Cheryl Phoenix: "It’s Getting Worse"

Cheryl Phoenix is a Black British mother and business owner. As a response to the racism faced by her sons in the UK education system, she founded 'The Black Child Agenda' Organization in 2013.
By VTS | Dec 2017

The Black Child Agenda is  supporting children and parents for whom the education system in the UK remains a minefield of exclusion, misrepresentation and sabotage. Schools are now using a young person's family composition, parenting styles, religion and cultural norms, as a tool or weapon to further impede their progress. It is a weapon with which to demoralise parents and cripple our communities. In support of families, our team attends judicial and independent panel reviews, exclusion and governors meetings as representatives.  Parents generally attend these meetings alone, or with their child. 

Exclusions amongst our community are very high and the mechanisms available to challenge this are unfair.  Meetings are formal and the environment sterile. Attending, the parent, often the mother, comes face to face with an array of public sector workers as well as other professionals. 

We’ve had children left at home for up two years. They’ve never been excluded from school but are not allowed to return to school. That’s unlawful.

Those attending in support of the schools' position often comprise the following: - Head Teacher, Deputy Head, and Head of Year, Pastoral Care Manager, 3-4 governors, Local Authority Observer, the School Secretary or the Clerk to the Board of Governors.  The parent is there to 'fight' for their son or daughter's right to an education, 'fight' against misrepresentation, and alone are faced with a sea of white establishment faces that already hold a position.  We, The Black Child Agenda are their support and network. 

Families are often fighting exclusions, internal or external, that are uncalled for and unlawful. Parents often don't know this.  We’ve had children left at home for up two years. They’ve never been excluded from school but are not allowed to return. That’s unlawful. You’ll receive  cases where a student or a group of students have done something silly, run through a corridor, climbed the school fence.  Rather than put the child on report or tell them off, they’ll be sent home a lot of the time to cool off, without a letter. That also is unlawful.  Parents are in the dark and accept this form of exclusion. 

In some educational settings the behavioural manager will set up a unit within the school where your child, if viewed as one of those disruptive children, will be sent with or without a teacher's input or class work. In some schools, a child's attendance may be restricted to particular days of the week or a limited number of hour each day.

The Statutory guidance is clear:-

14. ‘Informal’ or ‘unofficial’ exclusions, such as sending a pupil home ‘to cool off’, are unlawful, regardless of whether they occur with the agreement of parents or carers. 

15. Any exclusion of a pupil, even for short periods of time, must be formally recorded.

...the threat of exclusion must never be used to influence parents to remove their child from the school.

All Head Teachers should know this. Before a child is excluded, a school's duty of care is to do everything within its power to help the child remain in school.  Concerns regarding emotional needs, special educational needs as well as any other concern should  trigger the formal  Education, Health & Care plan process. The school psychologist, mental health practitioner and SENCO should carry out an assessment, and speak with the family and the pupil in question. Particularly with black students this step is often ignored, and although this may also be experienced by other groups in our society, we are unapologetically dealing with our own students. They are our focus! It is essential for them to be protected from discrimination, low expectations and criminalization of our boys and increasingly our girls.

I hear so many cases of teaching assistants with limited behavioural management tools, taking two classes and having the power to exclude pupils.

Schools often forget that they are bound by the 2010 Equality Act. Parents and communities are unaware that this act must be applied. Under the Equality Act 2010 (the Equality Act), schools must not discriminate against, harass or victimise pupils because of: sex; race; disability; religion or belief; sexual orientation; pregnancy/maternity; or gender reassignment. For disabled children, this includes a duty to make reasonable adjustments to policies and practices and the provision of auxiliary aids.

All possible approaches to managing a pupil within the school setting must be explored. Counselling, mentoring, additional teaching and learning sessions and or behavioural management programmes must be exhausted before the head teacher considers expulsion.

