Delegates at the Respect conference debated education on Sunday morning. The highlight came when Darlington Respect activist Jill Russell spoke about a lively campaign she organised against city academy proposals.
“Like most people, I didn’t know much about city academies until I heard that my children’s school was going to be closed and replaced with one,” she told the conference.
“We decided we weren’t going to take this lying down, so we formed a campaign group.”
The campaigners wrote to Tony Blair, an MP in the area, complaining about the council’s plans. “He wrote back saying it was a local issue and he couldn’t get involved,” said Jill. So the campaigners decided to step things up a gear.
They organised a series of protests, including a convoy of cars, tractors and milkfloats that blocked Darlington town centre for a morning.
“We networked with different groups and called an anti-council demo. Over 300 people turned up, including a father in a Blair mask wearing a hoodie.
“We slapped an ‘Asbo’ on the council. We also got the local taxi drivers on side, and got them to circle round the council building.”
All of this imaginative campaigning roused a great deal of interest from the local press and media, Jill added.
Many of the slogans had an explicitly anti-Blair theme, including accusing him of harbouring “weapons of maths destruction”.
“We targeted sponsors we though might be interested in the academies,” said Jill. “Peter Vardy, who sponsors several academies, wrote to us saying he was not going to come where he was not wanted.
“Eventually we learned that Blair was coming to town to open an Argos superstore. We turned out to protest — and I was like a woman possessed.
“I yelled at him ‘It’s not just about the school here, it’s about the war as well! You’ve got blood on your hands!’
“Three policemen dragged me off, but they didn’t charge me. Now the council has voted against the academy — and we have built our Respect group and gained many contacts.
Delegates gave Jill a standing ovation as she ended by saying, “If you’ve got an academy proposal in your area, you must get out and fight it — and you can win. Get out on to the streets!”
As well as a wider discussion on campaigning against New Labour’s plans to break up comprehensive schooling, outlined in its recent White Paper, the conference also addressed racism in education.
Gary McFarlane is a parent governor from north London. He told delegates about the growing mood for action among many black and Asian parents about the particular underachievement and higher exclusion rates of African Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils.
“A new book, Tell It Like It Is, which tackles the way the education system fails black students, is really hitting a nerve,” he said.
“There were over 200 people at its recent launch and the overwhelming feeling was that there needs to be action.
“I’d like to see Respect members being part of putting on similar meetings around the country.
“If Blair’s educational reforms go through they will hit all working class children, but especially black children. Race and class go together.”
Dean Ryan, a parent and youth worker in Hackney, east London, also said there was a growing feeling among parents that something can be done over racism in education.
“I believe that this book is an agitational weapon — I’ve sold eight to parents in the playground,” he said.
“People want to get together to discuss it and they want something to happen.
“There have been big conferences of 2,000 black parents in London to discuss the problem.
“Now people are asking why something hasn’t been done. Respect should respond with urgency. We have something to offer which is not simply words, but a serious fight to tackle inequality.”
‘Respect can reshape a generation of students that grew up under Blair’
Suzie Wylie, who sits on the National Union of Students national executive, introduced the session on Student Respect.
She said, “Respect is important for students who have been politicised through their involvement in the anti-war movement.
“Tony Blair would like to silence the campuses, but thousands of students are willing to stand up and be counted.
“This is a generation who grew up under Blair, and they will never look to the Labour Party as a solution.
“Because of the war, because of top-up fees, Respect can reshape the student movement.”
Charlie Winstanley, a school student from Preston, said, “School students are sometimes written off because we can’t vote and because we’re considered to be immature and apathetic.
“But Respect can provide a real outlet for students — it inspires direct action from those who feel alienated by politics in general.
“The reaction I get at school when I talk about Respect is great. People underestimate school students — but when you have a real movement like Respect then they are willing to get on board.”
Mohammed, a student from Kensington and Chelsea, said, “I got involved not long after the general election — when I saw George Galloway’s appearance at the US Senate.
“I just thought, here is somebody who is speaking on behalf of millions of people who have no voice of their own.
“I have just finished my final year at university. I want to get more young people involved in west London. We don’t have a Respect youth group yet, but I know we can build one.
“It was really interesting to hear councillor Oliur Rahman speak about
the work that Respect is doing with young people in Tower Hamlets.
“I think it would be great to learn from that model, to attempt to replicate some of the successes — but in our own way.
“Conference has been really inspiring and insightful, to hear what people have been involved in around the country — and it’s good that so many students are here.
It is a reflection of how Respect functions as a party that it empowers people that New Labour would sideline.”