You might have seen the headlines by now. On Wednesday night, Stormzy spoke to a live audience while launching his new book Rise Up: the #Merky Story So Far (see an excerpted chapter we ran here). It's a retelling of his life, essentially, and the first book published on his #Merky Books imprint at Penguin Random House. Sitting onstage at central London's Barbican Centre, the 25-year-old addressed things like his home neighbourhood, at one point saying: “Coming into the big wide world and having all of south London in me… it’s given me this strength and character. And it’s given me weakness and disadvantages. I always try to be on a journey of growing up and becoming a man. But you can’t grow out of south London.” He spoke about having a massive platform, too, in conversation with poet, musician and historian Akala.
But that, on its own, isn’t what interested so many people. At one point, according to freelance journalist and author Dan Hancox (who was in the audience at the Barbican event), Stormzy addressed the scholarship he’s set up, to fund two black students’ tuition at Cambridge University. As per Hancox’s tweet, Stormzy said he’d suggested the idea – what’s now called the Stormzy Scholarship – to Oxford University, who then declined it. In the time since Hancox “idly tweeted it on the bus home at 11.30PM last night,” in his own words, Labour MP David Lammy amplified his message – via a tweet of his own this morning. This is a nightmare news story for anyone who pays little attention to Twitter. I can only commiserate.
As a result of Lammy's tweet, several UK newspapers and news sites reported Hancox’s account. We've now heard from Oxford University, who sent Noisey the following statement: “Oxford University is committed to widening access and participation for all students from under-represented backgrounds,” a University spokesperson said. “We admire Stormzy’s commitment to inspire and support black students to succeed in higher education. We have not received or turned down any offer or proposal to fund undergraduate scholarships at Oxford. We have contacted to Stormzy’s representatives today to clarify we would welcome the opportunity to work together on inspiring students from African-Caribbean heritage to study at Oxford.”
The stats don't bode well for their argument, that they're committed to tackling under-representation. Earlier this year, figures the University released reportedly showed that about 12 percent of black undergraduate applicants were offered a place to study at the institution, while about 24 percent of white undergraduate applicants were successfully admitted. But, on the University's own site page about ethnicity and admissions, they place the admittance figures – 1.9 percent of black applicants were admitted in 2017, up from 1.1 percent of black applicants in 2015 – next to figures on how many black students in the UK overall get at least three As at A-Level. The inference to make there is that, regardless of the reasons why, black students simply don't get high enough marks. And as such, you can infer that they don't "deserve" places at Oxford.
Extensive data, gathered by University of Birmingham and and Sheffield Hallam University researchers shows that since records were first kept, black students have been excluded from schools (essentially, taken out of formal education before finishing secondary school) at least three times more often than white students. "In the mid 1980s, for example, ‘Afro-Caribbean’ students accounted for 14% of London school children but made up more than 30% of all exclusions in the capital," the report states. Black students now are about six times more likely to be excluded from school than white ones.
Though this isn't an "excuse," when some children are seen to be 'beyond saving' or 'inherently unteachable,' what are the chances they'll then go onto get the highest marks – even though they may well have potential? In addition, the report found that almost every time the attainment gap between black and white students started to close, between 1988 and 2013, new government policy, changing the "gold standard" for good marks, would widen it again. Another 2012 University of Warwick study found that, if you controlled for as many factors as possible, black students were hitting an achievement gap with white students by the time they were 14. At its root were teachers less likely to promote black students to a "higher tier" that could push, and challenge them. Basically, the study found that teachers were less likely to believe in the potential of black students, and guide them towards fulfilling that potential. When people talk about systemic racism and unconscious bias, this is the sort of behaviour they mean.
So, yes, Oxford University have said they're open to a dialogue with Stormzy. And one rapper alone can't fix decades of lowered expectations for black students in the UK's education system. But at least he's doing what he can – and able top make an off-hand quip about it to an audience. Hopefully, in time, the headlines will come to focus on how we can push institutionalised prejudice out of the schooling system altogether. Maybe that would be a better focus than a couple of tweets.
You can find Tshepo on Twitter.