Promoting social justice through schooling and education

Est. read time: 26 min

This speech was delivered on October 10th, 2008, at the Second Anthony Walker Memorial Lecture (promoted by the National Union of Teachers) in London.

Chair, I am deeply honoured to have been asked to deliver this, the second Anthony Walker Lecture.

Let me first of all pay tribute to two people.  The first is Mrs Gee Walker, Anthony’s mother, who delivered the inaugural lecture last October and is with us here today.  Gee Walker is by any measure a formidable and extraordinary woman, formidable in her strength and her capacity to sow peace and not let herself or her family be destroyed by a corrosive anger and rage at the senseless murder of Anthony.  Extraordinary because she was and still insists on remaining an ordinary mother, living her values and doing the best by her children.  If Hazel Blears and her REACH committee really want to hold up role models for black young men or anybody else to emulate, they should acknowledge and pay due respect to the Gee Walkers of this land and the hundreds of thousands more like her that lead and steer holistic families of sons, daughters, uncles, nephews and grandparents.

The second person to whom I wish to pay the warmest of tributes is my late friend and comrade, Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of this great Union until his untimely death in April this year.  Steve it was whose inspiration gave rise to the establishment of this lecture. He wanted the National Union of Teachers to honour Anthony and his memory by erecting this dynamic monument.  He wanted the Union on its own behalf and on behalf of teachers and professional educators everywhere to honour the Walker family and to rise to their heartfelt plea, a plea made by Gee Walker at the end of her lecture last year:

Help me to make this world a safer place for Anthony’s niece and nephew and for all children to live and work, to live the dream of that great man, Dr Martin Luther King.

He wanted his native Liverpool not to hang its head in shame but to own that horrific murder in all its ugliness and, with that, the responsibility to work to ensure that no other young person thinks it right and proper to butcher any other person at all, let alone because of the colour of their skin.  So, let me presume to speak for Steve and Anthony as they look upon our proceedings here this evening. I am sure each of them is pleading:  ‘It is well with my soul.  Attend to the quality of your being and of your doing and let it be well, also, with yours’.

On 30 July 2005, Anthony Walker was murdered by white racists near McGoldrick Park in the vicinity of his home in Huyton in Liverpool.  The barbaric manner of his killing shocked the nation and led to an intensive murder investigation by the Merseyside Police.  Those responsible for his murder were convicted and received long prison sentences.  Their murderous act on that fateful night left the Walker family traumatised and a community in grief, both asking as Stephen Lawrence’s family and hundreds of others had done before them: why?

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the cities of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and more recently Merseyside have witnessed unprecedented numbers of young people, predominantly black, being murdered by other young people in gun- and knife-enabled crimes.  Like Anthony Walker and Stephen Lawrence, the victims (and invariably perpetrators) of such crimes have been young students or young men aged between 13 and 30.  We have plumbed new depths in our communities where, now, racist murders have been exceeded by murders where victims and perpetrators are of the same ethnic group and are predominantly male.

The profile given to most of those murders by the media has been very revealing.  The response of the media to the murder of 11 year old Rhys Jones in Liverpool, for example, was different both in quality and quantity to that of most of the young black men who had been murdered by other young black men in London, Manchester and elsewhere. Society had come to expect that black young people in the marginalised and forgotten communities of those cities would kill one another.  It was a different matter when a young white boy in an orderly suburb in Liverpool fell victim to cross fire between members of two alleged gangs.

In Glasgow, victims and perpetrators of deaths from sharp weapons are predominantly white and working class.  Those killings occur within a culture of male violence that invariably forms part of a more general culture of worklessness and alcohol and substance abuse. Easterhouse is not Pollokshields or Hillhead.  In fact, when you leave Glasgow City Centre and wind your way to that bleak place, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in another country, let alone another city.

The Macpherson Inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 came up with numerous recommendations for various social institutions and statutory bodies, highlighting in particular what they should do about the phenomenon of ‘institutional racism’.  ‘Race’, however, is but one of the many forms of oppression about which schooling and education has been institutionally silent for generations.  There has been a structured omission of issues to do with exploitation, discrimination, inequality and social injustice.

The assumption still persists that teaching and learning are a-historical, non-ideological and politically neutral processes that involve consensual thinking, knowledge transfer and beliefs.  Schools typically fail to address some basic but critical questions:

  • How do we ensure that irrespective of the disposition or beliefs of parents, students are provided with the knowledge, understanding and skills to be at ease with, and respect themselves, so that they could respect others, especially people who are not like themselves?
  • Where does students’ understanding of themselves and of the antecedents of their identity come from?
  • What is the correlation between the racist beliefs and practices of white young men murdering black young men because of the colour of their skin and black young men murdering other black young men because of territorialism (trespassing on man’s endz), failure to show ‘raspec’, or because they refuse to join so-called gangs, or to subscribe to the anti-learning, hedonistic and nihilistic culture that the perpetrators of such crime regard as a badge of belonging?

