Why it’s critical that we boost the aspirations of black children

Forty per cent of black children and 39% of Asian children imagine their teachers might describe them as clever. Photograph: Christopher Thomond

The world as we would like it to be would provide a special space for the innocence of childhood. We tell our children that with focus and hard work, and a little bit of luck, they can be whoever and whatever they want to be. But this is not the world as we would like it to be, and today there is evidence that some of that innocence is lost, and childhood aspirations have been blunted. Aim high, we say; imagine there is no ceiling. But perhaps they know too much.

Research for BBC Newsround reveals that one in five black children aged eight to 14 believe their skin colour could hinder their job prospects. Just 2% of white children felt the same anxiety, along with 13% of the children polled of Asian origin. Twenty-one per cent of black children felt their skin colour would make it harder to succeed in the future, and 40% imagined that their teachers might describe them as clever, compared with 46% of white children, 39% of Asian and 47% of mixed or other origins. One of those polled told Newsround that “this generation is still being judged and stereotyped, so it’s going to be difficult for us to do what we want to do when we’re older”.

It’s no surprise that young black people might hold these views. In other generations, it was accepted that the playing field was not level. The generation schooled in the 1970s, 80s and 90s were repeatedly told by parents and other adults that the only safe course was to assume that there was no equality of opportunity. Work twice as hard, was the standard advice. But it wasn’t advice for an eight-year-old. At eight, we hoped that children could still thrive in a bubble of hope and aspiration, shielded from the realities of unequal employment, policing, schooling. If an eight-year-old can’t exist in that bubble, a bad situation must have got very much worse.

The Oscar-winning film director Steve McQueen, who is making a BBC drama on the lives of a black family, today declared the situation upsetting. “When I was at school myself, there was this situation where black children were not deemed as intelligent or deemed to be able to go on to do anything of any real purpose. The circle has to be broken, it’s upsetting to think that it hasn’t. When you narrow people’s possibilities then they become narrow.”

There is reality and perception. On the one hand young black people face an unemployment rate of almost 45%. In the first three months of last year, the number of African-Caribbean inmates in youth offender institutions, secure training centres and children’s homes rose 10.4%, while for white youths in custody it fell 42%. On the other hand, black teenagers are more likely to apply to university than white youngsters.

There are possibilities to focus upon, but also gravitational pull to fight against. The dampening effect of race, and

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