“To the barricades!”

Est. read time: 12 min

On 13th May 2013, Diane Abbott MP put out a call to the 10th London Schools and the Black Child (LSBC) Conference: “Black Children & Education: After Gove, where next?”.

"Michael Gove at Chantry High School" by Regional Cabinet (Flickr - CC BY 2.0)

“Michael Gove at Chantry High School” by Regional Cabinet (Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

For the past 13 years, the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN) has been campaigning for equality and justice in schooling and education and against the practice of excluding a disproportionate number of African heritage children.

Diane Abbott has demonstrated a passion for schooling and education over very many years, especially on account of the schooling experiences of children of African heritage.  In 1999, she held two conferences in her constituency the London Borough of Hackney on ‘Hackney Schools and the Black Child’.  In 2000, the third of these was held which, like the previous two, attracted some 400-500 people.  In 2002, Abbott joined forces with the newly elected London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and started the London Schools and the Black Child conferences which ran annually until 2009.

Those conferences proved very popular with African parents, teachers and community activists, some 2000-2,500 of whom attended most years.  However, although the focus of the conference was schooling and the ‘black child’, fewer than 50 black school children attended in any one year.  The conferences generated a great deal of heat and excitement, but typically very little action.  They allowed for no resolutions or demands to be put to government and each succeeding conference failed to focus upon whatever action those who attended in the preceding year may have taken in their communities in response to the issues debated.

Meanwhile, the Labour government of the day continued to pass laws, whittle away rights and allow schooling practices which were as detrimental to ‘the Black child’ as anything the Conservative administration had done prior to the Labour victory at the polls in 1997.  Yet, year on year, the Education (or Schools) Minister would attend Diane’s conference to tell ‘the black community’ what the government was doing to raise standards and tackle the endemic underachievement of African Caribbean children in the schooling system.

Diane Abbott intends that this conference would address the question: “Black Children & Education: After Gove, where next?”.  Some of us might think it even more pertinent to ask the question: “‘Before Gove, what?“. 

It is against this background that CEN decided to respond (as below) to Diane Abbott’s call to discuss ‘Black Children and Education… after Gove’:

16 May 2013

Dear Diane

Thank you for alerting CEN to this conference.

At your invitation, CEN participated in practically all the conferences you convened since 2002, invariably running extremely well attended workshops at each.  The flyer for this conference states:

The discussion will focus on what we can do to challenge the discrimination that our children face and ensure that they get the very best from their education.

CEN, as you will be aware, remains at the forefront of the struggle for justice and equality in schooling and education and works daily to challenge the discrimination that our children face and ensure that they are not denied their entitlement to education and to life-enhancing opportunities on account of school exclusion, including exclusion from academic streams that stand them in good stead to achieve quality schooling outcomes.

Our principal objective, as our name suggests, is to equip students and parents/families with the information, knowledge and skills with which they could empower themselves to be effective partners in children’s learning, provide students with strategies for making schooling work for them, build effective working partnerships with schools in support of their children’s learning and, most of all, hold schools to account for the quality of education our children receive and the fairness and quality of their schooling experience.

To this end, we continue to provide training in advocacy and representation and in self-organisation, such that groups of parents and students could confidently tackle the many schooling issues that arise daily in every borough in London, especially in those that have a record of school exclusion that suggests an approach which sees our children as surplus to requirements and as such readily dispensable from school, the economy and society.

You will know that the cumulative effect of this approach over many decades is evidenced by the number of semi-literate young people in the nation’s jails, the number of them in long term unemployment, the number who are visible on the streets and are subject to relentless ‘Stop & Search’ activities by the police, the growing number of them whose lives are characterised by what our Chair, Professor Gus John has called ‘the abandonment of hope and the death of aspiration’ and, worst of all, the implosion within our communities that results in a fluctuating but scandalous number of gun- and knife-enabled killings year on year.

CEN is firmly of the view that we are complicit with that deeply disturbing state of affairs if we simply have conferences to rehash what we already know and what a growing body of evidence tells us (Children’s Commissioner’s reports; reports from the Centre for Social Justice, from the Runnymede Trust, from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and from a number of highly reputable academic studies). We can all gather and lambaste Michael Gove, give chapter and verse of how academies are compounding school and social exclusion, especially for African heritage children and how schools generally are failing to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty as enshrined in the Equality Act 2010.

In our experience, however, none of that leaves us all sufficiently outraged and enraged at the end of these conferences to commit to acting collectively to do something about it.  As our late Director, Gerry German, used to say to his audiences during his typically fiery speeches:  ‘And when we leave here, be prepared to come with me to the barricades over these injustices’.

So, we continue to meet and talk, mainly to ourselves about our victimhood and our passion for change, but fail to organise ourselves to make change happen.  We continue to bemoan the fact that our democratic process lands us with the likes of Michael Gove (whether in Conservative, Coalition or Labour colours) but seem not to believe in our own power to set the agenda for schooling and education and demonstrate that after 60 years of engagement with the British schooling system we do have some things to say about what its purpose and function should be and how it should help develop children and humanize the society.

Rather, we are forever in reactive mode, reacting to government policies, reacting to the manner in which those policies and the practices that arise from them continue to systemically disadvantage our children and to lead inexorably to their social exclusion, reacting to the continued lack of representation of us in school and college curricula and in the recording and packaging of British social history.

Yet, we attempt to fill the political vacuum which we ourselves create through a set of measures which add to our dismemberment and atomisation as a growing section of the population. Some of us embrace the neo-liberal ideology of individualism and competitiveness, each Jack and each Jill for themselves, acting in the interests of their own children, irrespective of how much that hurts the chances of others like themselves.