I hear so many cases of teaching assistants with limited behavioural management tools, taking two classes and having the power to exclude pupils. Having been told not to attend, a child's absence is recorded as unauthorized and Social Services are contacted. They [Social Services] visit your house to investigate you for negligent behaviour all because the school has acted illegally.  

13. It is unlawful to exclude for a non-disciplinary reason. For example, it would be unlawful to exclude a pupil simply because they have additional needs or a disability that the school feels it is unable to meet, or for a reason such as: academic attainment/ability; the action of a pupil’s parents; or the failure of a pupil to meet specific conditions before they are reinstated.

When dealing with our children, educators forget the premise that children just don’t act out for no reason.  There’s always a reason, a trigger or a fear, but they fail to consider that.  They act as if the black child should have the emotional literacy to sit down and say " ' well' Miss y ’know, I’m really feeling low today."  No, they’re going to act out because that’s the only language  they know. We are no further forward than we were in the 60’s.  In fact I think we’ve gone backwards.  The reason I say that is twofold.  The education system here behaves as if the UK is a homogenous white Anglo Saxon strong hold with its colonialist hat on. The system was never set up or design for us.  It has been designed and set up for white supremacy.  I hate using that term, because I don’t see them as supreme beings.  It is a system designed for their children. It is designed for their history, not ours. It is now the 21st century and nothing has changed. When we speak to our children asking whether they study black history in school, some of them will say yes; but when you dig deeper asking 'what do you learn?'  You find they are being taught “the slave trade”.  Is that it? “Yes”.  Is that our only history? As a 14 or 15 year old going through puberty, that's all they're telling you. Who wants to associate themselves with that? 

Looking back at the 50’s and 60’s, when our grandparents and parents first came here, our community was different.  They had a community.  They lived together and stuck together.  Coming from the Caribbean they had shared experiences. Their safe haven was clinging to each other in a place that was hostile and cold, in fact freezing cold. Together they battled against hate crimes, poor housing and employment discrimination. To counteract that experience, they worked hard to build their own networks. They built churches and social clubs, ran Saturday schools, provided child care solutions, owned shops and continued the pardner system.  That has been lost.  We all know it. 

Now we’re very individualistic.  We’re also very materialistic and that is actually being fed to our children. They thinking that they are invincible, but yet they’re still alone.  They’re very isolated.

I do feel that as a community, we are starting to realise we can’t do it by ourselves; we need to rebuild our cultural and social capital from within our community. The Black Child Agenda I feel is part of that process. Our parents knew and understood how the system here was stacked against us. To mitigate against this, they held on to many traditions. Dominoes on a Friday with the women cooking in the kitchen. House parties for birthdays and weddings, the women going to 'Miss Ruby' on Saturday for her to press their hair and the men to Dougies' barber Shop. All operating from their cellar or back room. Some of it may sound very sexist but it worked. All the kids knew each other.  Everyone was a cousin.  So when you went to school you weren’t really alone.  

Now we’re very individualistic.  We’re also very materialistic and that is actually being fed to our children who think that they are invincible, but yet they’re still alone.  They’re very isolated.  Racism hasn’t gone anywhere, it's just more subtle, so subtle they can’t identify it. Racism comes from a position of power. They can however identify the fact that they are treated differently from everybody else.  It’s no longer No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.  It’s just; you’re challenging and disruptive.  Reports are written in language that is not user friendly; it excludes parents from the process leaving them baffled by buzz words and jargon.  They have to listen to teachers who basically tell them that their child cannot be handled, is a bully, is disruptive, and frightening. The proof and sense of conviction they hold presents your child as all these negative things and you listen as if punch drunk.  This is not the child you know but weighed down by this picture presented, you return home to punish your child. 

During stage 1 & 2, black pupils usually outperformed all other pupils.  Now the landscape is very different. We currently have a exclusion and  isolation case load that is 60% secondary, 40% primary pupils. Given the current picture, they are going to be 'even stevens' soon. Currently our children are being excluded, placed in isolation and sent to PRUs. New PRU’s are currently, being built specifically for primary school age children and  black children are filling them, particularly in London. There is money for these, but none to invest in schools. 

