Working Class White Kids and Education


White boys and girls from poor or working class families are attaining lower grades in school than are those from immigrant households. Those of Chinese and Indian backgrounds are at the top, followed by Bangladeshi, African, Pakistani and Caribbean pupils. The Education Select Committee, in a report published today, confirms these findings. Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted finds this gap intolerable and indefensible : ‘ [Immigrants] have added value to this country’s performance…where families believe in education, children do well…There is absolutely no excuse for any parent, whatever their ethnicity, for not protecting their children’.  

He is right. Why are British kids who most need to break out of the cycle of deprivation still unable to do so, after major government reforms and hopeful initiatives?  How can this be acceptable? I am an immigrant whose children have done as well as I wished for them and better. But I am not gloating, not triumphant at all.  As someone of the left, I find this research data depressing and troubling . Poverty does make some difference to how a child does- not eating properly, for example, affects concentration. But, as Wilshaw emphasises, non-white families still seem able to get their children  to strive and get good results. Some highly successful black and Asian pupils went to large comprehensives and made the best of what was on offer. Aspiration lifted them, made them fly. BBC’s business editor Kamal Ahmed and Steve McQueen the academy winning director of 12 Years a Slave both went to Drayton Manor High school, close to where I live. I know several high achieving Caribbean men and women whose single mums taught them to work hard and be the best. Bangladeshis were near the bottom of the list but ten years ago, and now the children of waiters and those running takeaways are entering Oxbridge and parliament.

Our family was economically insecure, dysfunctional and unhappy. My mother was determined I would have a better, brighter life than she’d had: Education, she used to say,  is a passport. You cannot carry your money and things with you if you have to move to another country. But nobody can steal your brain, what you know, your exam results, your certificates. Though she didn’t speak good English, she would turn up every month at my school in Kampala, Uganda, to talk to teachers about how I was doing, my best and worst subjects. I was rubbish at maths and physics so she got me extra lessons and paid for them by sewing shirts and dresses for teachers of those subjects. Of course it was embarrassing, but I know her fervour drove me. About ten years ago, a neighbour, a mother of Pakistani origin begged me to teach her English and her son too in the evenings. In exchange she made me lovely food and even offered to clean my house for me, an offer I declined. She was a fast learner and her son, Akil, is now studying medicine.

We migrants are these days resented by many in this country, but as Wilshaw says, we do have so much to offer this nation. I have mentored white working class children from families where no one had faith in schools. They didn’t see the point. I can’t understand this indifference, this inability understand how learning- not the lottery or lotto- delivers real winnings, the way to a better life.

Teachers,  with some superhuman efforts, can manage to get white working class pupils up to speed. We saw the idealism and commitment of  such educators in Educating Yorkshire and Educating Essex on Channel4. A number of schools that years ago were written off as ‘sink schools’ have been turned round by heads who saw potential instead of irremediable failure.

What are the underlying causes of this persistent underachievement that seems unresponsive to policies, inspiration and excellent educators? Fatalism about class may be one factor- the embedded notion that no one should get above themselves. Another reason could be suspicion of success. Some working class families fear that their children will be lost to them if they become middle class. I am guessing here and trying hard to empathise. But if I am honest, I can’t understand these anxieties and attitudes, and nor would most of the poor of the world. 

The truth is that parents of white children lagging behind need to be more engaged, more proactive, more interested and properly pushy. Wilshaw is suggesting fines for those who don’t read to their kids, don’t ensure homework is done and that attendance is good. I can see why he thinks it’s time to get tough. But punitive measures could backfire. A far better idea would be to educate parents so they are up to the job. After all they are just repeating the patterns of their own upbringing.

About ten years ago, I was invited to talk at some community schools in west London about my career, life story ambitions and all that. Two of them in west London were trying out what they called ‘family learning’. The schools were open in the evening and mums and dads were encouraged to come in to study the same subjects as their kids and to understand the importance of active parenting. Children did their homework in one corner and at times helped parents to solve maths and science problems. Most of the school intake was from a large housing estate, which had severe social problems and ethnic tensions. But in a quiet classroom with dedicated teachers, tensions seemed to subside and all parents, including those who were white and disadvantaged,  seemed to develop essential parental skills in the process. Some had brought their infants in buggies. I sang old nursery rhymes to them and some of the mums asked me to write them out because they didn’t know the words. I found that truly sad.  I don’t know if family learning still goes on. I hope it does because it was making a huge difference to the community and to the pupils’ results.

