By Diane Abbott
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Education: Dear Michael Rosen…

This article is over 19 years, 11 months old
Diane Abbott on race and classes.
Issue 283

Politics is a rough old game. So you are quite entitled to use my decision to send my son James to City of London School as the excuse for a withering attack on New Labour (December SR). As it happens, most of what you say about New Labour I agree with. And my voting record in parliament reflects this. It is also inevitable that a political polemic about New Labour quickly turns into a personal attack on me. On this, you and the Tory media are singing from the same song sheet.

What you are not entitled to do is to completely dismiss the issue of what is happening to black boys in the British education system. Because this is not a new issue. In 1970 Bernard Coard wrote ’How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British Schooling System‘. In 1977 a House of Commons Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration reported, ’As a matter of urgency the government should institute a high-level and independent inquiry into the causes of the underachievement of children of West Indian (African-Caribbean) origin.‘ In 1985 the Swann report ’Education For All: The Report of the Committee of Inquiry Into the Education of Children From Ethnic Minority Groups‘ was finally published. It concluded, ’Many of the West Indians who gave evidence to the committee saw racism as the major reason for black children‘s underachievement.‘ However, the committee believed that only ’a small minority of teachers could be described as intentionally racist but concede to the fact that a teacher‘s attitude towards, and expectations of, West Indian pupils may be subconsciously influenced by stereotyped, negative or patronising views of their abilities and potential, which may prove a self fulfilling prophecy, and can be seen as a form of “unintentional racism”.‘

Ten years later Ofsted published a report on the achievements of ethnic minority pupils. It revealed that for black boys nothing had changed since the 1970s. In London other ethnic groups (including children for whom English is a second language) are catching up with, and sometimes overtaking, white children. Black boys are the only ethnic group that continues to fall further behind. Hackney is no exception to this rule. Last year on average 42 percent of white boys achieved five good GCSEs. In Hackney only 9 percent of black boys managed this. And it is not just a question of class. Ofsted research shows that, even if you allow for class, black boys still underperform massively. Furthermore the majority of children excluded from London‘s schools are black boys. I could bombard you with statistics and quotations from Ofsted research. But my main point is this – for nearly 30 years the evidence has been there about what is happening to black children in British schools, and still people prefer to ignore the issue. On this left and right can agree. Can you understand why, Michael, faced with this, desperate black parents are sending their children back to the Caribbean and Africa to be educated?

And (in case you are wondering) I have not just discovered all this when it came to choosing a secondary school for my son. I have been working on this issue for nearly a decade. In 1995 I set up a working group called ’Black Men in Crisis‘. It focused on black male underachievement in British schools, and the correlation with unemployment and crime. In 1999 I organised the first of a series of conferences in Hackney entitled ’Hackney Schools and the Black Child‘.

In 2002, with the support of the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, I organised my first London-wide conference. Over 2,000 black parents and concerned people of all colours came. Last year I organised another London-wide conference. Attendance was even higher. People queued around the block to come in. And for the record, I have never said that white women teachers cannot handle black boys. You of all people, Michael, should know better than to believe what you read in the Tory press. Of course, why black boys fail is a complex issue. Government needs to do more. Black parents have to do more. And schools and teachers need to take the problem more seriously. As Ofsted pointed out in 1999, ‘In many Local Education Authorities there is uncertainty which verges on helplessness about what are effective strategies to improve attainment for some groups. There is for instance a worrying ignorance generally about how to raise the attainment of black Caribbean boys.’ But if someone like you, Michael, pretends that it is not even an issue, what chance do these children have?

It is a good debating point for you to allege that I have never said anything about the damage both Tory and New Labour education policies have done to education in Hackney. And I cannot blame you for making it. It just does not happen to be true. And I can send you the speeches to prove it. Furthermore, I understand the serious point (that you never actually get around to making) that it is not just black boys who underachieve in British schools. Working class children generally do. This is because the system (even after the 1945 Butler Act) was not set up for the mass of children to succeed. My parents left school in rural Jamaica at 14. I went to grammar school and Cambridge. But I understand perfectly well that I am the exception that proves the rule. However, I believe that the situation for black boys is worse than for any other group. And the research supports this.

You can use my decision about a secondary school for my son to make a general point about New Labour. You can use it to make a personal attack on me. And you are entitled to argue that the most likely explanation as to why I sent my son to City of London is that I am both extremely stupid and a raging snob. But there is another possibility. Years ago I said in an article in the Observer that I believed what was happening to black boys in British schools was a catastrophe. So it is just possible, Michael (and I know that you will find this hard to believe of a Labour politician), that I believed what I said at the time. And believe it still.

Yours truly,
Diane Abbott MP


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