Vocational courses: Is it because I is black?

Michael Mumisa

1167398 219x300 Vocational courses: Is it because I is black?In March 2002 Professor David Gillborn, a leading authority on critical race studies in Education, warned that the reform of secondary education which introduced vocational programmes for “lower-performing pupils” would only serve to entrench institutional racism within schools. He argued that when teachers define “lower-performing pupils” “they generally underestimate the abilities of black youngsters.” His arguments were dismissed by the Department for Education and Skills which was keen to boost the performance figures of black pupils at GCSE level by any means necessary. No one from Britain’s Black community came to David Gillborn defense apart from Diane Abbott, Labour MP, who described the introduction of the vocational programmes for “lower-performing pupils” as a “silent catastrophe happening in Britain’s schools.”

It seems that David Gillborn has now been vindicated by a recently published report by the government’s senior advisor, Professor Alison Wolf, who described as “immoral” a practice where over the years head teachers have been steering some pupils to do vocational courses and “soft subjects” in order boost their schools’ rankings in the exam league tables. According to the report, hundreds of thousands of pupils are leaving school armed with a string of vocational qualifications and “soft subjects” which offer them no prospect of employment or university education.

Studies over the years have shown that the championing of vocational courses and “soft subjects” in schools have had a worse impact on black pupils than any other group. The best and brightest black pupils are being steered towards “soft subjects” which are placing them at greater disadvantage when applying for admission into Russell Group universities.

In December 2010 the Guardian published David Lammy’s article which levelled allegations  of racial exclusion against Oxbridge colleges after it was reported that “Just one British black Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford” in 2009. David Lammy’s article spawned a series of emotionally charged articles which accused Oxford and Cambridge universities of racism.

However, what the articles did not mention is that in the same year Oxford admitted 23 “black African”, 3 “black other”, 7 “white and black Caribbean” and 7 “white and black African”, plus 35 “other mixed” and 9 “other.” The question that was not asked in any of the articles is why it is that the pool from which black applicants are drawn continue to be small regardless of Oxford and Cambridge’s best efforts to widen participation.  Instead we were made to believe that imaginary racist Oxbridge professors have the time to dissect and differentiate between the different categories of black and minority ethnic students. Are we to believe that a racist cares whether a person is “British black Caribbean”, “black African”, or “black other”? As far as racists are concerned all black people look alike and they are all the same. According to a recent Runnymede Trust report, university participation rates of black Caribbean and British Bangladeshi students are half the rates of Indian and black African students.

For me the “Oxbridge racism” articles expose once again how, as a black community in Britain, we have internalised our own racism by accepting and perpetuating the belief that black students are not capable of doing academic studies and that those who are admitted into UK’s top universities are admitted not on the basis of their ability and qualifications but because they fit a certain profile of an “acceptable” or “magical negro.”  This kind of thinking has sustained and perpetuated deep-rooted forms of anti-intellectualism so prevalent in our black communities where being an intellectual or an academic is perceived as being white and a sellout to one’s “roots.”

Oxbridge professors have always welcomed black students. Alexander Crummell (1819- 1898), son of a former slave, was the first black student to graduate from Cambridge as early as 1853 before ‘diversity’ and the ‘race relations’ industry. Even in that era, Crummell could hardly be described as a “sellout”.  His work as well as that of his protégé W.E.B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963), Harvard’s first black PhD graduate, went on to shape and transform the debate on race in America and beyond. They succeeded in steering the children of slaves from the vocational courses which Booker T. Washington had championed for blacks towards the liberal arts and science as an integral part of the black struggle for racial equality. In a famous essay Du Bois argued that by championing vocational courses for blacks, “Mr. Washington’s program practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.” The vocational courses, he believed, would only lead to “the disfranchisement of the Negro” by depriving them of the intellectual leadership needed to challenge racism.

Since Crummell’s time as a Cambridge student, Oxbridge professors have continued to train and produce black students whose ideas and works on race are shaping our world. For example, Henry Louis Gates (Cambridge), Stuart Hall (Oxford), Kwame Anthony Appiah (Cambridge), Ali Azrui (Oxford), Rob Berkeley (Oxford), and many others.