In Bristol in 2007, I worked with 80 Black 12-16 year old school students, two thirds of whom were males, from three schools including an Academy.  I set them what I thought was a simple exercise to write down in order of importance the three things they feared most.  As the rank ordered list below suggests, the group had a preoccupation with death, with the fear of being killed or having someone around them die, and chillingly, with fear of one another:

  • Dying
  • Death
  • Being killed/murdered
  • Going pen (going to prison)
  • Getting stabbed
  • My loved ones dying around me
  • Anything happening to my family
  • Losing loved ones
  • Our youths
  • Not achieving goals
  • Not being able to afford the things I want in the future( house, car, etc)
  • Not getting the opportunities I want
  • Not succeeding
  • Living by myself
  • The Tories in power

In 2007, the year the nation commemorated the 1807 Abolition of Slavery Act, in the City of Bristol, a city that was pivotal to the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, in the country of Britain, a country that benefited from the £23m (£4.2 billion in today’s money) paid in compensation to traders and ‘owners’ of enslaved Africans for ‘loss of property and loss of potential earnings’, such that, on top of the wealth generated by centuries of exploitation of enslaved Africans, it has become the 4th richest nation in the world; in 2007, here we have descendants of those same Africans living in fear of one another, in fear of being violently killed by young people like themselves, and in fear of the prospect of joining the over-representative number of people just like them already in prison and young offender institutions.

Meanwhile, their schools are focused on enhancing school effectiveness and raising achievement and on their place in the Government’s league tables, often at the expense of people like them.  Indeed, those attending the session were chosen because they were the worst performing students and those seen as disaffected learners and most at risk of exclusion.  When asked whether they felt their school was tackling that fear of violence and of death that worried them so much, most said that it was not the kind of thing on which teachers spent any time.

Yet, four decades ago, the very first all-party select committee on race relations and immigration had charged their grandparents with having ‘unrealistic aspirations for their children’ and with having ‘a tendency to equate length of time spent at school with quality of educational outcomes’.  That generation had been rendered surplus to requirements by a British post-plantation colonial system and had come to Britain at its bidding to help rebuild the economy and the nation’s infrastructure after two devastating World Wars.  They had come from all walks of life and many were highly qualified and highly skilled. They came with an expansive consciousness of themselves and of their place in the world, albeit from very small countries.  In Britain, they became lumpen ‘ethnic minorities’ and were all presumed to be functionally illiterate peasants and labourers.  As such, they were expected to take their place in the education pecking order and to behave like the white working class who, for over 100 years since the Shaftesbury Act had been socialised not to entertain ideas ‘above their station’ nor make demands on the schooling system.

Schooling for too many of the children of that generation in the last four decades has resulted in the destruction of hope, the death of aspiration, limited life chances and a burgeoning of the African presence in the prison population.  In the same way that three generations and more ago their forebears were made surplus to the requirements in the plantation economy, they are being rendered surplus to requirements in the British labour market and the mainstream economy, operating instead for the most part in the alternative economy in our urban centres.

Schooling and education has failed to tackle the issue of racism and its influence in shaping the identity of generations of white British people.  It does not consider it its business to challenge the view the society projected of black people as ‘the alien wedge’, upsetting some spurious consensus and assumed homogeneity within the body politic. And all of that in a country with a record of the most vicious class exploitation and gender subordination that gave rise to historic social movements, including the trade union movement, movements that won us the freedoms we now enjoy and which are being stealthily whittled away by a Government and Party supposedly with its origins in labour.

By eschewing consideration of structural, cultural and institutional issues such as: oppression, exploitation, hegemony, discrimination, the ideology of racism, the making of ‘out groups’, the process by which certain sections of the population are made to exist on the margins of the society, schooling and education has failed to perform two critical functions:

a) to equip white and black young people with an understanding of their past, the interconnectedness between that past, their present condition and the present composition and condition of Britain, such that they could root their identity and be confident about the contribution of their own forebears to the making of modern Britain, and

b) to equip them with the knowledge, skills and understanding to take control of their own lives, understand the origin and genesis of the hard won rights they now enjoy, safeguard and extend those rights and own their responsibility for making the future they face the future they want for themselves and their children, and not leave that responsibility to the elites that the system creates while they continue to exist on the margins and to implode.

