Inquiry will 'look under the rug' in the capital's schools
Tony Sewell on his ambitious plans for London-centric curricula
Tony Sewell is best known for his no-excuses attitude to black boys' school achievements. They need to stop pretending they are victims of racism, he argues, and instead take responsibility for the fact that they fail because they have not done the work.
Such views have alarmed a few academics, who have claimed that his arguments are "dangerous" and give comfort to white prejudices. However, his outspoken opinions have won him many more admirers, especially among newspaper columnists and conservatives. One fan who fits both categories happens to be the mayor of London.
Boris Johnson first revealed his admiration in a Daily Telegraph column in 2005, noting that "Dr Sewell is dead right." And so, at the end of last year, he made him chair of the Mayor's Education Inquiry, which is investigating how to improve the quality of London's primary and secondary schools and will publish its recommendations this September. Sewell says that the inquiry will "look under the rug" of education in the capital and interview employers as well as educators.
As a former English teacher and, before that, a pupil at a comprehensive in Penge, Bromley, the 53-year-old already had strong views on London's schools. "There was very little education going on at my comprehensive," he says. "The sense of unfairness around that was a personal thing for me."
In a reaction to his own schooling, he is now firmly in favour of fact-filled, traditional lessons, with teachers positioned "unashamedly as the fountain of knowledge" and willing to enforce rote learning where necessary.
Another member of the 10-strong inquiry team is Eton College headteacher Anthony Little. Sewell sat in on a lesson at Eton recently and was taken aback by what he describes as its intensive "super teaching". By the end of the 40-minute class, he says, he had written down 30 facts he did not know before.
London schools can expect a push to include more knowledge in their curricula, too. Sewell reveals that the inquiry is planning to propose a version of University Challenge for London secondary pupils, with teams competing against each other on general knowledge at a school, borough, then finally city level.
However, the inquiry has another proposal that is likely to have a far bigger impact on teachers: the introduction of a "London curriculum".
"London children do not know enough about London itself. They are corralled into small areas," Sewell says.
Research will be needed to decide what will feature in the London curriculum, but the inquiry is already planning meetings with exam boards to discuss how to make elements of it part of GCSEs. So, for example, London pupils may have to do a module in English on one of the city's authors, such as Charles Dickens.
"We want it to be part of the GCSE - that's the hope," Sewell says. "But we can certainly do a lot at key stage 3, where it's not examined. We can look at geography, history, English - there's so much in the capital we can make a curriculum out of."
He adds that this idea, and the inquiry itself, has been supported by education secretary Michael Gove, which is significant as the London mayor has no direct statutory powers over education.
The London curriculum was mentioned in a preliminary report from the inquiry last month, which, among other observations, warned that overcrowding of primary schools may result in pupils having to study in shifts.
Sewell asserts that the inquiry has since ruled out shifts as an option, and is instead looking at encouraging secondary schools to set up primaries.
"What you can do then is you can exploit, perhaps, the premises - we may have to look at smaller playgrounds," he says. "Our kids don't go out there to run around anyway, so we may as well use the playground space!" Here, he laughs, as he does frequently; Sewell has a knack of sounding serious and jovial simultaneously.
In the past, he has combined academic research with being a newspaper columnist, regularly contributing to The Voice, a weekly newspaper aimed at Britain's Afro-Caribbean community, as well as daily papers.
He has been openly critical about negative aspects of black youth culture, which has led some white commentators to note that they would be labelled racist if they had made such remarks.
"I actually get more irritated by liberal white people who try and tell black people how to be black - or tell black people that they're not black enough," he says. "There is always this issue of whether you should be airing your dirty linen in public, but I quickly got over that because of the amount of young kids who were busy stabbing each other. There's no time to worry about that any more, you've got to speak to what you see around you. There are lives at stake."
Sewell has done more than comment from the sidelines. Seven years ago, he launched his charity, Generating Genius, with the initial aim of supporting 38 Afro-Caribbean boys from deprived London families and helping them go to Russell Group universities.
The charity continues to focus on providing disadvantaged pupils with expert encouragement and extracurricular activities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects that, Sewell says, give them the greatest chance of being employed. That subject choice is also part of the reason the charity has attracted support from a range of major global companies, including Shell, Barclays, Procter and Gamble and Google, which recently donated £60,000 to it.
Generating Genius now works with around 850 young people, and aims to expand nationally, starting in Manchester. Girls are now able to join, as are disadvantaged pupils of any ethnicity, including white students.
Sewell says this reflects how much more significant class can be in the UK than race.
Two years ago, he wrote that, as the son of Jamaican parents, he had felt part of a generation "burned out in a racist schooling system". It is interesting that this message has evolved.
"Racist is probably the wrong word now," he says. "It was probably class. Because, to be honest, the white working class boys who were with me at my school ... they didn't do as well as I did!"
- 1959: Born in London, the son of Jamaican parents
- 1981: Graduated from the University of Essex where he studied English
- 1989-94: Taught in inner-city London schools
- 1994: Received his PhD from the University of Nottingham
- 1995-2001: Lecturer in teacher training, Kingston University and the University of Leeds
- 1997: His book, Black Masculinities and Schooling: how black boys survive modern schooling, was published
- 2001-02: International consultant in education for, among others, the World Bank and the Commonwealth Secretariat
- 2005: Founded Generating Genius
- 2011: Appointed chair of the mayor's inquiry into London education.