I was on the cusp of completing my A-levels when, almost as if to apologise for the un-anaesthetised trauma of UCAS applications and the alarming prospect of forthcoming two-and-a-half-hour exams, I was presented with an African Caribbean Achievement Award. I hadn’t the faintest idea as to what I was being awarded for (something to do with school, I assumed), but I was thrilled nonetheless to be given this strange accolade. After all, somewhere out there, some almighty council of stern-faced educators had plucked me, specifically me, from a legion of bright, young students across my hometown. I had stood out to them, for whatever reason, and I bloody loved it.
It’s only now, in retrospect, that I can see past the smoke and mirrors of the awards ceremony and realise how sad it all really sounds. The clue is in the name: ‘African Caribbean’. In other words, it wasn’t that I had done exceptionally well compared to everyone else at school; it was that I had done exceptionally well, given the colour of my skin. Out of the kind of cynicism you only get by working in state education for so long, the school administrators had decided to give a bunch of other Afro-Caribbean children and me one massive metaphorical pat on the shoulder for ‘beating the odds’, meanwhile consigning the rest of my peers to a drug-addled life of guns, knives and gang culture.
I later learned that this handpicking of smart ‘poor, little non-white kids’ and sectioning them off from other people their age is considered to be a form of positive discrimination. It’s neatly drawing a line in the dirt and telling the people on one side that they were better than the guys on the opposite side, even if they weren’t.
But I guess the statistics have not been working in our favour. According to a report by the Department for Education, black pupils are still significantly underperforming at school, with only 48.9 % of us getting 5 or more A*-C grades in 2009/2010 compared to the national level of 54.8 %. At university, I’d known that I was a minority for quite a while, but the figures look even more extreme than I had expected. From the 2,087,615 Britons that had entered into higher education in the academic year 2009-2010, only 5.7% were black. In fact, according to our own institution’s statistics, only 3% of students at the University of Nottingham are black, which is a modest improvement upon 2002/2003, when it was a meagre 1%.
Statistics like these end up filling newspaper column inches and then, bizarrely enough, are blamed entirely on the universities. The likes of Oxford and Cambridge are constantly being accused of ‘failing’ to accept a certain quota of Asian and black students onto their courses, as if during the actual selection process, some Nazi-sympathising admissions officer carefully picks out all of the applications with foreign-sounding names and puts them aside to be shredded later to the tune of loud, villainous laughter.
It shouldn’t just be up to universities to admit more students from ethnic minorities onto their courses. Something needs to be done about the disillusionment with education that persists in many black and Asian communities. Handing out awards to high achievers of ethnic minorities is all well and good for their confidence, but it’s bound to leave the other students (from whatever ethnicity) feeling excluded. A better way to go about it is to tackle the issue from its grass roots, by letting young children explore their own gifts and talents, even if they don’t rigidly fit into the academic curriculum.
Take me for example. I’d barely broken out of the Lego-chewing phase of my childhood when I started to devise all kinds of wacky careers for myself. I went from a sandcastle interior designer, to a bohemian Art History professor, to a Palaeontologist. But no matter how off-beat my plans for the future were, my parents kept encouraging me because they genuinely believed that I was good at something. When I eventually decided to read a degree in Genetics I was met with unwavering support from my family. It’s that support that got me where I am today, regardless of any challenges I might have been facing because of my ethnicity. I don’t know about you, but I’d take that over some silly, laminated piece of paper any day.