Rather than structuring and mandating schooling and education to lay the foundations for human liberation, successive governments have set educational goals, structured schools and the governance of them on the basis of a toxic mix of neo-liberal ideologies, including: market forces, rampant individualism, materialism and the survival of the fittest.

Where and how is British social history taught in schools, such that school students gain an understanding of the evolution of today’s social systems; working practices; of the day notionally divided into 8 hours for employed labour, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for sleep; health and safety regulations; mobilising for better housing and health care; against police brutality and for decent youth services?

This lecture is being delivered during Black History Month.  When will we stop dusting off the icons of history one month in the year and parading them to young people and the nation at large in a manner that allows for no connection to be made between the significance of what those iconic figures did in their time, and what we should be doing about our current condition here in Britain and the state of the world today?

When will we stop that most British and Western European of practices whereby we encapsulate a key section of our community in a bubble called ‘youth’ and encourage them to believe that they live in isolation from every other age group, that they should not be seen in the company of older people and older people should not poke their nose into their affairs, that younger people should simply emulate them and have ‘raspec’, and that history begins and ends with them and their restricted view of the world, if not of their own potential?  Why do we encourage them to cast their elders on the dump heap and see them as easy prey for their predatory activities, rather than acknowledging them as people with a repository of knowledge, experience and life’s hard knocks from which they might just learn something to help them shape their own lives?

And if we do want to adopt radical solutions to what is nothing less than a crisis of alienation and self destruction amongst an increasing number of young people, African heritage males in particular, let us genuinely think outside the box and plan a wide ranging programme of activities and interventions that involve both public spaces/public sector organisations and commercial/private sector companies, and people of all ages in our communities.

There is, for example, no practical reason except fear and prejudice why schools in key areas should not stay open for use by young people and adults, including people of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation, until midnight, with a dedicated single deck bus or mini-bus service to transport people safely to and from such venues.

That could create secure space for groups of young people to interact, for youth counselling, for parents to discuss issues by themselves and with young people, for trained facilitators to help steer young people’s positive engagement with one another and with adults, not to mention the wide range of creative and expressive activities that those young people themselves might well want to organise, especially given the almost limitless possibilities of today’s information and communications technology.

It is increasingly the case that schools are not just excluding the young people who are the focus of attention in any response to knife and gun crime, they are excluding whole communities.  Why not reclaim those publicly funded spaces and alter the image young people have of them, often because of the typically negative experiences with ‘authority’ they (and their parents before them) would have had within them.  The billions of pounds Government is spending on their ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme, the scandalous amounts of taxpayers’ money being given over to private entrepreneurs to run academies surely warrant mobilisation of the masses everywhere to ensure that those expensive resources are put to the service of whole communities and not just those whom schools deign to admit.

A major part of the problem of youth alienation and disaffection from the values that make us fit for living in civil society is the systematic way in which young people, boys especially, are excluded.  Patterns of exclusion become part of the process of socialisation that young males go through.  They in turn act ‘in role’ and exhibit the behaviours society has come to expect of them and is now too afraid to challenge them about.  So, four youths (3 White and one Black) come upstairs an already almost full 259 bus and start to smoke cannabis.  Everyone looks to see if there is any window that’s not open.  Some leave to go and find seats downstairs. When I challenge the youths, the whole bus looks at me as if I am the one causing offence and provoking the youths to the same reaction they are trying to avoid by not challenging them.  The boys give me a cussing and ask why I couldn’t be like the rest and mind my own f…ing business.  The rest of the bus reacts as if to say:  ‘You asked for that’.

Two days later, I’m on a 68 bus.  It’s pouring with rain outside. Three youths come upstairs with their huge pit bull terrier and proceed to make it climb onto the seat in front of them, where it proceeds to shake the water off itself.  I turn to them and protest that that was a very stupid thing to do.  Again, with some choice language they tell me that I am ‘f…ing well sitting down’ and their dog wants to sit down too, so why don’t I ‘f….’ off.  Again, not one person on that bus uttered a word.  Again, they all looked at me as though I had lost my brain and as if to say: what if these feral youth set that beast on you?

The tragedy is that the same absence of boundaries, the same lack of concern about the impact of one’s behaviour on others that make such conduct ‘cool’ as far as those young people are concerned, is what ultimately kicks in when they casually carry knives and use them with such fatal consequences.

We bemoan their conduct and wring our hands when they slay one another, but don’t insist on appropriate social conduct from them and demand a respect for other people’s rights, even when, as in the two instances I have just cited, we are in the majority.

