Where Are the Black Law Students?

Est. read time: 13 min



This is a timely and very important conversation which engages with the perennial issue of under- and over-representation of black males, especially in secondary and tertiary education generally as well as in specific disciplines.

Biographical note

I join the conversation against the following background:

I have been part of the black working class movement in schooling and education since the late 1960s when we formed the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA) at the then West Indian Centre in Earls Court, London.  CECWA led the campaign against the widespread practice of shunting hundreds of black students, males especially, into schools for the ‘educationally subnormal’ on the basis of biased intelligence testing using measures designed by eugenicists and biological racists.  See ‘What has Cyril Burt got to do with black boys?’ http://gusjohn.com/category/blog/page/2/

Conducted action-research on Youth & Race in the Inner City in Handsworth, Birmingham, for the Runnymede Trust in 1969-70 and wrote ‘Race in the Inner City – a study of Handsworth, Birmingham’, Runnymede Trust 1970

Moved to Manchester on 1 January 1971 and worked as a youth worker, community education manager, inspector of adult continuing education and area vice-principal of community education in South and North Manchester.

Formed the Black Parents Movement, Manchester, in 1974 and established Education for Liberation (EfL) book service in 1978.  EfL Books later became one of the organisers of the Independent Book Fair of Radical Black & Third World Books that was held annually in London, Manchester and Bradford/Leeds from 1982 to 1990 and then biannually up to 1995.

Lectured in social policy and applied social studies, University of Bradford, 1977 to 1980.

Ran a city-wide Special Access programme for Manchester City Council, equipping mature black students with alternative qualifications for entry to higher education.

Was a member of the Macdonald Inquiry into racism and racial violence in Manchester schools and co-author of the book Murder in the Playground, Longsight Press, 1989.

Was appointed Assistant Education Officer in the Inner London Education Authority in 1987 and director of education for the London Borough of Hackney in 1989, thus becoming the UK’s first black director of education.

In 1997, on leaving Hackney, was appointed Visiting Faculty Professor at University of Strathclyde (until 2007).

In 1997 also, after Labour won the general election, became one of the advisers on race and social policy to Jack Straw as Home Secretary.  Worked with civil servants on the amendment to the 1976 Race Relations Act. Which became the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.

In 2002, commissioned by the Equality Challenge Unit and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to evaluate the race equality policy and action plan of each HE institution in England.  This was followed by a similar exercise for the further and higher education funding councils in Scotland and later for the HE funding council in Wales.  Over a period of some 5 years, therefore, I provided an evaluation report with detailed recommendations for each HE institution in England, Scotland and Wales and an overview report for the HE sector in each of the latter.

In addition, I conducted a comprehensive Equality & Diversity audit for the Universities of Northumbria and Salford, examining all their functions and their approach to promoting equality and eliminating unlawful discrimination within each function.  Key to that exercise was the work of the Students’ Union, the interface between the Students’ Union and the university’s policies and practices and the lived experience of students in the learning community.

Commissioned by the Equality Challenge Unit and the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff in 2004 to produce a report and accompanying toolkit on inclusive consultation and communication in implementing the RRAA 2000.  See: https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/pdf/0/5/jnches_raceeq_tool_1.pdf
Supported the University of Cambridge in establishing a Black Staff Network and in researching the causes of the high drop-out rate of black students from state schools in inner city areas recruited both through the work of the university’s black led Group for the Encouragement of Ethnic Minority Applications (GEEMA) and through the outreach work of individual colleges, acting in collaboration with inner city state schools.
In 2007, made an Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Education and appointed Associate Professor of Education in the Institute’s London Centre for Leadership in Learning. There, I co-facilitated for three years a headship development programme for senior black teachers aspiring to deputy headship/headship.

