When God disrupts your life

Having had serious disruption at age 12 (when I was suddenly uprooted from the safe and known life in my Kashmiri village), I have always appreciated order, structure and predictability. I had that in my employment, especially in my college job. I had been there 13 years, a middle manager, with a good pay and respectable title (Deputy Director: Equal Rights and Opportunities Management Unit). Being a deputy brought with it a certain cushioning; there was always my boss who would keep an eye on matters and my contribution. 

Then it all changed. My employer informed me I was no longer needed at my grade level but I could step down and stay; or leave. This was a major life decision so I systematically set out to seek counsel and pray about it. The last person I spoke to said to me to listen to my heart “because God will place in your heart what he wishes you to do”. I followed that advice and accepted redundancy. It was a major step of faith and trust in God. Otherwise why would I leave! I had a family to support, pay the mortgage and other expenses. Even a step down would pay me a reasonable salary.

It was the right decision. I heard God right. It has been the best 20 years of my life. Of course, it has had challenges but then that is where the growth has come. Being self employed is fun and exciting but most of the time one does not know if and when the next job will come.

During this period I have done more than I could have ever imagined; work, study, writing, relationships…. Then my serious illness 6 years ago! I have never been more conscious of the gift of life because of that event. Since then I have done even more, finishing the PhD and thrived on all that which has come as a result. 

What if I had not left my college job? But then, what if my parents had not made the sacrifice to part with me as a child fifty years ago. Was it a part of God’s plan to live a different life? I hope so. 

How to differentiate in race without being divisive?

I have worked in equalities for over four decades. In the 1970s and 1980s race meant all of us because we considered ourselves Black. When Dummett published her book ‘A Portrait of English Racism’ or Humphrey and John published ‘Because they’re Black’ we knew they were talking about all of us. 

Later, we came to focus on specific ethnic groups within the ‘Black’ category such as educational underachievement of Caribbean children (Coard, Rampton). From 1991 onwards we discovered that the Asian achievement had problems within it because Pakistani and Bangladeshis were under-achieving. Slowly, we began to realise that this was not just in education but generally too; these two communities were found to be much more disadvantaged within the Asian category.

My own work has focused on Black (as a political term), Asian, White working class, the disadvantaged and now Pakistani children’s education (and the community more generally).

We know our communities have differences and similarities in heritage, context and outcome. There are times when the overall category of BAME (like the Black of old) is sufficient as is Asian or ethnic minorities but there are times we need to look at the specific communities (Black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) and their access to opportunities and power. When doing the latter I often feel a bit of guilt, in case I am seen to have something against the other minority communities which I don’t. 

Is BAME(ed) the new NAME?

My 50 years in the UK runs parallel with, and is a case study of, multicultural education, from its birth to death and rebirth.

It was in 1965 that the government published the Education of Immigrants, possibly the first such policy. In the opening sentence of the circular (Circular 7/65, issued on 14 June 1965) we learn that children of immigrants were a ‘problem’. The Circular was designed to consider the “problems” and offer advice to local authorities and schools within them.

One of the aims of the Circular was to enable the newly arrived children of immigrants “to be given knowledge and understanding of our way of life”. It spoke about “assimilation of immigrant children”. In its view this depended “a great deal in the early stages on the teacher’s knowledge and understanding of the children’s heritage and of the religious, social and cultural habits and traditions that have influenced their upbringing.”

It also saw the presence of immigrant children as an opportunity for other children to increase their understanding of where they (the children) had come from.

The policy spoke of ‘spreading the children’: “as the proportion of immigrant children in a school (if it goes over one third) or class increases, the problem will become more difficult to solve and the chances of assimilation more remote.”

If the numbers of immigrant children went above one third in a class or in a school then they were to be ‘dispersed’. This came to be known as ‘bussing’ and was implemented in areas such as Bradford and Southall. Parents of ‘non-immigrant’ children were to be reassured that their children’s education was not going to suffer.

The policy of ‘no more than one third’ had been designed after advice from the Birmingham MP Denis Howell, who was my MP and later when I became middle class I moved a few doors from him.

Birmingham’s response was to establish a team of English as a Second Language teachers. It also set up two Immigrant Reception Centres which provided intensive English teaching to all immigrant children coming into the city (except those who were West Indian; they were assumed not to need such provision).

As to ‘bussing’ it would appear the policy was too late for Birmingham. There were too many schools already with more than 30% immigrant children. It would have been too difficult to arrange transport in order to move them across the city. It was also felt that the White parents in the Outer Ring would not have liked to see immigrant children arriving in their schools. I don’t know whether they ever considered moving White children to the Inner Ring schools in order to create a racial balance. So, things were left as they were.

Five years later

I arrived in the city in 1970. I began at the Steward Reception Centre. After two terms here I transferred to a secondary modern school near where we lived in Nechells. The school had a policy that all brown children were sent to Mrs Hussain, the only Asian teacher in the school. There was much racism in the school, involving both white students and teachers.

