I was born into a working class family in Birmingham, the eldest of eight children. I attended what was called up until 1998, a grant-maintained school. I had previously sat my 11 plus exam but didn’t get into grammar school. However, my mother was able to use the test results to fight the case for securing me a place at the grant-maintained school, which was very oversubscribed. There, BAME pupils accounted for less than 15% of its student population.
Being one of very few black children in school, my mother always told me that I would need to work twice as hard to get half the success of my friends. This thought has been with me throughout my entire life and has pushed me to always be the best that I can be.
A defeatist attitude
I don’t recall whether there were any specific indicators that I would’ve enjoyed engineering later in life, but I knew that the profession was largely seen as a manually difficult job for older white men. I came to realise that if children don’t see people who look like them doing a certain job, then they’re less likely to go for it.
I loved maths but I wasn’t fond of English. I recall my mother coming home from parents’ evening once, where she’d asked the teacher what measures could be taken to improve my potential GCSE English grade. The teacher replied, “Nothing”. I’m pretty sure that was what put me off English and reading in general. I lost hope. “I bet they wouldn’t tell the other kids that,” I remembered my mother saying, implying that perhaps the colour of my skin might have had something to do with my teacher’s defeatist attitude. But I never saw it that way.
Bias and baggage
That’s not to say that race related unconscious bias isn’t surreptitiously operating within the education system. A report earlier this year showed that black British people are 21 times more likely to have their university applications investigated. Last year, Oxford and Cambridge University were accused of ‘social apartheid’ as 1 in 3 of its colleges revealed that no black British students were admitted in 2015.
The percentage of BAME children that are focused on succeeding in school is less than that of their white counterparts because a disproportionate number of children of this background set about their life’s journey, from the outset, with huge social and economic disadvantages. Poverty, prison, broken families – these are just some of the baggage young children carry on their shoulders. Indeed, some of these were a reality I carried too. And, all too often, children fall into this almost predestined pattern of failure. It’s a bleak legacy that reinforces racially loaded misconceptions that keeps black students from becoming both academic and life successes.
A black boy in class mentioned that his sister had gone to university and I thought, “Wow. That’s something I’d like to do one day.” Only when I had the benefit of maturity and hindsight did I see how important role models were at inspiring young people. They made you believe that no matter what gender you’re assigned, what background you come from, or what race you might be – that the opportunity is there for the taking if you apply yourself, work hard and want it enough. The world is your oyster.
No one in my family had been to university before, and the fact that I wanted to go was not taken well. They couldn’t understand why I’d want to get into huge debt to study when I could simply get a job straight after school and work my way up.
However, I chose my A Level subjects based on the intention of eventually becoming an accountant; I wasn’t really aware of any other jobs that I could do or would want to do. It was my maths teacher who one day suggested I try out an engineering residential at Glamorgan University. It was a course that would change my life completely. I shelved all plans of becoming an accountant for a degree in engineering.
Invoking positive changes in STEM industries starts at grassroots level. It begins with schools linking subjects that are being taught with real jobs in society. This could be enhanced by getting more BAME role models and STEM ambassadors into schools to talk about their work. In turn, this could debunk any misconceptions children might have that they can’t do such a job because they’re black, or disadvantaged or female. It’s a small but positive step in ‘normalising’ the idea of STEM jobs to children, especially BAME pupils and young girls. If they harbour an interest to work in careers that can solve genuine human problems, innovate and change the world for the better, schools and parents must do everything they can to support and nurture such aspirations.
About the author
Kerrine Bryan is an award winning chartered electrical engineer and founder of Butterfly Books, an independent publishing house that produces children’s storybooks that aims to tackle the lack of diversity in STEM jobs at grassroots. Her latest book, My Mummy Is A Farmer, is available now.