Tony Sewell – explaining black boys’ underachievement

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 emphasized negative teacher labeling 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.

Street culture and black masculinity

An extremely 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.

Rebels?

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.

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.

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!)
  4. Girls also excluded

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?

Sources

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

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

Assess the claim that ‘ethnic difference in educational achievement are primarily the result of school factors’ (30)

An essay on ethnicity and education written for the A Level Sociology paper 1 exam, AQA focus. 

Assess the claim that ‘ethnic difference in educational achievement are primarily the result of school factors’ (30)

There are significant differences in educational achievement by ethnicity. Around 80% of Chinese children achieve 5 or more GCSE grades at A*- C compared to only 55% of Caribbean and about 15% of Gypsy Roma children. The national average is around 65%.

The idea that in-school processes are the main reason for these differences is associated with Interactionism which focuses on processes such as teacher labelling, Institutional racism and pupil subcultures. I will explore how these in-school factors affect pupils differently while evaluating using cultural deprivation and cultural capital theory.

Two classic studies in Sociology found that teacher labelling based on ethnic stereotypes did occur in British schools 25 years ago.

Cecile Wright (1992) Found that teachers perceived ethnic minority children differently from white children.  Asian children were seen as a problem that could be ignored, receiving the least attention and often being excluded from classroom discussion and rarely asked to answer questions. African Caribbean children were expected to behave badly, were seen as aggressive and disruptive, and were more likely to be disciplined for bad behaviour than children from other backgrounds.

David Gilborn (1990) found that teachers tended to see African-Caribbean children as a threat when no threat was intended and reacted accordingly with measures of control. Despite the fact that teachers rejected racism their ethnocentric perceptions meant that their actions were racist in consequence. African-Caribbean children experienced more conflict in relationships with pupils, were more subjected to the schools detention system.

The main problem with both of these studies are based on small scale samples and they are very dated, and they tell us nothing about whether ethnic stereotyping exists today. If anything, teacher bias is less likely given the greater emphasis put on multi-cultural education and the increased awareness of diversity.

Having said this, the rates of African-Caribbean pupils are still 3-4 times higher than the national average, which could be a result of the biases found by Wright and Gilborn, but given lack of recent research, we simply don’t know whether African-Caribbean children are objectively more deviant, or whether they are just perceived to be so by racist teachers.

A further problem with the above is that if teachers are just ignoring Asian pupils, and letting them get on with it, then they can’t really be having much of an impact on their education – and thus it must be home factors which explain why many Asian (Indian and Chinese) students today do better than the white majority.

A second reason for ethnic differences in achievement may be Institutional Racism which is where discrimination against minority groups is built into the organisation of the school – this can happen in various ways: through the ethnocentric curriculum, through banding and streaming and through the hiring of fewer minority teachers.

The ethnocentric curriculum is one which reflects the culture of one dominant group – for example the white majority culture in Britain. The curriculum can be described as Ethnocentric – for example students have to study British history from the European point of view, use out of date textbooks that racially stereotype and some subjects having a narrow, white British focus.

Banding and Streaming has been found to disadvantage both the working classes and some minority groups. Gilborn and Youdell (2007) point out that Black Caribbean children are overrepresented in the lower sets  and talk of how those in the lower sets get ‘written off’ because they have no hope of achieving A-Cs.

Crozier (2004) examined the experiences of racism among Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils and found that the experience of racism from both the school system and other pupils led to a feeling of exclusion.  The researchers discovered that Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils had experienced the following – anxieties about their safety; racist abuse was a lived experience of their schooling; careers advisors at school believed South Asian girls were bound by tradition and it was a waste of time advising them; Not being allowed off during Ramadan; feeling that assemblies were not relevant.

The problem with the idea of the ethnocentric curriculum is that it cannot explain why so many ethnic groups do better than white children. It may be the case the Pakistani and Bangladeshi children feel marginalised by it, but they have caught up with white children in recent years and so achieve well in spite of ethnocentricity in education.

Moreover, schools in recent years have made huge efforts to be more multicultural – with RE and PSHE lessons and event such as ‘black history month’ doing a lot to raise awareness of diversity, so this has changed significantly.

However, some recent statistics do suggest that institutional racism is rife – black applicants are half as likely to be accepted onto teacher training programmes compared to white applicants (around 20% compared to 40% success rate) – the end result of this was that in 2013, in the whole of the UK only three black people were accepted as trainee-history teachers. Professor Heidi Mirza, herself of African Caribbean origin, says there is evidence of discrimination within our education system today.

Another in-school factor is pupil subcultures – as with teacher racism a number of classic studies from 20 years ago have focused mainly on black subcultures:

Tony Sewell (1997) observed that Black Caribbean boys may experience considerable pressure by their peers to adopt the norms of an ‘urban’ or ‘street’ subculture. More importance is given to unruly behaviour with teachers and antagonistic behaviour with other students than to high achievement or effort to succeed, particularly at secondary school. Fordham and Ogbu (1986) further argue that notions of ‘acting White’ or ‘acting Black’ become identified in opposition to one another. Hence because acting White includes doing well at school, acting Black necessarily implies not doing well in school.

Mac an Ghail (1998) looked at three subcultures – the Asian Warriors, the African- Caribbean Rasta Heads and the Black Sisters. He used mainly participant observation both in the school and through befriending the students and socializing with them outside of the school. What he found was that the African Caribbean community experienced the world in very different ways to white people – namely because of institutional racism in the college and he argued that any anti-school attitudes were reactions against this racism.

As with the research on teacher labelling, the research on the relationship between pupil subcultures and educational achievement is somewhat thin today. If anything, today subcultures are probably less important, as there seems to be less resistance to the school today than in previous years.

Most sociologists seem to agree that home background is more important than in-school factors in explaining differences in achievement by ethnicity: As with class and gender, schools only account for s10% of the differences in achievement (according to a recent Analysis podcast), home-factors are much more important. Pupils only spend a minority of their time in-school after all!

Tony Sewell, for example, focuses on the higher rates of single parent households and the influence of gangsta culture on young black boys, which is far more significant than anything which goes on in-school.

Also, where the excellent achievement on Chinese children is concerned, it seems to be the ‘tiger parenting’ style which advantages these pupils compared to others.

Most of the research on in-school factors focuses on African-Caribbean underachievement, which is a narrow focus, there are other differences too – Gypsy Roma for example, and given that the main reason for their underachievement is the low attendance rate, again school is not a significant factor here.

However, in-school factors may play a role in explaining the biggest problem with underachievement today – that of white working class children, who themselves feel excluded from the culture of the school because they feel school does not reflect their culture, but this is more of a matter of social class (and gender) rather than ethnicity.

In conclusion, I would say that in-school factors explain very little of the differences in achievement by ethnicity, most of the difference is accounted for by home factors and schools cannot be expected and should not be expected to close the gap, moreover, I believe that focusing on issues of race within education are a red-herring, the issue of class and differential achievement is far more important, irrespective of ethnic background, and here, as with ethnicity, much of the differences in achievement are down to differences in home background, not differential achievement within schools.