Multicultural Education

We had had the publication (1971) of Bernard Coard’s ‘How the West Indian Child is made educationally sub-normal’. Later we had the Rampton Report into educational underachievement of West Indian children. It spoke of racism which did not endear it to the government so they replaced the chair with Lord Swann (who published his Swan Report in 1985). The government did not much like his report either and the Secretary of State for Education Keith Joseph gave it a lukewarm endorsement in his Foreword.

For a brief period in the teaching profession there was a great deal of emphasis on multicultural education. Many excellent works were published. During my teacher training we were exposed to some of the developing ideas. When I joined the then Multicultural Support Service in Birmingham there were probably over a 100 in the Service including the Antiracism Development Team.

During the New Labour government there was much emphasis on multicultural education in Initial Teacher Training and in the then new Teacher Standards. Then came the slow death of such thinking. This was the start of the colourblind ideology which did away with multicultural education, leading one commentator to talk of the death of multicultural education.

There was NAME

Parallel with what was going on in schools and the education system generally, there was teacher-led grassroots activity, in the form of the National Association of Multiracial Education. Later, it became the National Anti-Racist Movement in Education.

Now we have BAMEed

For a couple of years I have been aware of BAMEed. It is is a movement initiated in response to the continual call for intersectionality and diversity in the education sector. All members are volunteers and have committed their time and efforts into creating a tangible support network to equip teachers and leaders with the tools to progress into and through the workforce.

BAMEed connects, enables and showcases the talent of diverse educators so they may inspire future generations and open up the possibilities within education careers. Like NAME, it was founded by, as the old saying used to go ‘Black and White working together’.

Over a year ago, I was invited to deliver a workshop at their annual conference. Recently I have learnt about and joined BAMEed West Midlands. There are similar branches across the country. In addition, the network works in partnership with a wide range of organisations who are similarly working towards equity.

After a couple of conversations and meetings, I have concluded that this ‘movement’ is very like the NAME of earlier days. Just like then there are now local groups across the country. Working with teachers of this age in this way certainly has given me much needed hope. Maybe some of this grassroots activity will percolate upwards into the colourblind corridors of the Department for Education and Ofsted.

Our colourblind education system

So, last week I spent an hour with a Birmingham teacher. I was teaching her about multicultural education, from the first government policy in 1965 onwards, via Coard, Rampton, Swann, to today. I had not prepared anything so it was a case of talking about things in my head, that I had talked or written about over too many years. She lapped it up. She was hungry for every word. She was generous in her response. 

Part of me was pleased to be valued by a younger professional in My Hometown, thinking that long after I am gone she would be educating. The other part of me was angry (righteous anger) that, after she had been through teacher training and now had taught in schools for a few years she did not know the basics of multicultural education. Is race equality/education the only area where we do not build on the previous foundations and leave the subsequent generations ignorant through our colourblind policies. 

I recall a very senior educationalist (director of education of a multiacademy trust) asking me to explain to her what I meant by ‘under representation’ when I had asked whether their teachers reflected the ethnic minorities in their school. And the forever increasing number of schools who do not even have a working policy on race let alone an action plan.

Is the British countryside (still) a ‘white space’?

For many years now, especially since we moved to the countryside, we have been fans of Countryfile. Everything stops on Sunday evenings. I am even found giving the programme my full attention, without getting side-tracked with gadgets. The programme has become even more attractive since its presenting team have become more diverse.

I was pleased the programme invited Dwayne Fields to report on the current situation on race. The message of the programme was:

that minorities “can feel unwelcome in the countryside”

“think they don’t belong in the countryside”

being black in a rural area is an isolating experience

One interviewee referred to “People saying they liked the good old days when you could be racist, and you didn’t have to be PC.”

The programme has attracted criticism for drawing attention to racism in the countryside. Dan Wootton questioning the use of ‘white (his emphasis) environment’. He brought on Calvin Robertson who was “baffled” with the programme. He questioned the label ‘BAME’: “we are all British”. He spoke of the “PC brigade” and “woke people” saying racism was everywhere. “Racism isn’t everywhere”.  

The Spectator said: Countryfile is wrong about racism and the countryside.

Spiked also criticised the BBC for its response to the Black Lives Matter movement:

The BBC has made a special effort to put race front and centre in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It has promised to spend £100million on ‘diverse’ programming. It has commissioned op-eds by activists to promote BLM talking points. 

It said so widespread was the BBC’s BLM activism that “it has started to crop up in the unlikeliest of places. Now even BBC One’s Countryfile is taking on ‘systemic’ racism. I wonder why they used the word ‘even’ in this respect and why is Countryfile an unlikeliest place for addressing racism in the countryside.

Most of the criticism was decontextualized and ahistorical. It took little account of the wider and historical context of the issue of race in relation to our rural areas.

A bit of background

First a little about me.

I had a happy childhood, in Kashmir. It was a simple world, no roads, no electricity, no running water. We walked everywhere. Our days began and ended with the rising and setting of the sun.