Against that background, I offer the following thoughts on three of the core areas that will be the focus of the seminar:

i)    obstacles to recruitment
ii)    targeted participation in a widening participation context
iii)    bursaries/studentships
iv)    outreach work in partnerships with schools, colleges, community organisations.

i)    Obstacles to recruitment

a.    Manchester is a Russell Group international university with a well deserved reputation that it has built upon decade after decade.  Despite the fact that domestic black students are concentrated much more in the post-1992 universities than in Russell Group institutions, UoM manages to attract a high percentage of black and global majority students.

b.    That said, it nevertheless remains the case that the biggest challenge for HE is to ensure that the grading and stratification along ethnic lines that has become so embedded at schooling level is not replicated and structuralized in HE, resulting in concerns about under-representation on certain courses, drop out rates, poor degree outcomes and the rest.

c.    One obvious starting point, therefore, is to compare recruitment across other schools and disciplines at UoM with the experience of the Law school.  Where else is there under- or over-representation of black (African) males?  Is the ‘standard’ representation, or over-representation of black males in other courses/disciplines a result of student choice, or the result of specific interventions by those schools/departments.

d.    Might the under-representation have to do with black students’ fears or briefings received regarding the present and expected challenges in the legal marketplace and their concerns about the uncertainty of a successful career in Law?  Might it have to do with a growing anxiety within black communities about the difficulty in accessing traineeships and pupillages and about the experience of black sole practitioners and small firms, i.e., the principal ‘modus operandi’ of black solicitors in particular?  See:
Report to the Solicitors Regulation Authority on the independent comparative case review of disproportionality in regulatory action and outcomes for BME solicitors, SRA Birmingham, March 2014
e.     I chaired the Equality, Diversity & Social Mobility (EDSM) working group of the Legal Education and Training Review (2013), the first comprehensive review of LETR in 30 years.  The EDSM report and the valuable insights and recommendations it contained from practitioners and students with ‘protected characteristics’ did not inform the final review report to anything like the extent we had hoped, especially as many of them had to do with access to legal education and training and outcomes for graduates and paralegals.

f.    My view – and it is one shared by many members of the EDSM working group – is that providers of legal education and training do not do enough to apprise emic opportunities they are likely to encounter even after they graduate from institutions such as UoM and how they might tackle those challenges and remain focused upon the need to promote and guarantee access to justice, especially for vulnerable sections of society.

g.    Another, arguably less acknowledged, barrier to recruitment is the image that the Law School projects of itself and how it is perceived by past and current students and by prospective students.  For very many years, UoM’s had a worthy reputation in all areas of the law and especially in equality and human rights law.  Academics engaged with social movements, such as the movement to strengthen race relations legislation, a process in which the late Professor Harry Street was centrally engaged.  Some were members of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and played a significant role in supporting the work of the Moss Side Defence Committee, of which I was Chair, following the 1981 Moss Side uprising.  All of that added to the reputation the Law School had in the eyes of the black population in Manchester and among legal practitioners who typically served that population.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Law School is now more remote from the local community as are many other schools in UoM.

h.    There are other internal factors which potentially impact upon the Law School’s ability to recruit more black students.  One is the level and quality of the support students are given once they join the School and how that support is planned and delivered.

i.     Another is the extent to which the School and its learning environment reflects the culture of the students, including curriculum and pedagogy.  In a period when students of every ethnicity are focused on what they are getting for their money and the debt they are incurring as a result of going to university, the totality of the student experience matters much more to them arguably than at any other time.  This is exemplified by the ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ and ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’ student movements.

j.    A third factor is students’ perception of the staff profile in the School.  If students form the view that the staff group and the student body are both mono-ethnic and white and black staff are under-represented, or if they get a sense that such black staff that are in the School are up against a concrete ceiling and do not progress beyond lower grades, they are unlikely to feel motivated to make the School their first choice.

k.    I well remember the impact of the legal action taken by the academic lawyer, Asif Qureshi, against the Law School in 1997 for racial discrimination in respect of promotion and career progression.  See: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/how-a-law-faculty-got-court-out/103355.article

l.    The profile of the senior management at UoM just now raises questions about black representation, given that half the student population is of African and global majority heritage, while the entire senior management group is white.  While Lemn Sissay’s position as Chancellor is much to be welcomed, it does not count in terms of the profile of the group of people responsible for the leadership and strategic management of the institution.

