Gus John addresses Lib-Dems’ Race Equality Task Force

Est. read time: 19 min

'Prime Minister, David Cameron', by UK Parliament (Flickr)On April 25th, professor Gus John was invited to address the Liberal Democrats‘ Race Equality Task Force in the Houses of Parliament. His presentation – entitled ‘The role of schooling and education in building social cohesion and combating racial discrimination and marginalisation’ – went as follows:

My submission to this Task Force is informed by the following:

– My schooling in Grenada in the Eastern Caribbean and in Trinidad (‘A’ Levels), having been born of parents who were functionally illiterate (father) and semi-literate (mother);

– Parenting of six British born children, all schooled and university educated in England, the eldest a medical doctor (GP) and the youngest a teacher of children with severe learning disabilities and a Rap artist; one of whom read Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at Oxford having attended a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive in London;

– My work as Deputy Director of Education (post school) in the Inner London Education Authority and later as Director of Education and Leisure Services in Hackney (the first black chief education officer in the UK);

– My training of teachers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow as Visiting Faculty Professor (1997 – 2007);

– My work as Associate Professor in the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at the Institute of Education, University of London, where I co-facilitated a headship development programme for senior Global Majority (so-called black and ethnic minority) teachers aspiring to become deputy heads and headteachers;

– My work as co-founder and chair of the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN) a voluntary organisation has dealt with upwards of 1,000 school exclusion cases per year for the last 12 years;  as a trained  advocate and Restorative Justice facilitator and as someone giving advice and advocacy support to teachers facing discrimination in their schools;

My publications on education, including ‘The Case for a Learner’s Charter for Schools’ and ‘Born To Be Great’, the Charter for Raising the Achievement of Black Caribbean Boys which I produced in 2007 for the National Union of Teachers as the product of a series of round table discussions which the late General Secretary, Steve Sinnott, invited me to chair.

Permit me, therefore, to observe as I had cause to do to a rather dismissive education minister not long ago, this Johnnie is not a ‘Johnnie Come Lately’ to matters of ‘race’, education and the state of Britain.

I want to begin this presentation by putting the concerns of this Task Force into context, briefly.  Let me begin with a quotation from my education guru, Paulo Freire:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of theyounger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or itbecomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically andcreatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

As I have observed elsewhere, schooling in this country is in a state of crisis.  Any national system of compulsory education that continues to fail one section of the population generation after generation with such predictability and with such evident disastrous consequences must be in crisis.  I contend that this state of affairs persists not because of some congenital deficiency in black people themselves , or because there are not more black teachers and school managers in the schooling system, or because black children cannot see positive role models for them to emulate, but because ever since the 1960s and mass migration to Britain from the African Diaspora, from Africa and from the Indian Sub-continent, ‘race’ has never been on the agenda of any of the main political parties or central to their policy making.

On the other hand, it has always been high on the agenda of rightwing and neo-fascist organisations and political parties who in the history of Post-War Britain have performed the function of presuming to speak for the ‘silent white majority’ who are supposedly alarmed at what elected politicians are allowing to do to ‘their’ country and want to see somebody stand up and reclaim it without fear of being accused of racism.  But they have performed another sinister though convenient function, i.e., to raise the political temperature on matters of race and immigration and provide a fig leaf for the main parties to spread moral panic about the number and activities of black people in ‘our’ country.  Strange bedfellows, all.

So, let me take back for a moment to somewhere near the beginning of all this as it has shaped politics in Britain in the Post War period.

Forty years ago, with Derek Humphry, then a staff reporter at the Sunday Times, I wrote ‘Police Power and Black People’ which was published by Panther in 1972.  The concluding chapter of that book deals extensively with the issues of schooling and young black people’s involvement in crime.  John Lambert, in his study of police and race relations in Birmingham point to the under-representation of West Indians, young and old, among the population of offenders, but suggests that there is a very real danger that their numbers will increase.

‘In contrast with the typical British delinquent and his family, the few West Indian delinquents appear to come from families with high aspirations and ambitions. WestIndians in general are aspiring and ambitious; many are acutely aware of the poor status that attaches to the kinds of areas and houses in which they live and are ambitious for a better way of life.  They are not part of the failure that life in such areas means for many. They seek success within the general framework of values and generally rise above the delinquent and criminal standards prevalent in the areas in which they live.

