Professor Cecile Wright – Young black males: resilience and the use of capital to transform school ‘failure’

Professor Cecile Wright, professor of sociology, University of Nottingham

What are you working on?

A study funded about six years ago by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to look at young black males excluded from school before their GCSEs and with a history that led to permanent exclusion.

It was a case of exploring what happened to them and looking at the sort of transition process they had, moving forwards.

In a quasi-longitudinal study we shadowed about 30 young people from across Nottingham and London from when they were excluded until they were about 18. We studied what happened to them during that time.

What do the findings show?

Most managed to turn their lives around in the sense that they got back into education, retook their GCSEs and A-levels, and then went on to higher education and the equivalent.

We found common themes when we looked at how they achieved this.

Being mindful of the ongoing debate about white working-class boys — how they end up in a spiral of disaffection because of their schooling experience — we found this wasn’t the case for young black men.

This was simply because they had relevant networks and appropriate intervention that supported them. Basically, they were able to draw on community wealth. They were able to tap into their local supplementary schools, church, and any other local projects.

We found the young black males had significant adults who would say to them “hang on in there, we will support you and your family to get back into education and oversee your transition”.

What is interesting about this research?

The most important issues are that schooling remains and continues to be problematic for young black people, particularly males. They still are disproportionately excluded at significant periods of their schooling career.

Having said that, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of their education, nor does it mean that they do not have the aspiration to become educated and gain qualifications that enable them to enter the jobs market.

In order for them to turn their lives around it is important that they are able to tap into relevant networks, that they are able to get the assistance from significant others within their community. So, being able to draw on their local supplementary schools, the local youth projects and the voluntary sector is important. If you do not have the structures or methods of interventions then clearly it makes things virtually impossible for those young people.

What do you hope its impacts will be?

Schooling is still problematic so we need to address that; these young people shouldn’t be in the situation where they’re excluded, full stop.

Second, given that it is an ongoing struggle and situation, it is important that there are processes and structures that can intervene to support them.

We need to look at the consequences in terms of social policy. The current austerity and economic situation, where many of the networks that these young people draw on and continue to draw on are being cut and disappearing from our communities, means that the prospects for those caught up in this unfortunate position at the early stage of their lives isn’t looking good.

Is there any other research that you would recommend?

I did a piece of work with the police crime commissioner in Nottinghamshire, Paddy Tipping, looking at policing and race relations in Nottingham.

This was largely because the city was caught up in the youth race riots in 2011 and unlike other cities where young people attacked retail outlets, Nottingham young people targeted their anger and disaffection at the local police stations. Several of the stations were put on fire.

I looked at issues such as stop and search, youth engagement and community engagement, which has informed the ways in which the local police work with young people and the black community in general.

Recommended study: Exploring and improving BME policing experiences. nottinghamshire.pcc.police.uk