We seem to have the belief, some of us, that once we grab ‘a place in a good school’ for our child and invest in their success, whatever it takes, we somehow insulate them from the malaise that is out there and that we are buying them a ticket to escape from. We do not even identify and discharge the added responsibility under those circumstances to ensure that those children develop a modicum of political literacy and an understanding of the sharp divisions within the typically undifferentiated ‘Black Community’.

Tragically, however, we have seen in the last 25 years far too many examples of those same successful children being cut down in their prime by those left behind and for whom nihilism and gratuitous destructiveness seem to be the only reasons for living; people whose life style leads them to readily admit that they have a life expectancy of 20-25 years maximum.

The question all of this raises, therefore, is what will be different in focus and purpose of this year’s London Schools and the Black Child Conference? How will it enable African communities to impact upon schools’ practices and particularly the number of children being excluded from school and the number of them who as a consequence get caught up in the criminal justice system?

CEN is committed to building a mass movement of African students and parents that can begin to tackle systematically the seemingly intractable problems our young people face as a consequence of their schooling experience, parenting challenges, the quality of their emotional and spiritual development and the myriad negative influences on their lives. We are therefore working with parents and students at local level to form cells in each London borough and to build a critical mass of people who can engage with the condition of being young, African and British, male and female, in today’s Britain.

We need volunteers.  We need people with time and energy.  We need people with money who, even if they cannot be active, can facilitate some of our core activities through the regular donations they provide.

We take it for granted that there are many high achievers among us. In our own global majority countries, expectations of excellence in schooling performance are still the norm. We have never believed that our African children are not as capable of performing as well as, if not better than, Chinese and Indian students who perennially cluster at the top end of the table of examination results. There is absolutely nothing that genetically predisposes them not to perform as well as or even better than Chinese or Indian students, any more than there is something that genetically predisposes them to kill one another at the rate we have experienced so tragically since the late 1980s.

We should therefore celebrate the achievements of those who work hard and succeed, and encourage all our children to higher levels of performance, yes; but there is a danger that we send out a message that such high attainment is not the norm and could be seen as some kind of aberration, such as becoming ‘the first black’ this, that or the other.

It is a sobering fact that despite the attendance at the LSBC annual conference numbering between 2,000 and 2,500 people since its inception, the Labour government continued to extend the Academies programme, to whittle away the powers of the Independent Appeals Panel to protect children from the capricious and unlawful exclusion practices of headteachers and governing bodies and to minimise the potential impact of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.

We at CEN have not been involved in your planning of the conference on 1st June, but had we been, we would have advised that the first LSBC conference after the gap there has been since 2009 should be organised with young people, principally for young people.

There is an urgent need to facilitate school and college students to engage in conversation about all the matters that have preoccupied attendees of the other LSBC conferences and are even more accentuated now in respect of African children and schooling and education. We would urge that the LSBC conference changes its focus to become much more a conference mainly for school students to debate:

  • schooling issues;
  • the need to raise aspirations among young Africans in the schooling system and encourage the belief that they can succeed;
  • issues to do with street violence and their fear of violent crime as perpetrated by people like themselves;
  • the need for strategies to tackle the scenario in which young people spend more of their teenage years burying their peers than burying their grand-parents and great grandparents;
  • the anti-learning/anti-academic culture that too many of our young people subscribe to, almost as a badge of honour;
  • the need to build a London-wide, organised, democratic and well informed School and College Students Movement, to work in collaboration with African parents, African teachers and governors forums and with the African sections of the teaching unions.

We believe the time has come for a break with the past and for urgent collective action, with African parents/families, students, teachers, school governors each acting in their own interests, yet working collectively with a common aim and in a manner that can empower the entire community to hold government and schools to account.

We need to conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects our awareness that we remain the MOST VULNERABLE section of the population in the schooling system and our determination to do something about it.

What We Want

CEN remains a charitable organisation that was established 13 years ago and which since then has dealt with roughly 900 school exclusions per year.  We are fully conscious of our potential as well as our limitations as a small charity. We are therefore working with the political arm of our organisation, Parents and Students Empowerment (PaSE), in order to pursue the key objectives outlined above.

We believe that our approach to building a mass movement of students and parents is attractive to a growing number of those across London, as indeed our training on advocacy and representation indicates.

We would like the opportunity, therefore, to help give practical focus to your conference and demonstrate to those attending how they could become involved, concretely, in building an independent students movement and an independent parents movement for change in schooling and education.

We will want to share with the conference a couple of illustrative case studies and encourage attendees to use our ‘Principles and Method of Organisation’ (based upon the work of the Black Parents Movement established three decades ago) to create student and parent forums in their own boroughs.  We want to inform them of how they could get involved in the advocacy and representation training we do in relation to school admissions, governors’ disciplinary panels, independent review panels, special educational needs tribunals and the like.

Notwithstanding the fact that your programme for the conference is most probably already finalised, we trust you would make adjustments in order to accommodate this request.

If there is any other way in which you think we might assist in making the conference more relevant to the urgent issues facing our children and their families, we would be more than happy to meet with you and have a focussed discussion.

We very much look forward to hearing from you.

With best wishes,

Yours sincerely

Deuan Gernman                                          

Strategic Director

Professor Gus John

Chair , CEN Management Committee


Picture (home): “Diane Abbott MP delivering her keynote speech ‘Children and public health: putting families at the heart of policy'” by Policy Exchange (Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

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