How’s this for another idea? As most migrants have the work ethic, ambition and faith in education, we should arrange for white working class children to live with them during holidays. A while ago TV programme makers took lazy, unmotivated white kids to live with families in India for a few weeks. Though there were many sulks and tears, rebellions and furies, they came away chastened, serious and more mature. I have sometimes taken on such kids too, usually after teachers have asked me to, and though it was tough, at least three out of five did  benefit from being brainwashed by this immigrant. One is studying to be a TV cameraman, another a teacher. You have no idea how proud that makes me. And here is an offer: I’ll do the same for another young person from a poor white background, hopefully with encouragement from the family. Other immigrant professionals could do the same. Every little helps.

Sir Michael’s passion and mission is laudable. These still excluded children of our nation deserve a better future , a chance in an increasingly competitive world. Their parents need to wake up and step up. And the rest of us must do our bit too. As they say in Africa, it takes a village to raise a child.

 The Daily Mail, June 2014




Ukip Rollover


There is an unspoken gagging order on those of us who are not bewitched by Ukip: never say  their supporters are ‘racist’.  We are expected instead to repeat some mantras about the failures of the political classes and to understand why so many turn to Farage. Well I don’t care for gags and this unconvincing script. Ours is still an open society. We must not  be censored or pressed into a chorus of approval for what is the British version of the US Tea Party.

What happened last week was not an ‘earthquake’. But commentators and politicians are overreacting and behaving as if it was. The Tories are leaping like frightened foxes even more to the right and Labour is trying to do the same. Demented Tories attack the Human Rights Act and Labour produces a flurry of punitive, incoherent policies targeting migrants. Can they not see how they humiliate themselves and fail the requirements of high office? Are they mice or men?

Neither party can ever be reactionary or intolerant enough for those who have moved on to Ukip. Douglas Carswell, the Tory who defected, won a bye election for Ukip in his constituency. He is popular and trusted by his constituents and so he was re-elected by those who voted for him previously. He also, unsurprisingly drew some Ukip votes. Since then,  pollsters have been jumping up and down with various forecasts: the party would win between 12 and 25 seats. Out of over 650. Sorry, I am not losing sleep over this.

In Heywood and Middleton, Labour’s Liz McInnes won the seat, but by a smaller majority than was won by the late Jim Dobbin. This is more serious. But, what has followed is part farce, part political suicide. Instead of speaking up for decent, fair values and the thousands who still voted for their party, Milliband is being forced into turning against migrants and into making promises that will make Labour seem weak, lost, insincere, inauthentic and pathetic. It needs to find strength and be more assertive.  Who wants to vote for a scared party?

This is the time for the leading parties to fight back, to expose the real messages and prejudices  behind the veil of respectability worn by Farage, darling of the media. The biggest worry is not that this ‘Tea Party’ has got so far so fast, but that they are not challenged any more. In fact they set the political agenda. It is possible, and necessary to argue robustly in defence of hard working migrants, and the EU and offer decent measures to address the real pain and feelings of dislocation suffered by millions. I have never heard a single mainstream politician ask;’ How would we feel if Spain- still in recession- picked incessantly on British settlers and built political capital on this ‘problem’? Indigenous Britons who feel their lives are hopeless need to be told Ukip has no welfare policies. Instead it wants low taxes and an even more cutthroat jungle where the fittest survive.

Blaming the outsider when times are hard is a common human response. But good leaders step in to temper those resentments and hatreds. And good citizens avoid these easy fallbacks. Look around you and you see British people who are at ease with diversity, getting on with people from all backgrounds. They must be ashamed of the way Ukip has been allowed to dominate our public spaces and debates.  On Saturday when I was on going home on the tube, two couples, separately came up to me to say they thought migrants had made Britain a much better place to live than it once was. They were white, middle-aged and looked as if they might have come for a day trip from Surrey or the Cotswolds. They will never know how their words comforted me after the week we’ve had.

A good number of Ukip voters think the lager and ciggie man will get them out of Europe and push off bloomin foreigners from these isles. Imagine that day! No more Poles building and cleaning for us! Coronation Street without black or Asian people! Baristas all ‘real’ Brits, not those offensively hard working Indians or Spaniards! That Indian and Chinese takeaway run by good working class white stock! Dream on. Will they pack migrants into trains and send them off to nowhere? Repatriation has, after all, been discussed previously by founders.