Clearly the danger is that if their legitimate aspirations for betterment in terms ofemployment and housing opportunity are not met, with time the crime and disorder which surround them will contaminate their life style and lead, in years to come, to a crime rate that matches that of their neighbourhoods. Such influences may particularly infect andmisdirect their children’s achievement and undermine their chances for success and mobility’

John Lambert:  Crime, Police and Race Relations, pp.128-130. OUP and IRR, 1970.

One year earlier, the very first all party parliamentary committee on race and immigration reported  and called their report ‘The problems of coloured school leavers’.  Among their many and highly contentious conclusions was the following:

‘West Indian parents have unrealistic aspirations for their children… They equate length of time spent in school with quality of educational outcomes for their children’.

On the basis of this finding, I remember asking at the time whether the stated purpose of compulsory schooling was to provide a childminding service for parents, as distinct from ensuring the social, emotional and academic development of children, since those parliamentarians thought it bizarre that black parents should expect quality educational outcomes for their children after 12 years of attending school in a developed country like Britain.

Their ‘unrealistic’ aspirations had their origin in:

  • Their life experience with Britain in the Caribbean, part of which was
  • Evidence of education as a route to self improvement and social transformation, especially for the children of the poor and dispossessed

A conference organised by the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association in London in 1970 gave rise to the publication of an influential little book by a black teacher in London’s East End, Bernard Coard, entitled:

How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British schooling system.

That book became a campaigning document for black parents, school students and voluntary education projects across the land, and it shook up the educational establishment. It exposed grave injustices in educational practice against black and white school children.  It provided evidence that racial and class bias was endemic in the determination of educational ability by schools and educational psychologists.  As I noted a few years later:

Here, as in so many other areas, the struggles waged by the black working class movement were to have the effect of revealing the way the white working class had been treated for a century, since the Shaftesbury Act (1870), which guaranteed popular education in Britain, and were to lead to a shake-up of schooling practices for all school students, black and white.  Black parents and youth groups, in the light of the experience of the schooling system, decided it was necessary to establish supplementary schools run by themselves andindependent of establishments, to correct the damage the schooling system was doing to black children and to give those children opportunities to develop a positive attitude to themselves, their educational potential, their families and their history.

The Black Working Class Movement in Education and Schooling and the 1985/’86 Teachers Dispute  –  Speech presented by Gus John to the Rally of the All London Parents Action Group, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1, on 14 January 1986. –  Issued by the Black Parents Movement, London

The educational establishment was aided and abetted in their endemic racial bias by a number of academics who peddled theories of biological racism.  Theories of ‘race’ and intelligence were propounded in books and journals by the likes of Hans Eysenck & Arthur Jensen – 1969/73, Charles Murray & the Bell Curve  –  1990s, Phillipe Rushton – 1990s and more recently James Watson (him of the ‘double helix’) in 2007.  Their basic thesis could be summarised as:  higher scores of whites relative to blacks in aptitude tests is explained by genetically determined differences in intelligence and ability.   These theorists exerted an undue influence on teacher trainers, teachers, education administrators and politicians.  They had an inestimable effect on teacher expectations of black students which in turn impacted upon the schooling experience of and schooling outcomes for those students.

In time, the default narrative in state education, especially in urban areas with a multi-ethnic population no less than in policy making circles when dealing with black children was about underachievement, low aspirations, challenging behaviour, poor discipline and school exclusions.  And so it has remained ever since the late 1960s.

Discrimination in employment, even for black school leavers and university graduates with high grades, meant and means that with so many young black people leaving school without the qualifications and aptitudes the labour market needs, they continue to constitute a large percentage (66% in some areas) of those of working age who are and remain surplus to requirements.  That renders them visible on the streets, easy prey for the police and for those whose purpose is to lure vulnerable young people into anti-social behaviour and crime.

I would suggest that none of what  I have described thus far in this quick canter through 40 years of schooling and ‘race’ in Post-War Britain has anything to do with lack of positive role models or the absence or otherwise of black teachers.

