Socialist Worker

Tell it like it is: interview with editor Brian Richardson

The editor of the book Tell It Like It Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children spoke to Socialist Worker about racism, class and the problems young black people face

Issue No. 2078

Brian Richardson

Brian Richardson

It is two years since the book was first launched. It sold out very fast and a second edition has just been published. Some large meetings and campaigns have been organised around the book. Why do you think it touched a nerve?

The vast majority of parents are desperate to see their kids succeed in life and are conscious of the key role that education plays.

When they see their children being excluded and failed by the system they are angry and frustrated.

That’s one of the reasons why education has always been such a hot political topic.

It’s obvious to people that most top jobs are stuffed full of people who went to posh schools. Most working class parents haven’t got the money to send their children to public school even if they wanted to – and why should they?

They pay their taxes and most believe that education, alongside the NHS, should be a priority for that money to be spent on.

There is also a specific historic context to the experience of black children in the British education system.

Many people who arrived from the West Indies after the Second World War came from countries that were British colonies – with education systems modelled on that of the “mother country”, as Britain was known.

Many of those first arrivals came from relatively comfortable backgrounds and had attended British style grammar schools. They had some knowledge and expectations of how the system should work.

Many of those pioneers never intended to stay in Britain. They planned to work for a few years, make some decent money and learn a trade they could take back to help develop countries that were shaking off British rule.

But for most, their hopes were shattered. Many ended up staying, settling, having families and sending their kids to British schools.

Over the generations, black parents have made huge sacrifices in the hope that their children would have a more prosperous future.

The anger that the book tapped into dates back to the mid-1960s when black parents first began to realise that their children were being labelled “educationally subnormal” and discriminated against.

That kind of offensive terminology isn’t used any more but it is still the case that you are far more likely to be excluded from school, and far less likely to achieve the “gold standard” of 5 A-C grades at GCSE if you are black.

Parents are well aware that failure at school could well condemn their kids to a life of dead end jobs.

I worked with schools, parents, young people and community groups for a number of years and saw first hand the growing bitterness around this issue.

It is not just black boys who are failed by the education system – many other working class children are also failed – what do you think the relationship is between race and class in education?

The system isn’t, and never has been, designed to nourish the potential of most children.

A couple of years ago Prince Charles caused a bit of a stir when he attacked “child centred” learning and suggested that people should be educated to know their place.

In fact, despite the best efforts of many teachers and schools, that is basically the way the system works.

Schools are forced to decide at a very early stage which students are likely to pass their public exams and these are the ones into which time and money is invested.

The rest – predominantly black and working class kids – are left to struggle along, and compete in overcrowded classrooms and schools with the least resources.

Class is at the root of the discrimination but there is more to be said than just that.

First, black people are far more likely to be working class because of the history and the experience of racism.

Second, even within class bands there is what some researchers have called an “ethnic penalty” that black kids suffer.

The specific experience of racism means they are more likely to be characterised as lazy, stupid, aggressive and disruptive. Consequently they are more likely to be marginalised and excluded.

How do you think the debate has shifted in the last few years around young black people?

It has become much nastier.

The police, press and politicians are obsessed with alleged gun, gang and knife related violence among black youth.

You would think from all of this that we were facing a crime epidemic.

Yet, according to the most recent British Crime Survey figures, overall crime was down by 7 percent in the 12 months to June 2007.

Over the same period there was a 14 percent decline in what is classified as “more serious violence offences”. So it’s important to put things in their proper context.

However, it would be wrong to deny that there has been an increase in violent incidents involving young black people. Over 20 teenagers have been cut down on the streets of London alone in 2007.

It’s real and I must admit that at times my heart has sunk as another news report concludes with the words that the incident is being investigated by Operation Trident, the Metropolitan Police squad specifically assigned to investigate “black-on-black” crime.

Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, but each one is also an indictment of a system that excludes and condemns, incarcerates and brutalises people at such a young age.

Only last year Martin Narey, a former director-general of the prison service chillingly remarked, “The 13,000 young people excluded from school each year might as well be given a date by which to join the prison service some time down the line.”

Of course I don’t believe that all excluded children automatically end up trapped in a life of crime, but Narey’s comments reveal the clear and close link between the two.

There has long been a current in government thinking and the media that points the blame for the problems faced by young black people at black families and a lack of “role models”. Do you think this is becoming more widely accepted?

If things were not so appalling, the debate about role models would be almost laughable.

A few years ago it was argued that black children, boys in particular, need role models because they have low self esteem. Nowadays, apparently, their self esteem is too high because of the supposed dominance of “black culture” – clothes, music, sports stars and “street” language.

According to the pundits the trouble is that youngsters would far rather mimic the attitude and behaviour of rap stars than get their heads down and aim for exam success.

Alongside the call for role models, there have been more sinister demands.

Most recently Keith Jarrett, the outgoing chair of the National Black Police Association, said that his call – to Ian Blair no less – for more black youth to be stopped and searched has the backing of many in the black community.

Those inward looking arguments have always been around but they were not so popular ten years ago.

The great importance of the courageous Stephen Lawrence family campaign and of the inquiry into his death was that they forced people to look outwards and point a critical finger at the way society is shaped and ordered.

They exposed the deep-seated racism that lay at the centre of institutions like the police force and education system.

People organised and campaigned. Many turned up to support the family at the hearings and gave testimony that forced a judge – and wider society – to recognise the existence of institutional racism.

Many people expected significant changes, but New Labour’s solemn pledge that the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report would mark a “step change in our attitude to race relations” proved to be illusory.

Some people bought into and were bought off by the promises.

Many became disorientated, others demoralised or even cynical especially when they saw many self-proclaimed black leaders or experts taking highly paid consultancy positions but delivering little on the ground.

In those circumstances a lot of the old inward looking ideas can, and have been, re-asserted and regain prominence.

What sort of change do you think needs to happen to tackle institutional racism and the problems that black people face in Britain today?

There are thousands of unsung individuals in schools, small groups and communities up and down the country who do small but practical things every day to make a positive difference to peoples lives.

What is missing is a collective leadership that can knit these little struggles together, encourage solidarity and build campaigns to link these to other, wider struggles for social justice.

It’s here that the class dimension becomes so important.

Most black people are part of a wider mixed and largely integrated working class with a collective interest in better schools, hospitals, social services and working conditions.

We all have a far greater chance of success if we stand and fight for these things together than if we compete for an ever-decreasing share of the spoils.

The second edition of Tell It Like It Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children includes a number of new articles looking at issues around racism and education. It is available for £6.99 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 20 Nov 2007, 18:58 GMT
Issue No. 2078
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.