In schools nowadays, there is much talk about ‘distributive leadership’ and ‘personalised learning’.  Leadership is invariably ‘distributed’ only to the level of teaching staff, seldom to young people themselves.  And as for ‘personalised learning’, that is limited to curriculum subjects and the acquisition of information and facts that masquerade as ‘knowledge’.  Personalised learning about the Self and about strategies for enhancing self knowledge; self worth; self discipline; self management; self esteem; self control; etc., is still way down on the agenda of most schools.  Where children manifest by their behaviour a desperate need for help in precisely those areas of their learning and self development, they are seen as a problem to be treated by referral to a learning mentor at best, or in the worst cases to a pupil referral unit, if not by permanent exclusion.

I do not believe that ‘personalised learning’ as a pedagogical approach could be seen as separate from ‘values education’ or ‘values based learning’, especially if personalised learning is understood to be about ensuring that each child receives their educational entitlement.  There can be no more critical an educational entitlement than the entitlement to help with developing strategies for constructive self building and for positioning the Self in relation to others and to one’s responsibility to oneself and to society, as well as in the exercise and defence of rights.

That is why I welcomed the invitation from Steve Sinnott and this Union to chair the Round Table discussions that gave rise to Born to Be Great – the NUT’s Charter on promoting the achievement of Black Caribbean Boys.

Permit me to quote from the Charter:

By setting out the rights, entitlements and responsibilities of all stakeholders (parents, students and teachers), the Charter seeks to promote a common understanding of the issues and challenges of promoting the achievement of Black Caribbean boys…

…whatever their needs, no child or young person should ever be ‘written off’ or have their potential underestimated.  Rather, the NUT believes that the public provision of quality education is a fundamental entitlement of all.

It is hardly surprising, however, that this lacuna between children’s academic development and the development of the ‘holistic Self’ exists at the interface between teaching and learning. For generations, schooling has eschewed consideration of, and indeed has structurally omitted teaching about equity and social justice.  And even now that there is a public duty to comply with the requirements of the canon of equality legislation, including the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000, many schools do not see that as having anything to do with their core business.  What is worse is that Government appears to believe that there is an inbuilt contradiction in, on the one hand, giving individual schools more control over their affairs and, on the other, making them accountable for complying with equality and human rights legislation.  And so, although the evidence persists of schools’ institutionally racist practices that lead to adverse educational outcomes for black students, Ofsted’s approach is to apply a ‘light touch’ and not interrogate school’s performance as far as eliminating discrimination and upholding the rights and educational entitlement of all students are concerned.

So, what is the correlation between the anguish of Mrs Walker and all of Anthony’s family at the loss of their loved one and the barbaric manner of his demise, and the pain and suffering of the mothers of Jesse James, Damilola Taylor, Lucan Gordon, Halton McCollin and the scores of other black young men who have been butchered by other black young men in the last two decades?  Is the visceral racism and vicious racial hatred of Anthony’s murderers any different from the vicious self hatred and wanton hedonism of the black young men who murder those other black young men for reasons even more frivolous and banal?

I contend that the correlation is to be found in the fact that when they were welcomed into the world as white and black new little bundles of joy some 13 to 30 years earlier, it would have been perverse for anyone to have suggested that they were so congenitally prone to evil that a decade or two later they would be murdering other young people, perhaps born in the same maternity hospital as them.  If we accept that, then we need to look at the process by which the society renders them capable of those types of murders and for those types of reasons, and redefine the function of social institutions such as schooling and education, the media and apparatuses of the state such as the criminal justice system. To say that is not to absolve young people themselves or parents of their responsibilities.  Rather, it is to acknowledge that parents are not a homogenous group and are no less the products of the society and its social structures and political programmes than their children are.

There are vast swathes of the British Isles where media reports about urban street violence and murders of black young men by other black young men must sound like the goings on in far flung lands across the globe.

So long as the phenomenon that is uppermost in the concern of young people, parents and communities such as those in Bristol is treated as if it has nothing to do with the condition of Britain and with its hegemonic practices and exclusionary structures and arrangements (as Tony Blair implied in his challenge to the black community about what it was doing about gun and knife crime), those parts of this ‘One Nation’ state would continue to see themselves as insulated from the ‘urban madness’ as someone recently described it.  As such, Government and political parties would continue to plan their social and political agenda on the basis of its acceptability to ‘middle England’ in a manner that projects the excluded and marginalised as an aberration that demands more stringent ‘law and order’ responses, rather than as the section of the society whose vulnerability puts at risk the safety and sense of wellbeing of us all.

