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Tackling inequality among black school pupils

Lewisham Council and Lewisham Learning plan took a new approach to education to investigate why Black students were underachieving. Following the findings a number of pledges were created, including a commitment to increase black representation among the school leadership team and governors, reducing exclusions for black pupils and targeting ambitious outcomes for black pupils.  This case study forms part of the health inequalities hub.

Poorer educational outcomes are a key driver of health inequalities. Nationally certain Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups underachieve at school and one of the groups most affected are those from a Black Caribbean heritage.  

This is a big concern in the London borough of Lewisham where two thirds of the school population are from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background with a quarter from a Black Caribbean heritage. 

So the Council and Lewisham Learning, which represents school leaders, have been working together to change the way the education system approaches race. 

Long history of championing young people 

Lewisham has a long track history of working with young people to address inequalities. It became one of the first councils to appoint a young mayor when the post was created in 2004 and now, nearly two decades on, on the mayor and their team of young advisers play an influential role in the borough, holding an annual budget of £25,000 to champion what is important to young people. 

There has been a range of other programmes too from youth projects to apprenticeships schemes. The Major’s Apprenticeship Programme, which works with a range of organisations from the local college and housing providers to the private sector, ensures the majority of those that are taken on are from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds to ensure the intake reflects wider society. 

Meanwhile, Youth First, Lewisham’s youth services, works with over 6,000 young people. They run a number of projects, including street outreach work and the Woodpecker Carnival Project, a three-year scheme aimed at engaging those young people at risk of involvement in crime through a range of creative workshops involving everything from dance and music to gymnastics. 

A new approach to education 

But in the summer of 2020 the council and Lewisham Learning decided to do some more targeted work with schools. A steering group composed of headteachers, governors and council representatives was established to coordinate the work. 

It came after a report by Lewisham Learning concluded that Black students, particularly Black Caribbean students, were underachieving. It found that primary school children between seven and 11 and secondary school pupils aged 14 to 16 had fallen behind the most. The report showed parents also wanted to see better communication from the school and felt the curriculum did not represent the local community. 

Following the findings, a pledge was created and all schools – both primary and secondary – have signed up. It includes a commitment to increase black representation among the school leadership team and governors, reducing exclusions for black pupils and targeting ambitious outcomes for black pupils. 

Lewisham Council and Lewisham Learning plan on actively supporting this work over the next years. A budget of £100,000, funded by the council and schools, has already been set aside for the work.  

It has since led to a series of race and education workshops in schools, unconscious bias training for governors and a decolonisation of the curriculum. 

Another project that is already in the process of getting under way, separate to the direct work in schools, is the creation of a network of youth champions. These will be drawn from across the community to champion the issues young people feel strongly about, such as education and mental health. It builds on the success of the COVID Community Champions, who have been promoting good infection prevention messages during the pandemic. 

Lewisham Director of Public Health Dr Catherine Mbema said:

There is history of systematic inequalities in the education system – and the pandemic is only likely to have widened those. This has an impact on their future, particularly young men of Black Caribbean heritage.

“We cannot ignore inequalities in education because we want all young people to achieve their potential. Through the work we are doing in schools and the youth champions we believe we can make a difference.”  

Ground-breaking partnership with Birmingham 

Moving forward, Lewisham wants to build on the work that is being done through a partnership with Birmingham City Council, which started late last year.  

The Birmingham and Lewisham African and Caribbean Health Inequalities Review (BLACHAIR) has seen the two local authorities start working together to explore health inequalities. There is an academic advisory board and an external advisory body, made up of community representatives, from school teachers to faith leaders. 

Over a period of 18 months, they will work to review the scientific data and gather evidence of the lived experience of the Black African and Black Caribbean communities in Lewisham and Birmingham in terms of health inequalities. 

Children and young people is one of the core seven themes along with others including the early years, pregnancy and parenthood, ageing well, mental health and chronic disease. The plan is to produce a report in the spring to map out what else should be done.  

Dr Mbema added: “This is a really exciting opportunity to work with an area that has similar demographics. By working together, we can hopefully help find new ways to address the inequalities we are so concerned about.”