For me PRUs are  a dumping ground for our children.  I can't stress this enough - they are a breeding ground for violence, drugs and the sexual exploitation of girls.

Members of the public don’t know the purpose of Pupil Referral Units (PRU).  Initially PRUs were supposed to be short term provision. They were aimed at enabling pupils to develop the strategies they needed to navigate the school environment.  The pupil would be taught in small groups or 1:1 sessions. They would still access the national curriculum and reintegration into their former mainstream school or a different needs led provision was the expected outcome. In practice what tends to happen is, children are removed from mainstream schooling and sent to a PRU. Parents are not included in the planning process or invited to the meetings. They are left in the dark regarding the three month plan and the child is abandoned. 

The same agencies operating some of PRUs in the UK (Serco and G4S) are responsible for running a number of secure units, juvenile detention centres and prisons. Their interest is purely financial. The fact our children are being killed in those places is of no interest. 

For me PRUs are  a dumping ground for our children.  I can't stress this enough - they are a breeding ground for violence, gang activity, drugs and the sexual exploitation of girls, who are usually vulnerable.  Children sent to a PRU are more likely come into contact with the police before the age of 16.  When your child was transferred, they were probably a level 5 or 6, but now all of a sudden he can’t achieve that. They’re pushed into subjects like art or B-tech and spend much of their time going on trips and engaging in outdoor pursuits.  Your child is now failing the core subjects and is only capable of achieving a D if they’re lucky. Having spent the final year of compulsory education in a 'sin bin' (PRU) gaining no useful qualifications they can only hit the roads to earn the money they need. If they can’t get a job anywhere and if they’re hitting the roads, then the cycle begins. We're not only concerned about our boys but our girls as well.  They are just as vulnerable. The percentage of girls excluded or sitting in isolation is rising.  I'm hearing bizarre reasons, from parents, for this.  

We had a referral regarding a female pupil who had natural hair, just like mine.  She went to school with it out and was kept in isolation for four weeks.  She couldn’t attend lessons with her peer group as her hair style was unacceptable. The mother called me after four weeks; speaking to the head teacher, an Asian lady.  I asked her quite seriously, if this young black child had attended with a straight weave, or relaxed or straightened hair, perhaps  even blonde hair would that be acceptable?  Before she answered, I said you need to make sure you answer my question very carefully.  Think about your answer before you respond. The next day, the child was back in class. Black girls are being excluded for shouting too loudly or answering back, stupid things. It's very easy to pick on and marginalize the black child.  Everything they do is magnified whereas anything that Tommy or Timothy does is just him being a teenager or something awful has happened in his family.

I say send your children home.  Don’t leave them here at 14, wave them off. Bye!   

The Black Child Agenda has definitely seen an increase in referrals regarding girls this year; boys however are still at greater risk. Our children are not assessed as having special educational needs; the fight is to stop our children being treated as educationally subnormal in the British school system.  Having a realistic profile of how many children should have an assessment of SEN is difficult. Many parents request an assessment and are ignored. The picture is a complex one. 

What we do know from BBC research is that our children are 168 % more likely to be excluded than white or Asian children. What we would really like is a holistic approach to the treatment and education of our children. Places where the child’s emotional wellbeing, and their cultural  and spiritual needs are met. The prevalence of academies has only exacerbated the situation. In Brent, all the secondary schools, since 2015, are academies.  They believe that they are a law unto themselves.  The Black Child Agenda has had to draw attention to their bad practises and have funding withdrawn and management teams removed.

To placate our community, Cameron's government commissioned 'The Lammy Report'.  I’m unapologetic in my stance about that.  That was a waste of time and money. A couple of grand spent on this might have been fine but, they spent millions, over many months, talking twaddle. The school to prison pipeline is quite clear.  The victimisation, the bullying, the racist behaviour, and the discrimination that goes on in schools towards the black student is a problem.  We know it’s a problem.  It’s been a problem for almost five decades. It was a problem when I went to school, it was a problem while my sons were attending school and it remains a problem in the 21st century. It hasn’t changed.  It is headline news today and someone’s chip paper tomorrow.  Whose doing anything about it? Nobody.  'The Lammy Report' just proves what black people already know.