Some critical questions, therefore, arise:

  • How do we find ways of working with and within those communities that are imploding upon themselves such that they unleash the power that they have to hold the society and its institutions to account, to demand opportunities for participation in the labour market and in the spoils and benefits that the majority of the population take for granted, rather than turning in upon and destroying one another with weapons (class ‘A’ drugs, guns, knives) provided by those who exploit them as modern day ‘slaves’ that are programmed to service the alternative urban economy just as their forebears had been organised to service the plantation economy?
  • How do we demand that, without gainsaying the abilities and high potential of our children, schools respond to them and their communities appropriately and deliver an education that is focused on equipping people with the tools for human liberation and with the values that make us fit for living in civil society and in an increasingly disordered world?
  • How can we draw upon the historical struggles of our forebears and their contribution to Post-War British social history in order to equip our children, black and white, with the political literacy and the organisational and analytical tools to see themselves as being in a continuity of struggle and to fight for the right to have a life expectancy of 85 rather than 25?
  • How do we help them move away from the cult of individualism and act in a manner that helps convince them that, acting collectively, they could make a difference in their own lives and in their communities?

I suggest that this is what the education debate in this country should be about.  This is what the political parties need to be challenged about.  And until such time that they are seen to confront these fundamental issues about the present condition and about the future of Britain, it matters not how many parties or individual political leaders recycle themselves and claim to have the solution to the country’s ills.

My appeal, therefore, is that we reclaim the agenda and make life as difficult as possible for the schools and for whichever government is in place.  So, let us demand that Government stop criminalising and jailing so many of our young; let us put an end to school exclusion and to shunting children in the path of the juggernaut of the criminal justice system, whether through ASBOs, youth custody or adult prisons; let us demand that schools attend as much to students’ self development and needs, self management strategies and to their identity formation as to their SATs, GCSE and ‘A’ level grades. Let us demand that schools are organised and funded such that they treat children according to need and give them their entitlement to quality education that is not measured solely by their ability to gain 5 A* – C grades at GCSE. And if that means having class sizes of no more than six where the children’s needs demand it, then so be it.  It is far cheaper and more societally just in a liberal democracy to do that, than to spend billions keeping far too many young people in gaol or young offender institutions year on year.  Above all, let us all assume collective responsibility for guiding and supporting young people in our communities, rather than confirming them in their belief that they are a species apart.

We cannot hope to go about in safety, confident that our children can play and enjoy their youth and adolescence in safety, unless all children feel safe and cease to live in fear of one another and to arm themselves with deadly weapons on the basis of that fear.  Nor can we risk any one section of the population having legitimate reason to feel that they have been forgotten and abandoned to their own fate, while other communities have been privileged by the local state or national government. The more this Government rolls out its agenda for building social cohesion, it is the more it structurally sows the seeds for social disintegration.

The antecedents of Anthony Walker’s murder no less than those of the many young men and women who have been victims of gun and knife crime, including in Glasgow, lie within the society and its structural, cultural, institutional and personalised forms of discrimination against individuals and the target groups to which they belong.   This, for me, is the most pressing social and political issue in Britain today and, as such, it requires an urgent review of the purpose, function and structuring of education and schooling.

There are some 84,000 people (prisoners and trainees) in prison and young offender institutions in this country.  60% of them, if not more, are either functionally illiterate or semi-literate.  It is estimated that two-thirds of those in young offender institutions were permanently excluded from school or excluded themselves less than three years before they received a custodial sentence.  Up and down the land, there is an increasing incidence of young people’s schooling career giving way to their offending career.

A couple weeks ago, that wannabe Head of State, David Cameron, threw out some cheap jibes at the Conservative Party Conference in the part of his speech that dealt with schooling.  He ridiculed the notion that ‘all must have prizes’….  ‘Every Child Matters’ remains but a pious aspiration. Every child should matter and every parent should have access to a good local school for their children in their community. David Cameron seems to be selling us a recipe for perpetuating our ‘Animal Farm’ schooling system in which some children continue to matter rather more than others.

Schooling and education is about equipping young people with skills for the labour market and for enhancing Britain’s economic competitiveness, no less than enabling them to take control of their own lives, act as responsible social citizens capable of acting collectively to safeguard and extend hard won rights and have due regard for the rights of others.

So, yes, let them all have ‘prizes’.., the prize of an excellent education in a school local to them, where quality of expectations is matched by high aspirations, a commitment to combating discrimination and promoting social justice, quality teaching, an equal focus on young people’s self development and life enhancing schooling outcomes.

Picture: “School“, by Elizabeth Albert (Flickr)

If you would like to download this lecture in pdf format, please click here.

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