We made up games and created our own amusement. We ‘sailed’ boats. We played with stones and pebbles. We ‘raced cars’. We played marbles, gulli danda, sat khutar…

We went on walks with our friends. We appreciated the space around us; it changed with the seasons. We helped with jobs such as looking after the animals and gathering kindling for the fires on which our meals were cooked.

We sat and listened to our elders’ conversation (we spoke when we were spoken to). We followed our elders do their jobs such as ploughing the field. We helped when we could.

All this changed when I was about 12. My parents sent me to England, to live with an older sister. So, the green and pleasant countryside went out and, in its place, the urban environment arrived. Inner city Birmingham, to be precise. Houses and other buildings; factories; people everywhere. Living next door to the gas works was a million miles from where I had spent my early years.

Life carried on. Slowly, I began to discover that not far from my urban environment was another world. Just like my birthplace; green and pleasant though very different. It was what has been described as ‘white space’. I stuck out because of my colour. People stared at me; not directly but stared, nevertheless. It was that ‘second look’ which made it clear that people had registered my difference.

I stuck with it. Over the 50 years of being here, I have made the British countryside my own. Wales, Scotland, and many places in England; I become alive whenever I am out and about. It takes me back to Kashmir. One year an Asian friend and I hitchhiked to Cornwall and back (that’s what you did in your teens in the 1970s). So, now I was not in the company of white people (which makes visible minorities safer in the eyes of the wider world) but another Asian.

Every now and then I have wondered whether we would ever be able to actually live in a rural area. In such situations ethnic minorities are never far from wondering whether one would be accepted; would one’s children be safe at school; whether one would be able to make friends with one’s neighbours. Or if one suffered abuse would there be an organisation to turn to or race-aware local people who would come to one’s aid. Or small yet significant matters whether one would need to anglicise one’s name or be frequently asked the ‘where are you really from?’ question.   

Keep them in Birmingham      

Then one’s personal questions are given weight by official reports. It is made clear that there are plenty of spaces in the rural parts of our nation where people are of the ‘Keep them in Birmingham’ mindset. This was a report from the then Commission for Racial Equality was published quite recently (in 1992). It stated the following examples of racism:

trainee was black, and the following day he was asked to leave, since his colour ‘might affect the trade’.

black woman who had just started work as a chambermaid was dismissed because members of a coach party staying there expressed virulent dislike at the idea of having a black chambermaid attending to their rooms’ and the management did not want to risk alienating regular customers and losing valuable trade. A tribunal in Truro awarded her £1,500 in compensation.

Another black woman who was sacked from her job in a hotel because of the racial prejudice of a guest now works in a school where prejudiced parents are said to be reluctant to allow her to have anything to do with their children.

A hairdressing salon which takes hairdressing students on placement from a college of further education refused to have black students, ‘because our clients don’t like it’; the college was prepared to accept this on the grounds that we must use this hairdresser for our placements’.

And in a seaside resort where there are many overseas students, there have been several reports of bus drivers deliberately driving past a bus stop where black students were the only people waiting even though there were empty seats on the bus.

That was then. Maybe things have changed. If they have then this needs to be communicated to the minorities who have decided to ‘stay in Birmingham’. The ‘stay away from the countryside’ message might have been passed onto younger people and may still be influencing people’s decisions. And if they haven’t changed then….

Then in 2004 the Head of the same CRE, Trevor Phillips, said low numbers of black and Asian people in the countryside was a form of ‘passive apartheid ‘and that the countryside was seen as a ‘no-go area for ethnic minorities’. He pointed out that many in the ethnic minority communities felt they did not belong outside towns and cities. “But I think what we are seeing is a gradual drift towards a difficult situation in which people from ethnic minorities feel uncomfortable.”

Then, in that same year we had the publication of a book  – ‘Rural Racism’ (Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland).  This pointed out that people of colour were now found in almost all parts of England, Scotland and Wales and the numbers were increasing.

It is now a simple empirical fact that you can be ‘visibly different’ and yet still from Worcestershire, the Highlands of Scotland, the Welsh valleys or wherever.

They also pointed out that, were it not for racism, there would be even more ethnic minorities moving to the countryside. It maybe stating the obvious but people from these communities “enjoy living in the countryside for the same reasons as their white counterparts – the love of rural terrain, the availability of country pursuits and the emotional tranquillity that comes from living in a peaceful natural environment.”

The book’s authors believed that “there is a real need to think about how best to respond to rural racism and how policy can meet the needs of individuals and families with diverse backgrounds”. They pointed out:

a range of covert and overt processes of racism through which minority ethnic people are made to feel ‘othered’ in rural environments.

subjectively defined ‘low-level’, or less tangible, types of racism that tend to be particularly common features of areas with low minority ethnic populations.

racism can often be marginalised by rural agencies in deference to other problems that show up more readily in official crime figures

introducing elements of diversity, multiculturalism and anti-racism into the classroom is a further challenge to those working in the field, particularly in the rural context where schools may have very few minority ethnic pupils and familiarity with ‘other’ cultures may be extremely low

Crucially, the authors pointed to the complexity of the problem:

rural racism is not a simple phenomenon: changing cultural norms, attitudes, geographical landscapes and political agendas will all impact upon the way in which different forms of racism manifest themselves in different forms of rural space, and indeed upon the way in which such behaviour is interpreted and challenged.