Let me share with you four basic propositions:

1. The primary and ultimate purpose, the Alpha and Omega, of schooling and education is to humanize society;

2. It is the duty of schools to ensure thatregardless of the beliefs or dispositions of parents/carers, children and young people are provided with the knowledge, understanding and skills to be at ease with and respect  and value themselves so that they can respect others, especially people who are different from themselves;

3. Schooling is increasingly hitched to a neo-liberal agenda that defines its purpose mainly as preparing students to meet labour market needs and improve the nation’s economic competitiveness in a global free-market economy;

4. Such an ideology promotes:  the cult of the individual, selfishness, greed, the survival of the fittest and each person for themselves…, even when it pretends that we all subscribe to ‘commonly shared values’;

One of the messages we in the struggle for quality education for ALL children have been at pains to convey to the education establishment is that getting good exam grades is not the sole purpose of schooling and education.  As Mark Twain once famously said:  ‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education’.

If you accept the first of my propositions that the primary and ultimate purpose, the Alpha and Omega, of schooling and education is to humanize society, then we must ask ourselves why, given the state of Britain as defined by the legacy of Empire and the amount of unfinished business there was to address in its relationship with African people and other former colonial subjects, successive governments failed to acknowledge and define the role of schooling and education in building social cohesion and combating racial discrimination and marginalisation.

To focus on black teachers and positive role models for black students is to locate ‘the problem’ with black people within a deficit paradigm as if white power structures and the politics and policies that sustain them have nothing whatsoever to do with the condition and experience of black students in the schooling system.  What is more, it rather suggests that white teachers and managers need not provide evidence of equipping themselves and white students with the knowledge, understanding and skills to be able to recognise and confront racism, including that of the culture in which in which they, too, were socialised, and to be at ease with and respect and value themselves so that they can respect others, especially people who are different from themselves.

Education is not just for acquiring high grade examination results, equipping people with skills for the workplace, or for positioning the nation to be high up in the global league table of economic competitiveness.  It is for developing in people the skills and competences to take control of their own lives and to function as responsible social citizens, demanding and safeguarding their own rights, having due regard to and respect for the rights of others, and embracing their responsibilities to themselves, their families and to society.

Schools are encouraged, at least tacitly, to conduct their affairs in total isolation from the international human rights that govern the treatment of children:

  • The best interests of the child must be paramount (Article 3);
  • Children have a right to be heard (A.12);
  • Children have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of, for example, class, race, ethnicity, ability, capability, religion/faith or gender  (A.2);

(OR because of the failings of either parent)

  • Children have the right to be protected from all forms of violence.  They must be kept safe from harm.  They must be given proper care by those looking after them (A19);

We need a Learner’s Charter both to underpin the fundamental rights and education entitlement of children as learners and to connect them with their responsibilities to themselves, to their parents, teachers and peers.  We could begin by listening to them and respecting their right to be heard.  We could stop excluding them, not just from school, but especially from every single discussion, let alone consultation on schooling reform.  We could stop ignoring the issues they grapple with in their souls, in their homes, in their peer groups and in their communities while we demand that they focus on learning what we want to teach them, irrespective of their capacity to engage with it.

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.  At one point I set them a task which was, without conferring, to:

  • write down the three things you fear most at this stage of your life;

When I collated their responses by the frequency with which the same answer was given, this is what emerged:

  • 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;

When I asked them how aware their schools were that they harboured those preoccupying fears, they mostly reacted as if I was asking a stupid question.  One boy shouted:  ‘It takes me twice as long to get to school because I cannot walk through the estate.  I try telling the teacher, especially if I’m late, but they just don’t want to know.  They could do what they like, Sir, I don’t want to get stabbed’.

In June 2007, Global Majority  people of all ages made up 8% of the UK population but accounted for 26% of the prison population (19 per cent being British nationals).

(Statistics on Race & the Criminal Justice System 2006/2007 – Ministry of Justice 2008)

20 to 25 per cent of those in custody were 18 to 24 year olds. Young adults with a mixed ethnic background were over-represented, with 18-24 year olds making up nearly 40% of all mixed ethnic groups in custody.