By scapegoating Oxbridge colleges, articles such as those by Lammy and others only serve to provide cover for a secondary education policy which, if not fixed, will perpetrate what amounts to a systematic ‘intellectual genocide’ which will rob Britain’s black community of its future intellectual leaders.

Michael Mumisa is a PhD candidate and Special Livingstone Scholar, Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge

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  • had_it

    Oh, no, not vocational courses that produce someone ready for a real job.
    We want everyone to take university prep courses so they can get a degree and find upscale employment asking “ya want fries with that?”

  • Demsey Abwe

    This contains an account of a black student’s experience of applying to Oxford and also a link to an article by Rob Berkely, Race Equality campaigner and graduate of Oxford University, mentioned by Michael Mumisa, who does not believe that Oxford University are blameless. There is also comment on the response of Musa Okwonga, who defended Oxford, but went to Eton, so his experience is going to be quite different from most black students applying to, or attending Oxford.

  • FirstAdvisor

    Just out of curiosity, when someone from the UK says, ‘Asian’, do you mean South Asian? Are people from the UK aware that there are many different types of people who could be called, ‘Asian’? That the hemisphere of the planet includes Central Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, Northeast Asian and North Asian? I constantly see articles in the news media about how awful UK schools are. I suppose this weird lack of knowledge about the world outside a little, parochial island is just one example of the consequences of such terrible schools. As far as I know, there are no (zero) people in the world who are called simply, ‘Asian’. That label appears to be exclusively an error of people from the UK. Nobody else on the planet ever makes such a simplistic mistake.

  • pae422

    Read here to catch up on these great musicians.

  • Jaz Vock

    Excellent article. Spot on. Top of the class.

  • iggystickers

    As an Germano-Anglo-Irish, lapsed catholic, ex-bohemian, world citizen, I like to get that out of the way first, so that people know my cultural perspective and the balance it affords.

  • iggystickers

    I remember a book called Pygmalion in the Classroom by Robert Rosenthal on students living up to teacher expectation, both overt and subliminal. This book was published in 1968, I read it in 1974, so I’m surpised that these ideas inform our classroom practice, but have yet to inform our political masters. This is institutional racism.

  • Brrnrrd

    The irony is that Lammy’s article illustrated the kind of boring pseudo-intellectual “proof” that *won’t* get someone onto an Oxbridge course. If he’d presented that in an exam he would have received a low B or C at most, because anyone with half a brain can see that a) he’d narrowed down his point to one tiny ethnic group to make his article seem sensational, and b) the rest of the statistics showed something different. I happen to be at Oxford, and when I read his statement I knew it wasn’t true because I *know* people from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds who were admitted in 2009.

    If we’re going to have this discussion, I’m afraid we’re going to have to have it in terms more constructive than “Oxbridge is racist, Black kids are hard done by.” It’s getting us nowhere, and simply plays in to the “low expectations” problem which plagues our society. You’re hardly helping the issue if every three months or so, someone publishes an article which basically says “Black kids generally not expected to go to Oxbridge because it’s full of racist dons and middle class twats and anyway you probably did soft subjects.” It doesn’t help. And it’s so frustrating because I spend a lot of time in schools teaching poetry and literature, and you can see that the kids are using race and class discourse in a way that only damages themselves; they thing “I am black, therefore I am more likely to come up against these problems” – no-one ever says, “yes, maybe, but actually these problems are not insurmountable, and potential reactions to your skin colour is a stupid reason for not wishing to attend one of the best institutions on the planet.”

    But on the other hand, this discussion is really pointless because we berate people for taking “soft subjects” when actually these people are invaluable. You can’t *be* an investment banker if no farmers, social workers, paramedics, plumbers, mechanics, street cleaners, midwives, bakers, waitresses, chefs and so on exist. And if there is no Oxbridge equivalent in the popular imagination, which caters for non-academic interests, then we should work on creating one – after all, Oxbridge is as much a hysterical media creation as anything else.

  • Yorkie

    How can we possibly have “lower performing pupils” when the Labour party made sure that everybody was equal? Is this another failed policy of the Labour party?

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