Stephen Lawrence and Closing the Black and Minority Ethnic attainment gap

I was privileged to be invited to the service to commemorate Stephen Lawrence’s death and perhaps more importantly celebrate his life and legacy. St Martin-in-the-fields welcomed family, friends, royalty, politicians, senior police officers, celebrities, community leaders, those emboldened by Stephen’s life to act and those who have benefited from his legacy. In this famous church a very ‘broad church’ were congregated. During the service I reflected on how the extraordinary can be found in the extremes and what we must do to encourage the extraordinary.

Twenty-five years on, as Stephen was remembered, it was palpable that wounds were still raw and justice still unanswered. To us, Stephen Lawrence has become an icon for needed change but for others he is a son, a brother or a friend. They had lost the personal, in the most brutal and unjustifiable manner possible. They received the knock at the door, or the phone call, that no one should have to answer. Their loss was greater as at its heart was ignorance, apathy and hatred. Ignorance of the power of understanding the other’s perspective, apathy towards the value of life and hatred of one’s own life that its inadequacies should be blamed on another. Stephen is still missed by those who loved him, for the boy he was and the man he should have become.

Despite their terrible loss, his family chose to build a legacy, and from this emerged reasons to celebrate. The work of the Stephen Lawrence charitable trust has supported young people from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds through university to influential careers and posts in the professions; the Macpherson report acted as a watershed moment in race relations in the police force; and as Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE, Stephen’s mum has tirelessly acted for constructive change and creating positive futures in young peoples’ lives. Stephen legacy is extraordinary and shows ignorant brutality is most powerfully responded to with thoughtful empowerment.

Stephen’s talents were leading him towards university to study architecture and a career where we one day could have benefited from the buildings he designed. If buildings really are ‘machines for living’ as Le Corbusier described them, then Stephen was on track to design our lives. Since his death, Doreen Lawrence has championed the value of education at all levels and spoken of its power for positive change. In education our potential is enriched and as we get stronger so does our society.  A well-educated society is robust, more powerful, and able to sustain its values while addressing challenges. Therefore, it makes sense that the more we educate our society the better off we all are. The more ‘designers of better lives’ we have. This statement has a reasoned and reasonable logic to it. It just feels right and yet it stands at odds with the Black and Minority Ethnic attainment gap which exists in Higher Education.  It stands at odds with the potential we squander, ignore and fail to recognise in the cohorts we teach.  While many numbers could be chosen, the latest data indicates that Black and Minority Ethnic students studying at SHU are performing 18% below their white peers, a black student is performing 29% below their white peers, numbers which are echoed throughout HE. Their potential is not being recognised, developed or enjoyed. How would Stephen have fared? Would he have been hindered in the HE system due to the colour of his skin? It is probable that he too would have suffered from the attainment gap.

Data gleaned during the Macpherson report noted that the police were guilty of institutional racism. It is easy to see this label applied to others but the attainment gap data speaks and the label is justly applied to our profession. In short, our actions and inactions are denying the potential of Black and Minority Ethnic students. While I am not attempting to make any parallels between the hate filled actions of those who murdered Stephen and what we do, I am noting that a Black and Minority Ethnic attainment gap is the embodiment of institutional racism.  So what to do? Fortunately we are already taking actions and raising awareness about the issue with our course teams, enacting listening rooms to hear from our Black and Minority Ethnic students about what they experience, need and want in order to reap their potential. Deep change won’t come easy but we are willing to change and undertake the work.  Yet we need to keep these developments front of mind and not allow them to be lost amongst competing priorities.

At the service, the Prime Minister announced that the 22nd April will become Stephen Lawrence day which will act as focal point for the nation to remember Stephen and take stock of changes that have been made to improve our society and the lives of young black people. A day to celebrate an extraordinary legacy and gird ourselves for the work yet to be done. In line with this, I intend to use the 22nd April in future years to examine our Black and Minority Ethnic attainment gap, transparently and openly. So that we can recognise that which has been achieved and that which is yet to be attained. Sir Lenny Henry at the service noted that ‘a just society is not a destination but a state of mind’. Therefore, justice will always take work and require changes but it must sit at the core of our values. We will close our attainment gap and we will benefit fully from the potential of all our graduates. In helping guide this change Stephen Lawrence will have helped ‘design better lives’ through the enacted potential of others, a truly extraordinary legacy the Lawrence family can be proud of and we can all benefit from.

Dr Iain Garner is the Head of Department for Education, Childhood & Inclusion