Black boys are three to five times more likely to be excluded from school than their white counterparts, ten times more likely to be the subject of ‘managed moves’ (voluntary withdrawal by parents, usually at the instigation of the school); roughly the same number of mixed (A-C & English white) boys are permanently excluded as Black Caribbean boys from maintained schools; slightly more Black Caribbean boys are permanently excluded from Academies.

Over the years, research has shown that black school students (Black Caribbean boys in particular) receive harsher punishment, including fixed term and permanent exclusion, for the same misdemeanours committed by all other students.  Britain adopts a more punitive approach to young people of school age than most other European countries.  It certainly excludes more children from school than any other European country.  Such punitive measures, however, have the effect of compounding young people’s social exclusion and sense of being rejected by society rather than ‘teaching them a lesson’ that might deter them and others from similar conduct.

It costs the government roughly £100, 000 to keep one young person in gaol for a year.  For every ten young people in a young offender institution, the cost is £1m.  Where those young people are looked after children in local authority care, the cumulative cost is considerably higher.  How much more cheaply and in a more humane and children friendly environment could the state provide for such people, before they offend…, in a learning environment that acknowledges their emotional and developmental support needs, rather than one that effectively makes them yet another statistic among the 135,000 children not in mainstream schooling provision.

I believe that empowering the individual to develop his/her capacity to act in a self-directing way and to take collective action with others in pursuit of change is at the very heart of the process of managing and expanding a democratic culture.

Schools and the whole community, not just parents or blood family must help engender in young people a sense of wellness, of safety and well being; wellness in body, mind and spirit.  Self knowledge, positive self esteem, a sense of self worth, the capacity to manage oneself, having the self discipline to endure temporary pain for longer term gain, all help create and sustain a sense of well being.

Young people need advocates and advocacy training so that they could empower themselves and act as advocates.  The number of organisations with the expertise to support young people and their parents in managing the schooling process is dwindling at precisely the time when government is removing young people’s and parents’ access to and the powers of the one independent forum to which they could take their concerns about schools’ exclusion practices.

The Coalition Government appears to believe that headteachers are incapable of capriciousness and of making perverse decisions in denial of the basic rights of young people.  It is entirely against natural justice for Independent Appeals Panels to be debarred from returning to a school a child who is found to have been unjustly or illegally excluded by that school.  It is like saying that if a teacher has an internal disciplinary hearing find in their favour, or better yet the Employment Tribunal and that teacher wishes to continue working in that school, the head has a right to say s/he does not want the person back as part of their team.

Given the range of types of school that there are, including the growing number of them that are not accountable in the public sphere, and given the fact that more and more power is vested in those schools, there surely needs to be an independent Ombudsman to whom students and parents could have recourse if schools treat them in a manner that is patently unjust but yet refuse to give them respite.

There is ample evidence that schooling is being structured in a manner that promotes social exclusion for African heritage, Bangladeshi and white working class people.  We should not therefore be seeking, in the words of Paulo Freire, to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, but rather to facilitate them to amass the power they need to influence and change the schooling and education system and the way it is organised and operated so that it does not continue to work against their interests.

I would love to see the Lib Dems do the latter by:

1. Calling on Government to establish the ‘Office of the Education Ombudsman’ in individual cities and in North & East and South & West London;

2. Giving excluded children or those at risk of exclusion the right to a trained advocate to provide advice and support to them and their parent(s);

3. Reversing the provision in the Education Bill that will remove the right of children who are found to have been unjustly or illegally excluded to return to the school from which they were excluded. The justification that to retain that right would undermine the authority of the headteacher must surely be the most spurious and worrying, as it will effectively be protecting the authority of a manager who acted unjustly or illegally and colluding with the illegal act by allowing him/her to deny redress to the student;

4. Devising measures to engage school students in consultation on upcoming educationlegislation and on schooling matters that impact upon them;

5. Given the wholly disproportionate number of Global Majority (particularly African) young people in young offender institutions and adult prisons, ensuring that there is a coherent strategy for providing them with quality education, personal development and skills training and ongoing support from their communities while inside and on release back into the community;

6. Endorsing the Learner’s Charter and encouraging the Department of Education to do the same and promote its use in schools.

If you want to download this statement in .pdf format, please click here.

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