ii)  Targeted participation in a widening participation context &
iv) Outreach work in partnerships with schools, colleges, community

a.    I have not accessed data on:
•    the number of black British male students at UoM and their distribution across Schools/Programme Areas
•    the number that are local, i.e., domiciled within a 30 mile radius of UoM
•    the number who live at home while at UoM
•    whether or not any School/Programme Area at UoM has articulation arrangements with state schools/Sixth Form Colleges in the Greater Manchester conurbation
•    the number of black British male students who apply, relative to the number who are admitted across the university and specifically to the Law School
•    the number who apply/gain entry as mature students
•    the number of black British male alumni who are legal practitioners or academic lawyers
•    the number who are practising in Greater Manchester, either running their own firms, operating as sole practitioners or in chambers
•    the number of those who are active in whatever capacity in the life of the Law School

That data, I suggest, has some bearing on both ii) and iv)

b.    If the Law School wishes to attract black British male students and wishes to see a greater number of them from local communities (City of Manchester and Greater Manchester) gaining entry, it might consider a planned outreach programme that involves current students and staff as well as alumni.

c.     My experience of developing such a programme jointly with the Dean of Medicine at St Bartholomew’s might be instructive here.  As director of education in Hackney in the 1990s, I was approached by Professor Kennedy who was concerned that while they attracted large numbers of South Asian and Chinese domestic students to study medicine and dentistry, they had very few Black Caribbean domestic students applying, males in particular.  After examining a range of factors, including many of those alluded to above, we agreed upon the following strategy:

d.    Produce a background paper giving:

•    evidence of black African/Caribbean under-representation by gender at Barts and other medical schools across London
•    data on the African/Caribbean population in the Greater London area
•    data on the ethnic profile of GPs and dentists serving that population
•    data on the ethnic profile of dentists, junior doctors, registrars and consultants

e.    Share that information  with school managers, teachers and career guidance staff in Hackney schools/sixth form centres

f.    Share that information with students and their parents/families

g.    Recruit a group of African/Caribbean doctors based in hospitals and GP surgeries and current medical students to work with year groups in schools, beginning at Year 10, and ‘mentor’ students with regard to choosing a career in medicine or dentistry, guiding them and their teachers in relation to the subjects they should choose a GCSE and ‘A’ levels, should they decide later down the line to pursue a career in medicine/dentistry

h.    Run taster courses for pre-GCSE, GCSE and Sixth Form students to provide them with an experience of what medical school would be like.  As part of those courses, provide them with an opportunity to see a hospital is organised, what junior doctors do, what happens in out-patient clinics and how doctors in training are given on-the- job training, experience and supervision.

i.    The principal messages of the outreach programme were:

•    ‘You, too, can be a doctor or dentist.
•    ‘There is nothing extraordinary about those whom you see in those positions every day.
•    ‘It is not right that given the fact that the black and global majority population is the fastest growing in the Greater London area, with black and global majority youths outnumbering their white counterparts, there should be so few African/Caribbean doctors and dentists serving that population’.
•    You will be supported throughout  your time at medical school by the same or similar people to those who mentored you while at school.

j.    We were at pains to stress that although Barts was investing heavily in that programme, what mattered to us was that Hackney black British students, males in particular, were opting to go to medical school, even though it was not at Barts.

k.    Although I left Hackney before the first tranche of medical students to enter medical school through their participation in that programme graduated, there was a 200% increase in the number of black British male students of African/Caribbean descent gaining admission to Barts.

l.    In summary, then, as far as UoM’s Law School is concerned, there is a need to attend to external factors such as those outlined above, including:

•    working in partnership with schools, colleges and communities
•    dealing with would-be law students’ anxieties about the changing legal marketplace (legal aid, alternative business structures, IT aided legal representation, etc) and routes to qualification such as those currently proposed by the SRA
•    the role of practitioner alumni in providing work experience, mentoring, pupillages, etc.

And internal structures, such as:

•    challenging curriculum and pedagogy
•    providing support systems in consultation with students themselves
working closely with the Students’ Union
•    having targeted focus group sessions and student satisfaction surveys (even more regularly than the standard UoM-wide cycle)
•    ensuring that the information from those focus group sessions and student surveys is acted upon speedily and transparently.

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