Since then (2009), in an article titled ‘is the countryside racist?’ Sathnam Sanghera pointed out that racial prejudice was certainly a factor that led to ethnic minorities feeling uncomfortable in the country:

all my Asian and black friends have stories of being stared at, country pubs falling silent on entry, and strangers asking if they can “feel” their hair.

And thinking about my numerous trips to the country, there are all sorts of things I do consciously and unconsciously to avoid such reactions: I’ll never enter a pub with a Union Jack or St George’s Cross flying outside, for instance; will invariably stay in places I know to be popular with other Londoners; and will usually travel with someone white. Sanghera makes a distinction between ignorance and “racism” and asks us to remember “that people in the country aren’t just hostile to ethnic minorities – they’re hostile to all outsiders.” He also reminds us that the lack of ethnic engagement may be a question of class rather than race; a large family can make the visit prohibitively expensive.

Rural racism is very real

The other rurally focussed programme is Farming Today on Radio 4. This has had two recent items on race. On 13 June it discussed the problems of ethnic minorities working in the farming industry. People spoke of suffering overt and covert racism, such as racist jokes. When asked whether the victim had reported any of it, he said “to report it you’d be reporting it all the time”. In any case he said there was no one to report such problems to. He asked the agriculture industry to not be complicit in the problem. “It should take action to address the problem”.

On 20 June, the programme asked: How welcome are black or Asian families in rural Britain? It reported on one family taking taxis because they were unsafe travelling while black. The family reported “experiencing racism all the time – once a week racism, such as being called the N word”. When asked whether the situation had got better, the response was in the negative. “It’s better but not because there is less racism but because I am better dealing with it”.

Professor Neil Chakraborti was interviewed. He was one of the authors of the book ‘Rural Racism’,  referred to earlier. He said the demographics had changed; there were now more minorities living in rural areas, but the environment was still not welcoming enough. Like Sanghera above, he spoke of people’s unfamiliarity with difference. He called on all different institutions- police, health education – to play their part.

There are some good signs of change. Countryfile interviewed the writer Julian Glover who had authored a report. He said both the two main political parties had supported the report and had agreed to act.

To Pashto or not?

Recently I realised I am not just bilingual but multilingual. I grew up speaking Pahari, then I learnt Urdu. Later, upon arriving in the UK as a teenager, I learnt English. I still speak the first and the third, read the second and third but write only in the third.

Having experienced the British education, first as a student and then as an educationalist, I can say it is a monolingual system, with a sole focus on English. Moreover, it is a monolingualising system.

It talks about valuing bilingualism, but its approach is not additive but subtractive. So, children enter school speaking their mother tongue. By the time they leave they usually only speak English. Their teachers, explicitly or implicitly, will have told them ‘only English matters’. The wider society also sends a clear message to people, especially if they are from migrant communities, that their mother tongue is worthless.

Fortunately, I continued to read and speak my mother tongues and have managed to keep them alive. They are a central part of my identity. Whenever I have the opportunity, I encourage people to become or at least stay bilingual.

So, it was very interesting and encouraging to see a discussion amongst the members of the Pashtun Community, on the Facebook page of the Pashtun Trust (5.7.20). So, my thanks to everyone who has contributed to the discussion. I hope it will encourage others to have similar discussion.

The discussion began with the key question:

Is it important to teach your children to read and write Pashto? Why?

In response there were several extremely helpful contributions:

Because the language will die out

It’s important, but unfortunately even speaking it is dying out

It’s deliberately being wiped; the national language (of Pakistan) takes precedence

People said the language was dying out: “half of us brits can’t speak the language never mind read and write it”. We should be teaching our kids Pashto! The language (of lions) will die out if we don’t.

People thought speaking the language was “more important than to read and write it”.

One said when their family went to Pakistan they realised what a mistake it had been not teaching Pashto to the children when they were young. Another said: “Stur sari shu…they don’t want to learn it now”. Another said he has tried but the children find the language funny and don’t take it seriously.

One contributor commented that it was beneficial to speak the language even if one could not read or write it. “I suppose if you’re Welsh it would still be beneficial to learn Welsh even if it’s just to keep the language going. It’s part of who you are, who your parents are.” Another contributor pointed out that speaking in different languages was an asset, a message that should come from the education system but sadly does not. This has the support from academic research:

Bilingualism is a cognitive, social, and economic asset for all people, and schools can play a significant role in helping students develop full academic bilingualism.

Others have also argued that bilingualism is indeed an asset.

One comment reminded us that learning about Pashtun history, heritage, values, principles, and religion took precedent over the language. Also, that, within a European context, other languages were dominant and were replacing Pashto.

