WITH EVERYONE joining hands and singing the Ben E King classic Stand by Me you could be forgiven for thinking you had walked into the wrong lecture hall at the University of Birmingham while looking for the conference on British Schools & the Black Child.
But look a bit closer and you would see Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, singing along too at the tenth annual conference of her London Schools and the Black Child (LSBC) initiative – the first to be held outside London.
Despite the upbeat atmosphere, with some of Britain’s most inspirational black educators giving stirring speeches, no-one forgot that the conference’s origins are rooted in how and why the UK’s education system fails black children.
Abbott, who thanked the NASUWT, the UK’s largest teaching union for supporting the event, said she intended to launch a black education think tank into what she called “one of the biggest betrayals” of the African and Caribbean communities.
“The colour blind approach by this Government towards education means that the challenges of our community go ignored,” she said at the Centre for Research on Race in Education (CRRE) at the University of Birmingham, where 700 people had registered to attend the event.
“The time for bawling has long gone – it’s now a question of creating practical strategies to move forward.”
Jamaican-born Dr Avis Glaze, one of Canada’s most outstanding educators, who flew in from Canada specially for the conference, said black children were in crisis with many black boys “becoming an endangered species.”
Dr Glaze, who had the lecture hall on its feet singing Stand By Me, said: “Education is the ultimate tool of empowerment. Teaching is not for people who are lazy. It is not for people who aren’t willing to go that extra mile. Teaching is for people who are going to be interested in every child regardless of their background.”
And she won applause for saying she didn’t blame parents for anything, adding: “If they knew what to do, they would do it. We have to work with them and assist them. Parents are sending us the best kids they have. They are not keeping the better ones at home.”
While Rosemary Campbell-Stephens, a freelance consultant and visiting fellow from the University of London’s Institute of Education, said the communities who thrived had a high level of race consciousness.
MEETING: Maggie Aderin-Pocock with her daughter
“We need to be absolutely clear about who we are. Our children have to know themselves,” she said.
She won a standing ovation for warning people not to delude themselves that they are living in a post racial age: “I feel that white supremacy every day,” she said.
And she hit out at the UK’s history curriculum “reducing us to slaves,” saying: “I want a UK history that tells the truth about the real reasons for the First World War was the fight over re-dividing Africa.
“The foundations of the industrial revolution were built on enslaving the African people,” she said.
Dr Paul Warmington, the CRRE’s deputy director, echoed the dangers of believing that racism is dead as “a silly and immature claim.”
He said many still viewed the black community “as victims or problems” rather than people who have shaped the education system of this country.
“There is still the idea that white people do all the thinking – black people should just go away and dance,” he said. “In the 1970s they wanted us to go away. Now they just want us to shut up – and that includes people like Doreen Lawrence.”
Space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who also works as a TV presenter and co-hosts The Sky at Night, emphasised the power of dreams and “desiring to aspire.” She explained what it was like as a black female working in the “pale, male and stale” world of science.
“We tend to mollycoddle our kids, telling them not to aim too high in case they fall. They should aim for the stars because space has no boundaries,” she said.
During the conference’s afternoon session a live link to Jamaica was set up with Elaine Foster Allen, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education. She stressed the importance of inspiring youngsters about what it means to be a Caribbean person and “a Jamaican somebody.”
While Wade Lyn, Honorary Consul for Jamaica in Birmingham and founder of the award winning pattie firm Cleone Foods Ltd, said education was often taken for granted in the UK.
He said he found it humbling in Jamaica to see young children walking to school so early in the morning.
“In Jamaica they understand the value of education. They know it’s a way out of poverty,” he said.
The all-day conference also included workshops on black girls’ experiences of education, while two head teachers shared their story of “recreating the village.” Other sessions focused on exclusions, and developing young leaders in further and higher education.