When the BNP’s Nick Griffin failed to get back into the European parliament this May, he said ‘ They have voted for Ukip’s racist policies instead’. This party has allied itself with far right parties in the EU. Alan Sked, a founding member, who quit, has often spoken of these links and the dark soul of this party. Carswell and other defectors are now in with this lot, stained by Ukip’s xenophobia which will not wash off. The black and Asian members of this party are similarly misguided and disgraceful.

So I say to the main parties, don’t roll over. Cowardice is for losers. This political malignancy can only be defeated by the politics of conviction. Most Britons have not fallen for Farage. They matter too.

  The Independent, 13th October 2014

Beadings that Should make Us Muslims Weep

  It is Eid, the second annual Muslim festival. This is when we mark the end of Hajj and remember Abraham, who agreed to kill Isaac, his son, to  make the ultimate sacrifice, when God asked him to. It was a test of faith; God stopped the slaughter. The story appears in the Book of Genesis. God did not stop the slaughter of Alan Jennings, the taxi driver from Salford who went out to help desperate Syrians, or British aid worker David Haines or the two American reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff.  All were beheaded by Isis, the decapitations broadcast around the world. Such followers swilling with hate and bloodlust, must make God and the angels weep and flee far, far away.      Some of us are not celebrating. No presents, no fine food or happy visits to friends and family. It is a small, quiet way of mourning for these men who were doing good and risking all for Muslims in devastated lands. In Manchester, people of all races and religions are filled with rage and sorrow. Kasim Jameel, knew Henning well and persuaded the taxi driver to join the aid convoy organised by Muslims to take supplies to Syria: ‘ I am totally heartbroken. When you lose someone so important to you, you can’t put it into words. Everyone who knew him from the convoys just can’t stop crying- grown men with beards’. Imams have denounced the killers with real feeling, so has the umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain, which, before this, tended to equivocate and was a bit unreliable. Young Muslims have started a #notinmyname campaign; Inspire, an impressively effective  counter-extremism organisation has launched #makingastand, to get Muslims to ‘pledge allegiance to their country and to respect human rights’. These responses are encouraging. But it isn’t enough. It absolutely isn’t enough. Jennings’s untimely death must be a watershed, a defining moment for western Muslims. We must change. Or rather, those devout Muslims who have been taking up Wahabi practices and others who feel only angry with the west must change. That is now our solemn duty. We can’t stop what is happening out there, but we can begin to honestly reassess how we behave, think, what we say, and do in this, our adopted homeland. To live  in ITAL PREVIOUS WDa nation, continent and sphere without being of ITAL PREV WD it is no longer an option. Too many Muslims believe that their civilizations have been hated in Europe since the Crusades, that westerners only ever want to humiliate, control and exploit them and their nations. And that the UK, US and EU encourage the oppression of Palestinians by Israel.  Human brains are big and capable of understanding complexity. These ardently held beliefs are true, but they are not the whole truth. I walked along Edgware Road in London the day I heard of the latest beheading. Stopped and asked people this question: ‘If you got £10,000, a free ticket and the chance to live anywhere in the world, where would you choose?’ Every single person, young and old, replied either ‘London’ or ‘England’. That told me two things: that there is no Muslim nation on earth today which is safe enough for the most homesick migrants and that here they have found some happiness and security. In a magazine article, Ahmed Babikir, 20, a maths and statistics student, whose parents migrated from Sudan, said most Britons still welcomed outsiders and that even when he felt picked on at school, he thought of those boys as his friends. Now, maybe some extremists will get to him and turn him, but so far he seems to have emerged out of these years of Islamicist turmoil with his head and heart intact. I am not advocating assimilation, not do I believe that our lives are easy. They are not. Muslims in high and low places are habitually attacked and demeaned by racists and nationalists. Extremist activities make this worse. Geopolitically, our government plays dirty and too often makes things worse for reasons of self interest. We fight back as best we can. The problem is – and I have been guilty of this too- that we have been consumed by these debilitating experiences and unjust policies. There are so many good people here who care and do more than they need to for Muslims. Henning and Haines were among them. Millions of indigenous Europeans support the Palestinian cause; they marched against the war on Iraq; they defend Muslim rights. White Britons who marry Muslims become our greatest allies. Muslims, on their part, give less back. Most still oppose mixed marriages, cultural give and take.  I am horrified when I hear the poisonous rants of some students in Islamic societies at universities and see what is out there on the web. It is time for parents, ‘community leaders’, Muslim politicians and commentators to say, over and over again, that we are part of this nation, not apart from it and that makes us the luckiest Muslims in the world. And that when Islamicists kill white westerners, they kill us too and all our futures. 

The Independent, October 2014