Tony Sewell – explaining black boys’ underachievement

A few details of Sewell’s explanations for the relative underachievement of British Caribbean boys

Against people like David Gilborn, he argues that it’s ¨not  teacher Racism! He says there are ¨Multiple causes – Mainly out of school –

  • Lack of legitimate opportunities to get a good education!
  • Poverty
  • High proportion of single mother households
  • Cultural Deprivation –
  • Anti-school peer group pressure – gang culture
  • Poor schools – ethos of low expectation
  • Low teacher expectation (rather than racism) – linked to their knowledge about what’s going on outside of school ¨
  • All of this results in lack of self belief – an ‘Oxford’s not for me ‘attitude!

Sewell also says that black boys suffer from a  lack of social capital (contacts) He also, says, NB – it’s about class and gender as much as race!

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?

Related Posts – The Role of Cultural Factors in Explaining Differential Achievement by Ethnicity

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