Ethnic Retention

This is a term coined by academics to refer to immigrants or people of colour “embracing the characteristics of their original culture, such as language, value priorities, daily routines, social networks and ethnic identity”.

There was discussion about how one’s language was interlinked with one’s overall identity:

it is who you are… losing your language is the first stage of losing your culture.. lose your culture; well then you are lost…

In all reality l don’t think the next generation will be as much Pashtun as they will be British.

The role of parents and grandparents was crucial:

My parents and grandparents would insist on us speaking Pashto at home and that’s how we learned and preserved it. With this next generation, you have to make the effort to speak it with them and encourage it and if they make mistakes, help them but don’t take the mick otherwise that will make them go back into their shell. I do it with my own, I have half Irish nieces and nephew who are learning it, so it just requires effort and consistency.

People raised the importance of teaching, which in their view was essential to keeping a language alive. One person suggested how to keep the language alive: by practising it i.e. writing, reading, and socialising and speaking with others. Internet resources such as Youtube were recommended.

I follow Kristie Prada, who has experience of bringing up her children bilingually. She provides sound advice.

My thanks to the members of the Pashtun community. I hope their discussion and work will continue. I hope to continue to learn from them and others who may follow their example.

Meet Dr Zetta Elliott

At about 5pm today I received a message from my colleague J.S Shah, about the first of their new podcast series. She asked for my support in spreading the word. What she did not know was that she was doing me a favour. Except for little breaks, I had all day been engaged with writing and the occasional reading. What I needed was some audio input. This came in the form of a conversation Jo was having with the writer and academic Dr Zetta Elliott. 

I took some notes while I was listening, which I used to tweet and now I am using them here. My learning style is such that unless I highlight what I read or take notes on what I watch or listen to, it does not register with my knowledge bank. 

Dr Elliott explained that her writing journey began with her English teacher, saying to her: if you want to be a writer, you will be. And it became true. “It was amazing to think I could write a book”, she said. 

Listening to her tell her story brought back memories of my own. I was about 15 and still at school. I had been England for about three years. Round the corner from us was the office of the Saltley Community Development Project. Based there was the bilingual community newspaper, Saltley News. Its Editor was Mahmood Hashmi, the writer of the reportage Kashmir udaas hay, who later had founded Urdu journalism in the UK and edited the first newspaper Mashriq. 

Hashmi became my role model and mentor. A little while later (1974) he published my first article in the Urdu section of his paper. I still have the original copy and use it to uplift myself; seeing my name in print does the trick, still. 

Dr Elliott explained that she had found that story telling was a good way to get some attention; “it felt I had control over something”. As a child she learned that language had power. She also experienced being ‘othered’ at school. This had the potential of taking my mind down very dark memory lane but I gained control and pulled myself back to the podcast. By a complete coincidence I had shared my experience (90 minutes onwards) in my talk at a seminar which Jo had organised over a year ago. 

Dr Elliott touched on internalised racism: “you can’t be more than you were raised to be.” She also spoke of writing a dissertation on lynching. It reminded me of writing my P Word book. I wondered whether like me she would have found it challenging to manage the emotional from her writerly self. 

She explained that poetry for her was a “response to the immediate situation; most economical form. A poem can be written in 30 minutes.”

I agreed with her when she advised self-publishing “if you want the freedom from commercial expectations.” With my earlier writing I was told no one would publish what I had written so I did it myself. 

She reminded us that one does not have to be a consumer of books; “you can be a creator. Writing can be empowering; it can heal …”

Jo spoke of the writer Hanif Kureishi. I thought “oh yes. I too grew up with him. He gave me a presence too.

There was reference to decolonising one’s mind and dealing with racism that all of us in the danger of internalising. 50 years in the UK, I have done that on many occasions. 

There was discussion of how to select names of characters one writes about and how it feels when your name is not there amongst the key-rings etc being sold in shops. 

Jo explained how she acquired her shortened name from the beautiful Javaria and how she was now preparing to recover her original identity. Such is the pressures on minorities to anglicise their names, to make it easier to pronounce for fellow (White) Brits. 

Dr Elliott offered advice to writers: “Feed your imagination; to avoid writer’s block.” And reminded people: “What is your own definition of success?”

There was a passing reference to the commodification of racism. Also how to talk to young children about Black Lives Matter! I was glad our children were already adults.

Jo said “I am loving this conversation”. I thought ‘me too’. 

At the end Dr Elliott was asked what her advice would be to her younger writing self: 

“Trust your experience. Don’t try to become other writers. Don’t try to become Charles Dickens or Alice Walker. Be authentic. Give yourself a chance to find your own voice.”

I now look forward to the second podcast.

What place for white children in talk of diversity, identity, and educational underachievement?

Reading the Runnymede Trust (2020) report by Remi Joseph-Salisbury, reminded me of another area dear to my heart; that of the white working class underachievement. Professionally my interest dates around 2001. This was when I made a submission to the Birmingham Stephen Lawrence Commission, where I had said that we should not neglect the poor whites. Later, when I joined  the Birmingham Advisory and Support Service as an Equality Adviser. The service already had two Achievement Groups in place: African Caribbean and Asian. A couple of years after arriving there, I instigated the White Achievement Group (launched 26 January 2004).

