Why do Afro-Caribbean pupils underachieve in education?

Data scientist Jonny Brooks-Bartlett gives his views as part of Black Mathematician Month.


Graduating from my DPhil at Oxford, July 2017.

This post is part of Black Mathematician Month 2017. On 30 October, we are hosting an event to celebrate Black Mathematician Month. You can book free tickets to this event here.

If you compare my achievements to those of other men of Afro-Caribbean descent, you’ll find that I buck the trend. I have two degrees, a masters degree in mathematics and a DPhil in Systems Biology (it’s essentially what they call a PhD at the University of Oxford). I’m also now a data scientist, so my day job involves writing artificial intelligence algorithms to solve business problems. In the eyes of many they would say that this constitutes success. I’m told that I’m also a role model and that many people would love to be in my position. So I guess that means that I am successful and, regardless of how I feel, it also makes me a role model too. However, this is all the more significant not only because of my academic achievements, and not only because I have the “sexiest job of the 21st century“, but simply because I’m of Afro-Caribbean descent.

Admittedly, it’s taken a very long time for me to come to this realisation. This is because in the circles that I’ve been a part of growing up, it’s not uncommon for people to attain similar levels of achievement. In my mind I’m only 28 years old and am in my first job since finishing my academic career. I know that there’s so much more for me to learn and develop, both personally and professionally. Of course, this is not necessarily the case for the majority of Afro-Caribbean people. Most of my friends are white and the more milestones that I achieve, the more white people I encounter on a daily basis. I never understood this to be a problem growing up because it’s all I ever knew. I thought that the level of attainment of a pupil was only determined by how hard that individual worked. This meant that I assumed that the significant difference in academic achievement between pupils of different ethnic backgrounds was simply because pupils of certain backgrounds didn’t work hard enough. It’s a coincidence! After all, if I could do it, why can’t other Afro-Caribbean kids?

Jonny Brooks-Bartlett, dressed in the DPhil graduation robes of Oxford University

My DPhil graduation in Oxford, July 2017. Image: authors, by permission.

The numbers paint a bleak picture of the differences of attainment between various ethnic minority groups. This Statistical First Release report published in January 2017 shows that black or black British Caribbean pupils perform worse at Key Stage 4 than pupils from all other ethnic backgrounds apart from Gypsy/Gypsy Roma pupils. This isn’t just a problem in the UK. This report published in PLOS One in 2015 showed that the situation is similar in the US; black pupils are outperformed by their white counterparts in education.

So what is the problem?

In all honesty, I can’t claim to definitively know what the problem is, nor can I claim that any solution which I propose will work. My opinion is no more valid than the next person’s (unless that person is an expert in the matter). After all, I am what many people would call an outlier, given that I have achieved more than many other pupils in education, regardless of ethnic background.

A party at my grandmothers house, circa 2002. Image: authors, by permission.

With that said, I do believe that much of the problem is caused by the black Caribbean community not being aware of and (unintentionally) disregarding the opportunities that are available. To illustrate this point, my grandmother and many others in her generation always reiterated that we should aspire to be teachers, doctors or lawyers. These professions are very respectable and definitely good career aspirations to have (at least from an outsider’s perspective). But this is an incredibly narrow set of career options. There are so many more avenues for people to aspire to. What choices do you have if you grow up not wanting to do anything remotely similar to those professions and not knowing what other options are available?

On it’s own, that reason doesn’t sound like it can cause generations of black Caribbean pupils to underachieve, but it’s the consequences of this that really have a detrimental effect. If you weren’t good at any subject that enabled you to achieve those careers, then you were failing. Doing bad at school meant negative reinforcements in the form of punishment, and Afro-Caribbean punishments were a hell of a lot worse than a “slap on the wrist”. This then leads to a spiral of underachievement in the black community. These young men who no longer live up to the expectations of their family decide to seek reassurance from elsewhere. This often means hanging around the streets with friends because they’ll accept you, regardless of whether the activities you partake in with them are positive or not. If Afro-Caribbean families were aware of the broader opportunities, understood them to also be respectable and supported the younger generation to follow any of these different paths, it would largely alleviate the problem of underachievement in the community. I believe we drastically underestimate the impact of positive reinforcement in early development of individuals.