Now what? What are you doing to change it?  Where are the resources to make a change in the current outcomes for our children?  Are the public sector facilitating diversity training? I hate that word (diversity). Some sort of continuous training to stop the racist discrimination against our children in the education, system is required. If our children are not wanted in the current education system, give us the resources so that we can have our own schools, where our holistic, cultural, spiritual and emotional needs can be addressed. Right now the school to prison pipeline is a reality for our boys. They are being victimised, they are being targeted and left to fester at home or in PRUs. A child, of 14 or 15 placed in a PRU, run by G4S has a limited future.  They’re already being observed and expected to fail.  They're exposed to drugs; gang activity and are bullied into conforming to the culture on the streets. This is not the three 'As' or the three 'Rs'. Exams won't be passed in these lessons.  

Remember it's just the PRUs we’re talking about.  They’re not even 16 yet.  Blink and they end up in the same juvenile detention centres; they may even find one of the teachers, who scuppered their time in mainstream education, teaching there.  Upon leaving juvenile detention, who'll give them a job?  No qualifications mean no job! They need money, they are on the road hustling a little weed, £20 here £100 there. Hustling can net £5k per week for some youngsters. Arrested they're off to prison. In prison they are given jobs, making pretty bed sheets for hotels, car parts for Mercedes, or mail bags.  They are paid £1 per day, the new slave labour, now qualified in making car parts they have served their sentence.

Imagine getting out and thinking Ok I’m going to turn my life around; I was working, I really liked that.  Let me go and apply for a job with Mercedes the manufacturer I was actually making the parts for.  Hmmm, "Mr Car manufacturer sir, I got a qualification whilst I was inside.  I did do something wrong, I got a slap on the wrist, but I’ve learnt so much, can you give me a job please." "Hell no, can I give you a job?" Where do I go? What do I do? "Alright then, fine.  My mum’s rent needs paying, I like nice things, can't get a job I’m going back on the road." That's the school to prison pipeline broken down in less than three minutes.  There you go. So it's not that hard, but parents need to do something before it gets to the stage where a PRU is an option.  

On the one hand I blame parents, but on the other hand I don’t because they send their children to school to learn.  Why should they know anything about the school to prison pipeline?   This is the thought process for parents: - "They’re going to do their ABC’s, 123’s; I'm going to work to pay the bills."  We’re going on holiday; we’re going to buy a nice car and nice house." Parents, they don’t see it coming.  Most parents don’t even know that SIMS exists or that they can access to it under the Freedom of Information Act. 

If your child has stood up, sat down, was outside, came in late, made too much noise in the street ,these along with  their medical records and their fingers prints are all stored on SIMS. If you were late or if you were early, if you emailed, if you phoned, or if they found your tone offensive, it's in SIMS. It's a shock isn't it? You innocently agree for your child's finger print to be taken so they can eat lunch. OMG!  It's hard I know  but you must get with the programme!

A significant proportion of the cases dealt with by the team are from London calls do however come from sunny Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and other areas in the UK with a significantly large black community.  Parents are desperate! I’ve had parents who on first contact with me, burst into tears literally, because they’re so relieved that they’ve got through to someone that they’ve been told can help.

The interesting thing amongst us as a black community, is that previously, particularly within the  African communities, children by the age of 14 were sent to school in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, wherever the parents come from only returning to the UK to attend University. Increasignly that’s not an option for many families so these children are falling victim to the same systematic racism that children of Caribbean heritage have always faced. 

I say send your children home.  Don’t leave them here at 14, wave them off. Bye! I don’t even know how to tell parents, it’s getting worse and that they have to be on it.