Soon after, 20 May, I was at the ‘Raising Achievement – towards a whole school agenda’ seminar. There were another 34 delegates, from across the country. They had titles such as: Raising Achievement Coordinator, Head of Service, Ethnic Minority Achievement, Race Equality Education Coordinator.  

After the Chair’s opening comments, an officer from the Aiming High Project at DfES, began proceedings. Her session was entitled:  Raising achievement – the national context. She put up a slide with bar charts: Deprivation, ethnicity & achievement. The data provided the details of the 2003 GCSE Cohort: proportion achieving 5+ A*-C GCSE/GNVQs for pupils with PLASC record. The shortest bar was for White British free school meals (20.4%) and the longest bar was Chinese non-FSM (75.7).

The second session ‘Deconstructing underachievement’ by a university professor and other sessions on making sense of monitoring, effective parental engagement, the critical role of Afro-Caribbean teachers and towards a whole school agenda; none of the speakers nor the delegates made any reference whatsoever to the white underachievement. My own role at the time was ‘Lead Adviser Equalities’, with a focus on ethnic minority underachievement.

‘Championing’ the white working class

Upon return to my office, I investigated the published data and concluded that both nationally and locally poor white boys and girls, i.e. those on free school meals, were the lowest achieving group. I instigated the practice of focussing on numbers of children rather than percentages. I was of the view that this was a better way of drawing attention to the fact that these children were all individuals, who had been entrusted to the school system by their parents and which, in turn, had let them down.

The report I produced showed the very large numbers of white children (the largest group locally and nationally) leaving school without the benchmark qualifications i.e. 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C. Worse than this my report showed that nationally 25,000 white children left school with ‘no passes’ whatsoever (with 1194 Black and 601 Pakistani), meanwhile in Birmingham 486 white children left with ‘no passes’ (with 89 Pakistani and 56 Black).

I also showed that there was a correlation between white underachievement and support for extremist political parties (British National Party and the National Front). The most recent data had shown that 1815 people had voted for these two parties in the Sheldon Ward and 1633 in Kingstanding; both these areas had high levels of white underachievement. Several other wards also had significant extremist support and underachievement: Oscott (1515), Hodge Hill (1420), Stechford (1339).    

The report stated: “A number of teachers described how their schools had implemented policies that directly targeted white working-class students.” It goes onto recommend that “Policies that focus specifically on the attainment of white working-class students should not come at the expense of BME students.” I agree. The focus should be determined by the data on who is underachieving, who needs what help and who needs more resources than other children (yes positive discrimination if you wish to label it).   In my view best people to lead on this work are those who are racially literate especially those who engage with concepts such as whiteness and diversity.

Following the report, I made a several presentations and wrote numerous articles. This included: White Plight (BVSC Update July/August 2008); White Working Class- a Case for Positive Action (BVSC Update March 2011) and White Working-Class discrimination (Equal Opportunities Review February 2011).

In 2008, the then Head of Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, came to Birmingham to make a speech at the site of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by Enoch Powell, 40 years before. I made a comment from the floor, about my work. The newspaper reported my comment and referred to me as the champion of the white working class.

I quoted from my report that “there is hardly a single voice being raised about this tragic state of affairs (meaning white underachievement) from anywhere, locally or nationally, sometime with the sad exception of the extreme right who purport to represent this constituency”. Coincidentally, a few days later Mr Phillips wrote an article on the subject.

The most significant of my articles was a two-page spread in the Times Educational Supplement      

My 15 minutes (well a couple of hours) fame

I was of the view that the White Working Class had been abandoned by New Labour. I wanted to change that. With the help of the Headteacher of Colmers School, I arranged to see Richard Burden,  MP for Northfield. I presented my research to him and persuaded him to raise the matter at Parliament. He agreed, by using the Adjournment debate route. Normally it takes a very long-time to be selected for this, but he got lucky. I worked with his office on the speech he would make, on 19 May 2009: White Disadvantaged Pupils (Birmingham).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) responded for the government. She listed several ways in which the government was responding already and promised to do more. On the matter of providing “opportunities for disadvantaged white pupils to celebrate their culture and identity”, she pointed to the Extra Mile initiative as one of the ways disadvantaged pupils, especially white, were being catered for.  Sadly, the government changed the following year otherwise who knows what might have happened because of my report.   Since then my work has shifted focus, namely to my doctoral research related to the education of British Pakistani boys. However, I did make a submission to the House of Commons enquiry published as Underachievement in Education by White Working-Class Children (2015).

Nationally, several other reports have been produced by researchers much more capable than I and with a lot more resources at their disposal. The most longstanding work I know of has been happening at Lambeth Council, under the leadership of Dr Feyisa Demie.

