Seven years ago, my organisation – Eastside Young Leaders Academy (EYLA) – made it possible for two black boys from London’s East End to take up places at Rugby School. How we made that happen is a story for another occasion; suffice to say that making it happen was enough to get us onto one of the nation’s breakfast TV sofas.
Most of the publicity we’d had up until that time related to our so-called ‘boot camp’ approach to developing the leadership potential of young black boys. Conversations about Rugby seemed to put an end to that.
Marcus and Dotun are part of a generation of boys who possess the raw talent to succeed in our country’s finest educational establishments but lack the opportunity, support structure, and the finance to do so. Our job at EYLA is to put those elements in place, with the support of many valued partners.
This year we are on target to send a further 17 young people on a similar journey. Last year 10 scholars from EYLA won places at several public schools. In each of the years since we started we have steadily grown the numbers we have sent. We now have a unique peer group of nearly 40 Eastside Scholars (as we now call them) and our aim is to expand this group as the years progress.
Each scholar has come through a rigorous process to earn his or her place. This year’s 17 young Scholars started out last summer as a group of more than 80 hopefuls, referred to us either by schools or coming to our attention through our own core leadership programme. Over the last year we provided them with over 300 hours of assessment and coaching to prepare them for public school entrance exams and to begin the process of opening their minds to the life-changing opportunity ahead of them.
Alongside this we have matched each of these youngsters with schools most appropriate for them, as unique individuals, to attend and we have brokered the arrangements for each with respect to their bursaries and financial support.
Collectively their success provides a welcome counterpoint to the prevailing narrative of underachievement that all too often frames discussion about the fortunes of young black people in education and schooling. This, of course, has never been the whole story. Britain’s ‘black middle class’ may not be particularly visible but it is there and it holds the same high aspirations in educational terms you would find among the middle class as a whole.
That said, the scholars group are drawn from families who had no thought or ambition about higher education when we first encountered them. This means that as well as providing support for our individual scholars, for whom the journey to public school sees them enter a different world, the same is often true for the parents.
Many have no reference point in their own life experience that prepares them adequately for how their relationship with their son will evolve as he adapts to life at public school. So there is a need for a different but equally important education and support process for parents, for a ‘learning’ that develops alongside that of their sons.
We (EYLA staff) play a bridging role to ensure that parents remain closely involved, perhaps more closely than they have been accustomed to. Similarly we work to affect the mindset of our scholars and the schools we place them with so that the match is mutually edifying and transformative.
What we offer through the scholars’ programme is an opportunity for public schools to demonstrate their paper commitment to inclusion and social responsibility in practice. The consistent feedback we have received from them is that they have found that our boys make their mark in terms of their contribution to the student body and the life of the school as a whole.
So does our programme and approach work? Emphatically yes. Marcus and Dotun, our founding scholars, will respectively be graduating from Leicester and Newcastle universities soon and their many successors are now set to do the same as we track their performance at GCSE and A-level in the coming years.
I believe that we are doing a lot more than finding a few deserving kids and placing them with a generous benefactor. What we have is a new and innovative form of educational partnership, capable of delivering profound life changes for all involved.