities such as LSE, Oxford etc. and that they want to aim higher now.

Above are photos from our trip to London School of Economics, Black achievement day (2014)

7. Have high expectations of your students:

It is has been shown by university led surveys that students of a black African and Caribbean backgrounds are far less likely to apply to good universities or job vacancies, when some of these students were questioned they mostly said that they were dissuaded by their school teachers who made it seem like it will be impossible for them to be accepted to a good university or a top job. So support your students especially your black students, inspire them to aim high and make it clear that there are opportunities for them in higher education. A good example of this is the recent photo taken of 14 black male students at the University of Cambridge which went viral over the internet. It is a good photo showing such a positive image, that highlights that it is possible for black students to study at prestigious educational institutions, this is far more effective than just showing the statistics of the numbers of successful black applicants to such universities.

Cambridge university male black students st johns college

The photo above is from the University of Cambridge African and Caribbean society. 

8. Take part in cultural events at school:

Offer to help the students to organise and carry out their events, advertise it in and out of the school community, spread the information to other staff and parents. If there are no such events carried out in your school then take the initiative to start them. For example by celebrating black history month or starting an African/Caribbean society. By having such events like this available in school, it helps to bridge understanding between the school community and aids in making students feel a part of the school.

9. Recruitment of good quality black/Caribbean teachers and school staff:

In many schools in England, there is a lack of good quality teachers and school staff who are of an ethnic minority background, by having a good teacher in front of them who they can identify with and share cultural similarities with or who understands their racial struggles with them, can be very effective in engaging African and Caribbean students, especially the males in that group. In general there is a link between the lower performance of boys in schools and the lower numbers of male teachers in schools. As of 2016 the department of education shows that 62.4% of all teachers working in secondary schools in England are female. And this number has been increasing steadily. Overall in the English education system 80.1% of all school staff are female. So encourage more good quality people of black African/ Caribbean backgrounds to enter teaching, especially more Black African/ Caribbean male teachers.

If you have finished reading this super long post thank you, let me know your thoughts underneath in the comments section, or let me know of your experiences in school, as a parent/carer or as a member of staff in school.

Miss Moga

Websites and useful links for further reading:








One comment

  1. Great work miss moga!


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