Notes on:  Gillborn, D & Vieler-Porter, C. (2010) "Tony Sewell's Views on Education are Dangerous and Lack Evidence". In A. Vakil (Ed.) Beyond race and Multiculturalism? The Muslim Council of Britain.

Dave Harris

Sewell's view is that Black attainment is 'nothing to do with situational racism and simply a reflection of "poor parenting, peer pressure and an inability to be responsible for the behaviour"' [citing the Prospect essay]. There is no 'significant evidential basis' however only 'a profound threat to efforts to move towards social justice' because the right wing press have taken this serious analysis. It is contradicted by the latest national data showing Black Caribbean students were least likely to achieve five or higher GCSE passes, except Traveller and Gypsy Roma students. Sewell's views are a deficit view which limits possibilities and disguises how the system itself plays an assumed role especially 'leadership negligence, negative teacher attitudes and actions; the curriculum; testing regimes; and inappropriately applied disciplinary sanctions' [no page numbers] Evidence is essential and it contradicts Sewell: 'the facts are clear'.

Some press headlines relating to Sewell's work are then cited in the Mail, Telegraph and Star. The Prospect article also featured in the press. That argues that children were undermined by poor parenting, peer group pressure and were not the subjects of institutional racism and so. The Conservative press rejoiced in this analysis especially because Sewell was Black and he was hailed as a brave man. However the essay 'contains no new research; with the exception of a personal story (about a visit to an inner-city primary school)'. He asserted views he has been offering for years in various press articles, criticising the research on institutional racism as dishonest or irresponsible.

Evidence is 'entirely irrelevant to Sewell's popularity with the press'. It reassures White people that inequality is not their fault there is no need to change. Derrick Bell described this as conforming to unwritten rules that affect people's views on racism according to their own racial identity – Black people describing racism are guilty of special pleading and they cannot be impartial, while Black people who disparage or criticise other Blacks were given enhanced standing. He said that the effect of statements must be taken into account.

Sewell's essay [Prospect] ignores research evidence, like that on teacher expectations which he dismisses on the grounds that times have changed. The authors want to re-establish some of the findings. Sewell claimed that Black boys started school at the same level but went still further and further behind as they progressed, but this was true in 2000, but not in the intervening decade, mostly because teachers know do far more grading students 'according to the subjective assessment… White students consistently emerge as the highest performance' [the reference is to Gillborn 2010, an article in Irish education studies 29 3]. This confirms other research that White teachers underestimate the ability of Black students and overestimate their 'challenge and threat' [the evidence here is Gillborn 2008 book] The new assessment system made Black students into underachievers 'overnight… A classic prima facie case of institutional racism' which has never been formally investigated.

Black pupils and parents do not accept they are victims instead of pursuing struggle and resilience. They often have educational aspirations higher than those White children of the same 'gender and ethnic [?] background'. Those ethnic minorities from high SES homes do more homework than their White British peers and have high self concepts and aspirations, '"but their progress did not reflect this"' (referring to Strand 2008, one of the LSYP studies]

This shows that attainments are 'significantly shaped by the actions of the White people… Well-intentioned professionals… Who (regardless of their professed views)… Tend to view Black students as more likely to cause trouble than excel academically', 'powerful stereotypes' which are 'given institutional force every time teachers grade, discipline, and select students for different treatment'.

Teacher expectations are often unclear, but teachers are responsible for 'continually upgrading and selecting students, and their decision so very real consequences'. They sometimes rank order primary school students on different tables which cover different parts of the curriculum. There is setting by ability, and tiering. Research 'consistently shows that Black students are overrepresented in the lowest ranked groups'[lots of references here, lots of his but stacks of others — summarised in his 2008 book apparently]

There is also potentially racist selection of leaders, senior staff level – only 1 or 2% of appointments between 2002 and 2009, possibly even a downward trend overall. Those holding NPQH were less successful. Policy tends to see the attainment gap 'as an issue for Black and minority ethnic people' rather than as a debt, a matter of disparities.

Going back to Sewell, even a Telegraph correspondent predicted that his articles might comfort White racists, and went on to criticise the race relations industry. Sewell's essay provided the evidence needed to strengthen the coalition keen to pronounce the death of racism and to blame anti-racists, a tendency which has led to the public disappearance of discussion of race in the US – 'race inequality is being "privatised"'. Sewell's intervention 'is part of this same process', using Conservative Black voices, demonising minority communities and providing material for the media 'that is overwhelmingly on the side of White power holders '