I do believe that there are other factors at play here. For example, socio-economic status is another important indicator for educational success amongst other things (check out this mini report by the American Psychological Association). So this issue is more complex than just not understanding the opportunities that are available and a lack of the correct positive reinforcement. But the common theme here (and my belief) is that the lack of academic achievement, particularly in the black community, comes from factors within the community more than it has to do with schooling. This isn’t necessarily intentional. I’m sure that the majority of family and friends want the best for the children in the community, but sadly the community doesn’t always cultivate the right conditions to thrive academically.

So, how did I manage to succeed?

I was very lucky. From a young age I excelled at maths. This meant that I was good at a subject that my family correlated with achieving the desired career paths. Consequently, I was supported and encouraged to continue doing something that I was good at. By the time I was in secondary school I had associated myself with friends that were also academically talented and we pushed each other to do better.

5 teenage boys in school uniform pose together in a group

At school in year 11. These are still some of my best friends today. Image: authors, by permission.

It’s important to note that it was also at secondary school where I encountered many black Caribbean pupils with a negative attitude towards education. I was called “Oreo”, “Coconut”, “Bounty” and any other variation of names/objects that implied that my actions and successes were due to me being ‘white on the inside’. So to do well in school was seen to be a bad thing (yes, it wasn’t cool for other people to call a black kid “white”, shock horror!). But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from doing the best that I could in exams. I was strong enough to brush those comments off. Despite the fact that to many people, it may sound like this is more of a barrier for black pupils attaining high grades, I believe that the correct mindset to do well academically is cultivated at a younger age at home. Therefore the chance to reach your full academic potential is more about receiving the right support from the parents and within the community, than it is from your peers once you reach your teenage years.

How do we fix this?

Now, this is much harder. It’s easy for people to list the problems, but a much smaller proportion of people have the answers.

Firstly, there are signs that minority students are performing better at school now than they did before. I think that some of this is due to new generations of minority families embedding themselves more into British culture and appreciating the varied opportunities that are available. This means that ethnic minority pupils will hopefully continually improve their attainment levels simply by being born and growing up in Britain.

A VTech laptop kept me engaged with maths at a young age. Image: Wikimedia commons user Emilio Rodriguez Posada, CC BY-SA 2.5 ES

The most important thing that we can do as a community to improve the level of attainment in education for the Afro-Caribbean community is positively reinforce the younger generation to focus on what they enjoy. This starts in the home, with parents providing positive support for their children from a young age. I remember my mum bought me a V-Tech toy laptop when I was young which I could use to play games like Hangman and Remember the Numbers, along with timed mental arithmetic tests (it’s not like any of the technology available to the kids these days!) She encouraged me to do well when I played those games. She also helped me and my sister revise for exams (consequently, my sister also has a PhD). I really do believe that my success is mostly down to the active role that my mum took in positively reinforcing the importance of education and supporting me through my schooling. My mum understood the breadth and the importance of the opportunities available to me and therefore encouraged me to reach my potential so I could be successful. So my mum is a role model.

Growing up as an Afro-Caribbean person in Britain can be tough. In addition to the racial prejudice that Afro-Caribbean people will face, the research suggests that they will also end up being less successful than their counterparts. To buck this trend, individuals will have to be resilient and determined. However, individuals alone cannot guarantee their success. Much of that is down to the support of the community and this is why we are all responsible for ensuring that the future of the Afro-Caribbean community is bright and full of opportunities that previous generations could only dream of.

Jonny Brooks-Bartlett currently works as a Data scientist at News UK, where he applies natural language processing and other machine learning techniques to improve the efficiency of producing content for the newsroom. He has a first class master of mathematics degree from the University of Southampton and a DPhil in mathematical crystallography from the University of Oxford.

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