Notes on: Robinson, T. Narratives of High – Attaining African Caribbean Boys: Perceptions of Peer and Family Influences in Education Educational Psychology Research and Practice
Volume 6, Issue 1, 2020.

Dave Harris

There are few studies that focus on this group's achievements. The usual factors are racial identity and masculinity. This one looks at seven high-attaining African Caribbean boys aged 14 to 15 in terms of how they perceive peer influences. There were given two narrative interviews, using 'Gee's structural linguistic narrative approach' which also, apparently helps you identify the role of the interviewer in constructions narrative. Overall, the findings suggest that peers have some influence although family influence is stronger. Positive aspects of peer relationships include being 'emotionally and practically supportive and helping boys' motivation to study'. They used 'multiple and complex strategies to manage their relationships' including 'strategic self presentation' they also drew on 'family racialised narratives' (1).

There is a review of literature emphasising peer influence, dating from Coard 1971. The group does seem to be showing gains in educational achievement especially between KS 3 and 4, although categories of achievement can influence this [with a reference to Gillborn]. Institutional racism and teacher perceptions have also been implicated. The Aiming High report (2003) focused an overrepresentation in exclusion rates and special schools and vulnerability to crime. A DfES review in 2006 'supported the view that racial inequalities exist in education and that Caribbean boys find "street culture" and anti-academic lifestyles persuasive'. The educational context seems important. By contrast, Black Caribbean success is under researched and there are few studies. There seem to be a theme of managing peer group pressures (in Sewell, T. (2001). Behaviour, race and inclusion. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 6(3), 167–185. https:
//, so how do some achieve at all?

Socialising with peers and maintaining friendships is time-consuming and important for development. Schools offer a matrix of social networks and flexibility. There is some documentation of peer effects in academic outcomes [referenced page2] as well as health-related behaviour and risk-taking, and psychopathology. Peer rejection can lead to internalising problems. Individuals can be oriented towards either mastery or performance, learning of a task or competition to demonstrate competence. There should also be a connection between self and environment, competence and control in order to increase motivation for this therefore means social appraisal, favourable comparisons, and this is where peers 'can be instrumental'.

The 'dominant discourse' is that adolescent peers 'have negative effects on academic achievement' but they can have positive influences and can influence how pupils feel about school and even affect their attention and participation [referencing Cotterell 2007]. Attitudes can also vary with social group membership. The usual finding is that 'peers have a strong force that can affect individuals' aspirations attitudes and behaviour', and Sewell in particular 'implicates peers as an important influence [Sewell, T. (2000). Beyond institutional racism: Tackling the real problems of Black underachievement. Multicultural Teaching, 18(2), 27–33.]. There is however some research that suggests positive influences. However, the need to be 'respected, to be popular, uphold preferred reputations in line with "cool" peers' can overwhelm expectations for behaviour and achievement, which leads to a dilemma. Sometimes this produces 'affective dissonance' by high-achieving Black students which can even 'sabotage their own success' especially anxieties 'around masculinity and racial identity'.

Performances of masculinity are often seen to be 'constructied in social interactions', leading to positioning in relation to '"hegemonic masculinity"' depending on the resources individuals can draw on. One mediation is gender and this also affects relationships with peers. Lots of commentaries have suggested that views of Black masculinity are 'circumscribed' embodying '"machismo' and that this 'pathologises Black boys' responses to school experiences' [citing Wright et al. this time 1998] (3). They actively contribute 'through hyper- masculine behaviours which include rejecting academic values and schoolwork, the orientation to which is seen as feminine' [3 references again).

Others manage. Black females, for example navigate between different peer groups to negotiate their academic success, playing down their achievements with some groups, sharing success and supporting peers who were 'like-minded and successful'. This help them resist peer pressure and Black stereotypes. [Males too] Some of their peers also developed 'a healthy sense of competition'. In other cases 'a strong sense of racial identity can positively impact on self esteem and subsequently affect educational work ethic and goal achievement… Being able to identify with the group can either exacerbate or buffer the effects of discrimination'. It is those without a healthy sense of racial identity that are 'more likely to surrender to negative pressure'. This has led to recommendations like equipping Black pupils with 'problem solving and conflict resolution strategies to overcome difficult peer interactions and reduce some of the social barriers to their achievement [some of these are in Sewell 2001].

The parental relationship is also important and support here means adolescents are better able to cope with challenge. Some writers have argued that Black families develop '"respectability status"… to counter the negative assumptions and ideas that are projected onto them'. Some Black youths are able to disprove negative stereotypes as a result. Sometimes these are passed on historically to produce 'a strong culture of close funding, academic orientation… and resilience' [the ellipses indicate references]. Black youths with '"vigilant maternal intervention"' get support for academic focus and aspirations.

So she set out to research achieving Black boys, as they were undertaking social processes. She was interested in a holistic account, not just their individual characteristics, which is why she chose a narrative methodology [and did a PhD originally]. She looked at perceptions 'through the narratives of high attaining African Caribbean males', trying to understand their experience 'within [qualitative] educational psychology research'. Specifically she asked whether they consider that their experiences and relationships with peers had an impact; how they managed peer relationships; how they dealt with family narratives.

