Tony Sewell – explaining black boys’ underachievement

Tony Sewell suggested an anti-school culture may be responsible for the underachievement of black boys.

Last Updated on June 12, 2023 by Karl Thompson

In this 1997 study Sewell argues that a culture of hyper-masculinity ascribed to by some (but not all) black boys is one of the main factors explaining the educational underachievement of black boys. This study is an interested counter point to previous studies such as those by Cecile Wright and David Gilborn which emphasised negative teacher labelling as the main explanation for differential achievement by ethnicity.

For an overview of the other in-school factors that explain educational achievement by ethnicity, please see this post.

Dr. Tony Sewell CBE

Street culture and black masculinity

A relatively high proportion of Black Caribbean boys are raised in lone-mother household, with the father being absent. In the late 1990s when Sewell conducted his study, 57% of Black Caribbean families with dependent children were headed by a single parent, compared to only 25% of white families.

This means that many black boys lack a father figure to act as a role model and provide discipline while they are growing up, which makes this group more vulnerable to peer pressure.

Young black men are disproportionately drawn into gang culture which emphasizes an aggressive, macho form of masculinity which emphasizes the use of violence as a means to gain respect, values materialist displays of wealth such as the latest street fashions and crime, rather than ‘hard work’ as a quick and easy (‘smart’) route to financial gain.

Do gang culture and hyper masculinity explain the underachievement of Black Caribbean boys?

According to Sewell, this subculture of black masculinity provides peer support which makes up for their sense of rejection by their absent fathers, and for the sense of racism and injustice they feel from wider society.

Black Masculunities in School

Sewell suggests that this type of black masculinity (what he calls ‘hyper-masculinity) comes into conflict with schools. It leads black boys to rejecting the authority of both the teachers and senior leaders and to them not taking school work seriously as this is seen as effeminate and a bit of a ‘mugs game’ compared to the ease with which you can earn money by committing gang related crime.

Conformists – 41% who rejected hyper-masculinity and saw conforming to school rules and hard work as their route to success

Innovators – 35% who saw education as important but rejected the process of formal schooling as it compromised their identity too much. However, they attempted to stay out of trouble.

Retreatists – 6% of students who kept to themselves, mainly SEN students

Rebels – 18% who rejected the norms and values of school and the importance of education. They saw educational qualifications as having no value because Racism in society would disqualify them from many decent jobs anyway. This is the group which adopted hyper-masculinity and were confrontational and challenging.

Evaluation of Sewell

Sewell has been criticised for blaming black culture for black underachievement, however, he is clear that he is only talking about a minority of boys who adopt hyper-black masculinity.

if you look at the percentages above – only 40% of black boys are conformists, so if we take the other three categories together, there is maybe some evidence here that it’s hyper-masculine identities which are holding black Caribbean boys back.

The study may not apply as much today because fewer Black-Caribbean children are brought up in Lone Parent Households in 2023 compared to when Sewell conducted his research.

One might also criticise Sewell for stereotyping black culture. There really isn’t just one type of black culture, and it’s unlikely that an anti-school street culture was ever that strong among black boys, and less so today than 20 years ago.

I also wonder whether or not Sewell’s work really gets to the root of the problem – Class inequality! Summer schools for black boys funded by charities cannot compete with the advantages the upper middle classes give to their children by sending them to £16000/ year prep. Schools such as Sunningdale. Also, Even if you provide fair and equal opportunities for black boys surely Racism in wider society will still disadvantage them as a group compared to white boys?

NB despite the limitations of Sewell’s analysis the government awarded him a CBE and made him the Chair of the Commission on RacE and Ethnic Disparities. Although some may argue this is just because the government doesn’t take the issue of race discrimination in the U.K. seriously, hence their choice to pick someone who basically blames Black boys and their absent fathers for their own failure.

Sewell’s Solution to the underachievement of Black Boys

Sewell’s argues that the solution to black boys underachievement is to provide them with strict schooling that demands high expectations and, as far as is possible, provide them with positive opportunities that middle class students get through their social and cultural capital that middle class students ; effectively he says that if we do this, then this should make up for the disadvantageous they underachieving boys face. Importantly, Sewell, does not seem to accept that disadvantage is an excuse for failure.

Sewell runs the ‘generating genius’ programme – aimed at improving the educational opportunities of disadvantaged students –

Details of Sewell’s  Experiment –  ‘Generating Genius Programme  -how to raise black boys’ achievement
The aim of generating genius was to get 25 black boys, all from failing schools, interested in science and engineering. Starting in 2006, at age 12-13, these boys spent three or more weeks of their summer vacation working alongside scientists at some of Britain’s top universities, such as Imperial College. Sewell claims that these boys got amazing GCSE results, and now that the first wave have had their university acceptances, at least 3 have made it into Oxford and Cambridge.

Sewell argued that Generating Genius worked because it established the right ethos and high expectations – which effectively combated the disadvantages that his students black boys faced – They also created a ‘science crew’ or a learning crew’ – imitating gang mentality (relevant for boys!) and exposing these children to universities at an early age – made them think ‘university is for me!’ and provided the contacts necessary to get them into those unis.

Limitations to Generating Genius

There are lots of limitations to this’ experiment’ – just a few include –

  1. Lacks representativeness – very small sample of ten boys!
  2. Lack of control of variables means we don’t actually know why the boys improved so much – was it due to the contacts, or did they try harder because this was a unique project and thus they felt ‘very special’? (a problem of reliability)
  3. Ignores white working class underachievement (worse than A-C working class!)

This material is primarily relevant to the education option, usually taught as part of the first year in A-level Sociology.


Sewell, T (1997) Black Masculinities and Schooling: How Black Boys Survive Modern Schooling

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

4 thoughts on “Tony Sewell – explaining black boys’ underachievement”

  1. You know, you might as well join the BNP if you keep insisting that there is such thing as ‘black culture’ because it’s a little strange to believe that someone’s skin colour is the reason why they have certain values and norms. Only racists link culture and race together, so these progressives idiots who think they know what’s best for the poor whittle brownies are the ones making everything hard for them by believing that education should lower its standards because they may not be able to keep up. Follow the Mikayla school model and stop your RACIST belief that educational standards should be lowed for ANY RACE or that education itself is racist because certain groups can’t handle some of the work they have to do. I’m sure in the past a lot of schools were racist, but what major study recently has uncovered actual racism in the schools, and not this ‘unconscious racism’ nonsense that you can accuse anyone of if they look at you the wrong way. These PROGRESSIVES are what is wrong with the education and you are making things WORST for minorities by assuming they need ‘good old whitey’ to save them. Treat minorities like you would whites and encourage them to fix some issues concerning family structure and the cultures some may adopt as those factors are much more likely to affect educational attainment rather than the ‘institutional racism’ boogeyman which thinks the way black girls and boys will gain higher educational attainment is if you add Stormzy to GCSE music or something. I’m so sick of all of these lefty RACIST ideology infecting all institutions included the important ones like education.

  2. Hi Karl, if you visit the generating genius’ website you will see that girls are included. Previous to the GG Initiative Tony ran a programme which involved taking black boys to the University of Kingston in Jamaica so that they could experience a black learning environment and academic role models first hand. Tony claimed that the main reason black boys underachieved in British schools was the lack of both this environment and role models.


    Steve Chapman

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