Issue 284 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review
The masses against the classes
I beg to differ with Diane Abbott ('Dear Michael Rosen', March SR) when she says the underachievement of black boys in schools 'is not just a question of class'. As a black working class mum, I have seen the failure of black boys in school go hand in hand with the introduction of selection and elitism into state education. This is something New Labour has championed over their last two terms in government. When you have an education system that is based on creaming off the most academically able into pseudo-grammar schools, then what child, black or white, stands a chance if they are just an average, or (heaven forbid) a below average, student?
New Labour's wholesale abandonment of comprehensive, mixed ability teaching and their fetishisation of tests and league tables now mean that good exam results equal increased funding.
For all her bluster, Diane is really blaming individual teachers rather than pointing the finger at (her) government's policies that have squeezed any idea of child-centred, experimental learning out of education, and reduced it to a mass activity of learning by rote.
And what is this obsession with black boys and crime? I think it is you, Diane, rather than Michael Rosen, who has been reading too many Daily Mail exclusives, evidently those on black on black 'Gunchester' crime. Do you really think your son will become a crack-dealing Yardie gangster if he goes to the local secondary school?
Diane, if you took the time to talk to any of your constituents in Hackney, you would find they are struggling to bring their children up in a poverty-stricken borough with crumbling services where their concerns are ignored by politicians--except at election time. They care just as much about their children's future as you do but, unlike you, they can't buy a better education for their children. That's why the underachievement of black boys in schools is totally a question of class.
Your justification for sending your son to a private school is an insult to every black parent and black boy. Who is pandering to racist stereotypes now, Diane?
It is often claimed by well off, liberal-minded parents who make the same choice as Diane Abbott that they agree with comprehensive education 'in theory', but in practice the local school has too many 'social problems'. What they are really saying is that they agree with a comprehensive system on the condition that schools are attended by children who have the same perspective and aspirations they have for their own kids. In other words, it isn't comprehensive at all, but a state school for the middle classes, a grammar school without the 11-plus entrance exam.
Such schools do exist, in the better off suburbs of cities and towns, where parents compete to buy houses that fall within certain catchment areas, or suddenly find religion in an attempt to be accepted into selective church schools. Under the cover of 'parental choice' some middle class parents who judge schools by academic attainment statistics and inspectors' reports are doing everything they can to undermine the comprehensive system and replace it with a hierarchy of schools--a few good ones for the better off, and then a load of 'sink schools' for everyone else.
It is only possible to do this because successive governments have introduced measures to erode the notion that everyone should have access to a decent education. From Thatcher introducing parental choice in 1981 right up to Blair's championing of specialist and faith schools today, people have been encouraged to consider themselves as consumers in a market, bidding for the education of their children.
This attitude inevitably benefits the private sector, where parents who can afford it abandon the idea that the local school is there for the whole community, and pay to train their children to pass lots of exams. This is made even easier by the government allowing private schools tax-free charitable status. In Edinburgh 11 percent of children go to fee-paying schools, and in London the numbers are up to about 20 percent. Given that the figure for Britain as a whole is just 7 percent, it should be obvious that the real 'social problem' affecting state schools in some cities is parents like Diane Abbott going private.
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Nick Savage (Letters, March SR) asks where Respect is going and offers three potential routes. He's right when he says we should learn from experience. After 9/11, when the US threatened to invade Afghanistan, as we met together to mobilise the widest possible opposition--what did we think we were building?
A mass movement capable of bringing together previously divided faiths, communities and political voices? A demonstration of 2 million? Yet wider diversity to protest against the US president? A political voice whose influence is felt deep inside government institutions? A political strength capable of creating and reinforcing the overwhelming distrust of our prime minister, to the extent that no one now believes a word he says? I think not.
We tackled the issue of war and threw ourselves into building the widest opposition we possibly could. Respect is not only learning from this experience--it is a direct result of it.
Grab the opportunity, Nick, and bring together the widest and largest possible number of people who want to vote in favour of what they believe in rather than solely against New Labour. We do know that a large vote for Respect will be a massive blow for Blair. We do know that what happens after 10 June to Respect completely depends on what we do before that date.
Sit at the roadside and evaluate every route before you move, and in the meantime everyone will have rushed past you. Who knows what potential Respect has tapped?--we certainly had no idea two years ago what the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) could be capable of. What I do know is that the StWC showed us how it could be done and gave us the model for the political voice, Respect.
Respect candidate for the West Midlands in the European elections
On highly respected criteria Britain has been involved in more substantial wars following the Second World War than any other nation. This conclusion emerges from Pennsylvania State University's prestigious 'Causes of War' project. On their criterion of at least 1,000 soldiers killed in battle, Britain scores as having been involved in five inter-state wars from the Second World War to 1997, Israel six, and France and the US both three. They haven't yet updated beyond 1997--could they be reticent to come out with an updated score which will clearly put Britain at number one? From enquiries I gather that Britain and the US will both score an extra two from Afghanistan and Iraq, whereas their counting for Kosovo does not attain the threshold of 1,000 soldier- or battle-related deaths. As I count it, therefore, Britain will score seven (ie one war per decade), Israel six and the US five, making us the most belligerent nation on earth.
They have a very different scoring of all 'militarised inter-state disputes', which gives enormously larger numbers, and for which the US scores far higher than anyone else. Britain or Israel looks like being number two in this list, and I'd be appreciative if any reader would like to participate in this research. With moves afoot to found a British Ministry of Peace, there is a need for clear and reliable statistics that can be given to MPs.
Let's hear some debate over the extent to which these figures are related to two other data-sets. Firstly Britain has been number two world arms exporter in terms of revenue from sales since 1991 (before that it was the USSR), except for one year when France beat it. Secondly, the HMSO figures for 2002 show that Britain now has a higher percentage of its own citizens behind bars than any other nation in Europe (the European-average is around 0.1 percent, Britain is 0.127 percent while the US leads the world with 0.7 percent)--a real achievement of New Labour.
The UN passes altruistic motions concerning peace, international collaboration and disarmament, as catalogued each year by the UN Handbook. I totted up the main nations voting against these each year, and your readers may not be surprised to hear which two nations have here maintained a top-scoring position — for the last 30 years! The US has voted against about half of these and Britain, one third (www.action-for-un-renewal.org.uk/pages/votes.htm). For comparison, a mere 2 percent of UN delegates voted against these motions, on average. Again, this may not be irrelevant to Britain's shocking number one position of chief warmaker.