ACEN: A solution to the UK’s decision-making deficit in the Black community

Driven by experiences and data reinforcing that for Black children to access roles in leading UK institutions they must be ‘twice as good’ as their counterparts, the African Caribbean Education Network (ACEN) has been established to address some of the issues impacting on equality of opportunity.

ACEN’s specific remit focuses on helping children of African/Caribbean heritage access and thrive within Britain’s ‘top’ performing schools.

The trajectory between these schools and Russell group universities, as well as Oxford and Cambridge, is undeniable.  Moreover, the interconnectedness between these top universities and those that go on to assume society’s top roles and decision-making positions is consistent and has been for generations.

To tackle this, ACEN wants to educate and encourage more Black children to sit the 11+ plus, hoping to increase the numbers of Black children in independent and grammar schools, at least proportionate to the number of Black people across society.

Exploring the role of race & class specific initiatives

Many will question an initiative which seeks to ‘utilise’ a space of privilege that most of society will never have access to. However, looking at the outcomes of the Black community through a race lens only, Black representation in society’s top decision-making roles, across all areas, is almost nonexistent. A stark visual representation of this can be seen in the research compiled by Operation Black Vote and Green Park in the ‘Colour of Power’(3).

This gap is further emphasised by the proportionate underrepresentation of Black students in the educational institutions which the majority of these people have been documented as attending (4).

Similar initiatives focus on sixth form entry to independent schools in the lead up to A-Levels, or scholarship/bursary offers for a small number of children who have already been deemed ‘exceptional’. However, there is a strong argument that there is a need to start a greater number of Black children on the journey to independent school at a much earlier stage.

As more open and honest conversations are happening around bias, and the manifestation of structural racism across society, for Black children in particular, the longer talent remains untapped, the longer confidence and identity issues/self-fulfilling prophecies have to impact this process.

Bias, and the underestimation of ability is something many Black parents report as being an issue for their children in schools. Seeking to avoid the ‘recorded’ academic decline of Black children by GCSE stage, largely been attributed to teacher bias (1), ACEN sees the 11+ entry point as being optimal. Data also shows that our children tend to have better academic outcomes (proportionately) in environments that are expected to achieve above average grades.

To add to this is an issue of resources. The more time that elapses, the further the gap increases between them and their wealthier peers. Many, of whom have been afforded access to academic and extracurricular privilege from as early as 3 years old.

Grammar schools which are often lauded as an opportunity for gifted underprivileged children to access ‘top’ education are similarly ringfenced for wealthier children. Largely, because tutoring is rife and examination success is now almost unheard of without specialist/tutoring support ranging from £40 – £120ph (2).

Positive discrimination & direct action

Modelling the Operation Black Vote model directly responsible for targeting, training and mentoring a significant number of the UK’s BAME MP’s, ACEN believes in similar direct action which can demonstrably impact on the Black deficit in all areas. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we feel there is merit in using trajectories that already exist, and there is no area more statistically sound than access to elite education institutions at secondary stage.

Some may argue that a Black ‘school’, aiming to get more Black children into independent school, then Oxbridge, and then into society’s top roles is divisive or exclusive. On the surface this is a question that many may feel holds some weight if it were not for the data which confirms that over the last few decades, the outcomes for Black children educationally, economically, and therefore socially haven’t changed.

ACEN does not pretend that it isn’t seeking to enact positive discrimination, but it does argue that positive discrimination is hard to make a case against when the societal outcomes for Black children continue to be so disproportionally bleak, with structural inequality is growing, not diminishing.

The data tells us that Black people are economically disadvantaged in this country as a whole (6), and with such stark disparities in almost all recorded areas (for example health, education, employment) bold actions must be taken to reverse this inequality.

Covid-19 has only shone a brighter spotlight on these areas and with recent reports suggesting the effects of the virus are set to further impact the community by removing 50% of wealth from Black businesses, we are confident that an initiative like this is timely, or arguably late (8).

The importance of lived experience

Increasing access to these institutions is not just about ensuring a relative proportion of Black children are able to have the same access as their non-black peers for the sake of statistical fairness. It is also about those tasked with creating and overseeing the roles and policies that affect racial equity & equality.

ACEN believes that lived experience should be considered an expertise in and of itself,  and time and time again, evidence highlights the level of success when equality initiatives are managed by those with lived experience, vs those that are tasked to people who are only able to apply an academic, presumptive perspective.

Whilst there are many initiatives that seek to help inequality in the Black community, particularly from a charitable perspective, one must ask whether their lack of success is because we have neglected to focus on more long-term interventions from a representative, structural, policy-based angle.

Often, equality initiatives are positioned to affect change from the bottom up. However, the data at hand, specifically when focusing on structural inequality (7), demonstrates that the Black community is disproportionately impacted in almost all areas of society, meaning that we need to include a comprehensive, top-down, policy based approach in all of these areas. To date, in most of the areas where this has happened (largely unsuccessfully) the thing that has been missing at these decision making tables is us.

Returning to the issue of bias, the recent Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the role of unconscious and conscious bias, with schools facing a lot of scrutiny. Without even touching on overt racism (widely documented and touched on in a previous Lankelly Chase article), we can again look at education to understand the impact this will have on an entire generation when perpetuated within a system, for example, the grade increase Black boys receive when their work is blindly marked (9).

A quick fix is to make all teachers undergo unconscious bias training, something which should be mandatory for all educational institutions. However, increasing the diversity of staff is always going to breed superior results.

Whilst ‘allyship’ is necessary, action is always limited if the lived reality of a marginalised community isn’t there to shape action.

Having more Black people in positions of power removes the need for frequent explanations of the realities faced by the Black community. The burden of proof and emotional labour Black people face when recounting their experiences, only for those experiences to be denied time and time again by people with little knowledge on the subject matter of racism constitutes a form of racial trauma.

And with racial trauma via micoragressions experienced every single day, all actions are limited in success if we don’t ensure Black people are in positions that make decisions for the wider Black community from a place of, empathy and genuinely understanding.

We have had decades of individual initiatives, organisations and diversity drives, but with the role of biases coming to light more strongly, we suggest its past time to review whether expecting non-Black decision-makers to increase diversity, work on greater equality and anti-racism initiatives will work close to the level of simply accepting and appointing Black people to be the change makers and experts in the Black experience.

We wouldn’t appoint a rugby coach lead a football team to Champions League victory, so why is lived experience not respected in this space to the same degree?

To ACEN, It’s clear more than ever that we need to diversify the gatekeepers and policymakers, at the very least proportionate to our makeup in society and we feel strongly that this initiative is one way in which we can increase access to those decision-making rooms.


Aisha Sanusi, Co-Founder and Director of ACEN: @ACEN_UK