 It was a 'qualitative case study design, positioned within a critical realism ontology' [?] (4), with seven pupils [!] in one outer London comprehensive, with at least one African Caribbean parent, who had achieved level VII in KS3 SATs in maths English and science. They were interviewed individually for an hour on two occasions three months apart and the second was adapted. She used Gee's Structural Linguistic Narrative Analysis which has five levels:1. 'Organising and restructuring transcribed data into stanzas, strophes and parts using transcribing conventions'.2. Exploring and analysing linguistic markers that convey meaning making.3. Analysing main and subordinate plots.4. Identifying the '"psychological subject" within narratives and how they are positioned.5. Interpreting themes in the data within interview data 'and across them'. [not much detail follows]

On asking whether experiences and relationships with peers impacted their education, all the boys said they had good friendships in school based on common interests and views about education. They had selected their own friends considering their future prospects 'and their potential to boost their own chances of success', which 'complements research'. All saw themselves as similar to their closest peers, 'having "the same mentality", sharing similar characteristics and behaviours. However, in contrast to other research… The boys had differentiated peer groups, maintaining friendships with both high attaining and less academically successful peers'. One felt that this particular 'mindset was influenced by family members and teachers'.

Generally they felt that they were 'motivated and inspired by their friends… Peers provide models for learning behaviours and academic engagement… Role models… Motivating them to achieve' (5). Some wanted to help those who are less academically inclined. Others referred to 'affective benefits… Security and reassurance' especially in critical times like transition into secondary school, or being overloaded. They did refer to 'negative emotional states' like stress or excessive challenge, but social support from friends also help them cope here. They also seemed able to 'self disclose' and not be 'less relational in their friendships than girls'. There was also 'practical support with revision and homework... Openly given and received… Opportunities to engage in peer mediated learning', above all 'a culture in which friends could show pride in their academic achievements. There are also motivated by models who inspired and spurred them on, 'in sports and the arts as well as academia'. They all thought friendships were important.

They all 'but one subscribe to hegemonic masculine competitiveness, sharing positive perceptions of this', and saw competitions important in academic attainment. [but mastery-oriented it is implied]  They had aspirational benchmarks and this provided 'impetus and motivation to continually improve and surpass their friends' attainments', and orientation towards performance. Others 'might have masked failure at occupying hegemonic masculinity', however, and 'resisted engaging in such practices' [quite so]. Some narratives reveal that 'insecurities in peer relationships can make pupils reluctant to attend school', especially on transition. There were other negative peer influences, like distractions in lessons, disengagement and disaffection, although they were 'able to vicariously learn from friends' negative experiences' and were deterred 'from engaging in similar negative behaviours'. They were confident in themselves as individuals and in their own abilities and this 'may further be protective against peer influences'.

They all felt that family relationships were a 'buffer for the potential influence of peers, especially their mothers' role. Their attachment security 'was 'positively correlated with equality of peer relations and popularity'. Siblings could also offer 'emotional support and advice to help manage negative influences'. As a result, 'peer influences in adolescence education is a much more complex story than has been theorised' (6). For success, 'support, monitoring and interest of the family [may] need to be salient'.

Two of the boys had met teachers who had had low expectations and had 'either negatively stereotyped them with other Black boys or set them apart as exceptional to this group'. They had responded by 'acting in ways to change them. This included distancing themselves from lower achieving Black friends' [so is this conforming to teacher expectations or proving them wrong?].

On investigating how they manage their peer relationships, they all 'adapted their behaviour to fit in and be socially included', negotiating different public identities and social positions, as noted elsewhere. Two of the respondents were aware of these performances and 'purposefully created characters themselves and occupied different social positions different ends' [one acted dumb among some of his friends at lunchtime or break time, but realised that in his class, he was often sought out for advice]. Another kept his intentions to study from a peer group where he had 'acquired status for being the "baddest"' [is this inversion though?] — he could not be honest about studying, denying, for example that he was going to the library, or that he had been seen there. He described this as 'juggling'.

'Distance and separation' were obvious strategies to manage peer pressures, including those to smoke and become involved in gangs. There was also 'strategic self presentation to manage teacher perceptions as being academically achieving, and peer perceptions as being relatable and popular'. One talked about skilful management and having 'acting skills', for example 'masking his feelings of stress and anger, a strategy to preserve his hard earned reputation as popular and "having it all"'. Some use their physical attributes — 'an athletic build, being tall and strong' -- as 'automatically presenting them as hegemonic'.

All the boys shared their families' narratives about education, including their grandparents, struggles on getting an education. They talked about family members as being strong sources of influence in other ways. They 'learned vicariously from both their positive and negative experiences' (7). One related grandparents' stories of racism, success and failure, the traditions of resilience to slavery, evidence that some of them 'use both "bonding" and "bridging" social capital to maintain strong kinship ties and act with a sense of collective good' [in this case, role models for ethnic identities]. Mothers were particularly influential in sharing 'family members' successes and failures with the boys and orienting them towards academic success'. One boy described his family's fatigue from having to work long hours because they had had low academic attainment and he wanted to avoid the same.

Overall, there are both positive and negative peer influences. Schools might provide support themselves when pupils experience social difficulties, such as during transition. The strategies that the boys use are complex and 'effortful' but this can lead to stress and intervention might help. 'This research has merely scratched the surface in presenting the challenges', although narrative might be a more useful approach for educational psychologists. All should be mindful 'of the complexity in African Caribbean boys' experiences'. There should be exploration of cultural and family narratives about educational achievement, as well as teacher stereotypes and discriminatory practices, and 'a wider more inclusive curriculum which 'would endorse positive ethnic identities and may support pupils' resilience'.

Limitations are acknowledged, especially a possibility of 'over interpretation and sense making in people's narratives' and a reliance on 'individuals recollections and willingness'. She is not claiming that the findings are generalisable. Nevertheless she recommends further research including replicating the study with underachieving boys.