The National College for School Leadership produced several excellent reports on the subject.

The National Union of Teachers published Opening Locked Doors– educational achievement and white working class young people.

Ofsted published ‘White boys from low-income backgrounds: good practice in schools’.

In 2009, the Runnymede Trust asked: Who cares about the White Working Class?

In a Foreword to the report the Vice-Chair Kate Gavron stated:

“The poor white working class share many more problems with the poor from minority ethnic communities than some of them recognize. All the most disadvantaged groups must be helped to improve their joint lot. Competition between them, real or imagined, is just a distraction.”

The absent presence of white in the talk on diversity and identity

In my report I had pointed out the omission of white children and their identity in the talk on multicultural education. I had recommended that “when addressing equality and race equality in particular one must not ignore the needs of the white population, especially those who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods”.  

This view was confirmed by Keith Ajegbo and colleagues in their report of diversity and citizenship.

The following are a few quotes from their report:

All children and young people need to understand their identities and feel a sense of belonging – as important for an indigenous white pupil as a newly arrived immigrant.

But we have emerged in a new world in which there is worse underachievement by white working-class boys

It makes no sense in our report to focus on minority ethnic pupils without trying to address and understand the issues for white pupils. It is these white pupils whose attitudes are overwhelmingly important in creating community cohesion. Nor is there any advantage in creating confidence in minority ethnic pupils if it leaves white pupils feeling disenfranchised and resentful.

Many indigenous white pupils have negative perceptions of their own identity. We spoke to one white British pupil in Year 3, for instance, who, after hearing in a class discussion how the rest of the class came from countries such as the Congo, Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago and Poland, said that she ‘came from nowhere’.

In the case of white working-class boys, their sense of linkage with a tangible history is often as absent as – or even more absent than – for other groups.

White pupils in areas where the ethnic composition of their neighbourhood is very

mixed, or made up predominantly of different ethnic groups, often suffer labelling and discrimination, giving them a different take on how we live together.

They can feel beleaguered and marginalised, finding their own identities under threat as much as minority ethnic children might not have theirs recognised.

If we want community cohesion and for the UK to be at ease with its diversity, as much thought and resource for education for diversity need to be located with the needs of indigenous white pupils as with pupils from minority ethnic groups.

Considerable support is channelled into inner city, multicultural schools, but predominantly white schools need support for education for diversity too.

The diversity of the indigenous white population is also key to the diversity of the UK and should be studied.

Teachers need to be able, in different contexts, to promote the identities and self-worth of indigenous white pupils, white working class pupils, mixed heritage pupils and minority (and sometimes majority) ethnic pupils, and at the same time to be aware of religion and the multiple identities we all live with.

Critical literacy is crucial: if you are white, for example, living in a white area, how do you relate what you see on the television to your idea of being British and the nature of British society?

Schools need additional help and support. To develop schools’ approaches to education for diversity further, and to work with local authorities in predominantly white areas around diversity issues, new approaches need to be developed.

It is also perpetuated by factors such as economic deprivation; feelings of marginalisation within the community exacerbated by housing allocation; a lack of community and school engagement; a perception that their identities are not being affirmed in school; low literacy levels and parental low aspiration of their children’s education.


As I finish this blog, I note that the current government has commissioned another enquiry into education of white working-class children. As has been said in response to their setting up a commission on race inequalities, they would have been better to implement the recommendations of the previous report. It had pointed out that, compared to other ethnic groups, white working-class British children are less resilient in the face of poverty, deprivation, and low socioeconomic status. 

Race and Racism in English Schools

I have spent much time with white working class people, working class folk from other ethnic groups and, of course, have belonged to the working class in my own ethnic group, the Kashmiri/Pakistani community (before becoming middle class). Through most of my adult life I have had a left-leaning political tendency. So, I have been of the general view that white working class, black working class, Kashmiri working class and indeed any other working class have much in common in terms of their problems and needs which result from their structural and systemic disadvantages. We should whatever we can to remind working class people (black, white, whatever) of their commonalities and encourage them to resist being divided on grounds of colour.

In my education work I have focused on underachievement amongst black students, white working-class students, and latterly Pakistani students.

I recently read the report, for the Runnymede Trust, by Joseph-Salisbury . This covered many issues facing our education system. It stated, “racism is an enduring and fundamental problem for our times” thus reiterating Dubois – “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line”.

Using the examples of Shukri Abdi and Caleb Hills, the report reminded us of situations when schools fail our children. It also reminded us of the misguided advice from Katherine Birbalsingh who said:  

If [a] child says [a] teacher is being racist, back the teacher. Whatever the child says, back the teacher … If you don’t, you are letting the child down and allowing them to play you for a fool’.

I would say: ignore such advice and stick to what Macpherson Report said: “an incident is racist if the victim says so”. This article from a victim of such abuse should remove any doubts you might have on this.

The author lists a number of areas where the education system continues to fail and concludes with “there is evidence of deep-rooted institutional issues that do not so easily make the headlines” and “Two decades on from the Macpherson Report, and almost half a century on from Bernard Coard’s report (1971), evidence suggests that racism still plagues our society and our schools.”

It is worth remembering here the Rampton Report (whose chair was replaced because he identified racism)  and its successor the Swann Report; both commissioned and dismissed by the then Tory government.

We are also reminded that “education as an enterprise that is far greater than student attainment….. the purpose of schooling has to be about more than metrics, attainment, examinations and the production of a future workforce.”

Representative diversity in the school workforce

The report found teachers speaking of “schools where the teaching force was ‘mostly white’, and in some cases exclusively white.”

This reminded me of two quotes where the Department for Education had made its position quite clear:

“School workforce should reflect the diversity of the school population”

“Minority teachers affirm a positive sense of identity among ethnic minority children” (Blair & Bourne 2000).

Here, it is worth considering what the advantages might be. In my doctoral thesis and later book, I pointed out that minority teachers provide role models, act as cultural brokers/experts, advocate for minority students and act as a ‘bridge’ between, and ‘translators’ of, minority and dominant cultures. Here is an earlier blog on the subject.

Joseph-Salisbury points out: “it is vital that hiring more BME staff is not seen as a panacea for solving all of the issues of deep-seated institutional racisms in our schools. There is a danger that such ideas place the burden on individual BME people, while absolving white staff of their duty.” He reminds us that “it is not enough for the teacher to be someone of the same colour, but it needs to be someone that does not believe the stereotypes”.

He also points to the importance of teachers becoming racially literate, which refers to them understanding the ways in which race and racisms work in society. “It also involves having the language, skills and confidence to utilise that knowledge in teacher practice.”

“Racial literacy and anti-racism should not be left to the volition of individual teachers but need to be part of a whole-school, institutionalised approach.” Equipped with such literacy means all the staff (not just teachers) can own the issues pertaining to race and racism.

He reminds us that to understand racism “as institutional (and structural) is to recognise the ways in which racism is woven into the fabric of society’s institutions.”

The report draws attention to the failings of teacher training as the main cause of low levels of racial literacy. The teachers who were committed to acquiring such literacy “drew on a range of resources, particularly contemporary literature on race and racism written by popular authors”. Maybe we can encourage a whole school approach on this: Every Staff (not just teachers) member a Reader on Race

In terms of curriculum, the report points out that an “anti-racist curriculum would involve showing how the history of modernity is shaped by racism, coloniality and white supremacy” and that anti-racist education “should be based on an understanding of racism as a structural and historical phenomenon as well as an interpersonal one.”

Finally, I noticed the report saying “School policies play a significant role in how schools operate. This extends to the context of racism and anti-racism.” Why is it necessary to make such a statement? We have known this since at least the 1970s.

Black and White; common and competing issues and needs – Guest blog by Bruce Warren

I’m told many white poor & working classes are angry these days with all the talk of white privilege and black lives matter when they feel no white privilege and no favours done by the systems. “White privilege” means a cruel joke to them, and probably is more appropriate among the middle class. While the white poor & working classes may have marginally less headwind than black people, they still experience significant headwinds at every turn. Only the indomitable survive and thrive.

Does this mean that racism is not a valid thing? No. It means that we have systemic injustices that are pervasive, some of which cross race boundaries and some of which are specific to race. Since much of the western world is listening right now, maybe if we tackle the fact that black lives matter, any systems reformed through this movement will help other vulnerable groups too.

These groups should be allies, not adversaries. But that is hurt also by the history of those with power or influence telling lies to one group that the other group are their competitor and therefore enemy. So many poor white people have been told that black and Asian people were taking their jobs, when actually we needed the labour in the 50’s-70’s because we couldn’t fill the jobs in the UK and Europe. Then when industry started failing across the western world in the 70’s and 80’s, thousands of jobs disappeared and the working class of all races had to scramble to find something. We need to expose the lies that have been told, which have stoked racism. “Divide and conquer” is a generational sin we must root out from the powerful.

But I am noticing is that this is about more than racism. It is about treating the vulnerable as though it’s all their own fault and making it very hard for them to move out of that place of vulnerability. So, this affects the vulnerable: those are black and other ethnic minorities. It also includes those who grew up in poverty and those who are “in the system” because of significant mental health issues or because of crime or other reasons. There is a way that society have come to see them as less valuable, less deserving humans.

This is witnessed by the way police treat them. It is witnessed by the way some social or mental health workers treat them. It is witnessed by the legal, financial, transportation, and other legal requirements that these public and private systems place in front of them as though they have the same capabilities as white middle class do, and penalise them when they don’t.

Maybe if we educate ourselves, hear people’s own stories, hear the stories of those who work with the vulnerable, then we will learn about and be able to advocate for the changes that need to occur in our society. Tackling systemic racism will likely sweep up issues of systemic prejudice and unfairness of other kinds too.

Micah 6.8 He has told you what is good
and what it is the LORD requires of you:
to act justly,
to love faithfulness,
and to walk humbly with your God.