By Saleh Mamon
It has been common knowledge for decades that black youth are disproportionately excluded from school permanently. No significant progress has been made to significantly change this reality in spite of many reports. The most recent data show that black pupils are nearly four times more likely to be permanently excluded than their school peers.
The London case study by Jessica Perera of the Institute of Race Relations is ground breaking. It shows that exclusions and criminalisation of black working class youth are not isolated issues that should be confined to school level without relating them to wider social and political developments over five decades.
In response to the media and commentators who deliberately sensationalise serious black youth crime by projecting black youth as a menace and racialising it, Perera reviews the evidence thoroughly to present a more nuanced view. Although black youth are disproportionally over-represented in serious youth violence, it is only a small cohort of less than 1% of black youth that are involved in such violence.
Evidence from many studies show that ethnicity is just one factor, while other socio-economic factors also contribute to youth violence. The most recent research by the Institute of Health Inequity demonstrates that the systematic dismantling of vital social services over the past decade has exacerbated the levels of youth violence. London has the highest rate of child poverty of all the English regions: 800,000 children live in poverty with one in three growing up in persistent poverty. Being a perpetrator or victim of crime is closely associated with deprivation and exclusion. Several reports over the past few years have drawn a direct connection between school exclusion, knife crime and youth imprisonment.
The 1970s and 1980s were decades of radical ferment with campaigns for social and racial justice which were influenced by the struggles of the black community outside school. Many organisations, campaigners, community activists and teachers made significant progress towards the inclusion of multiracial and anti-racist education material into the curriculum. Schools and teachers had greater autonomy in the choice of materials and methods. The Inner London Education Authority was at the forefront of such curriculum initiatives and teacher development.
Every major inner city saw periodic youth uprisings since the 1970s, sparked by sus laws, attacks on the black community by the National Front, police shootings, racism and poverty. However, no administration in power enquired into the root causes of such uprisings. The lived experience of the black communities of resistance was just ignored by those in power, who saw black struggles and anti-racist education as subversive. In fact, every uprising was followed by legislation to assert British values, culture and school discipline.
Perera recounts the history of key education policy ideas and legislation pursued by subsequent governments, beginning with Thatcher from 1979, to help us to understand how we came to the present situation. The New Right launched a vigorous political campaign which aimed to roll back the progress made in multi-racial and antiracist education, to sow the seeds of common sense conservatism within the working class and to weed out progressive ideas and people. The process of restructuring education away from the egalitarian 1944 Education Act and comprehensive education accelerated after the inner city rebellions of 1981. Thatcher’s dictum was that ‘people must be educated once more to know their place’. The passing of the landmark 1988 Education Reform Act set out the technocratic and monocultural National Curriculum, with emphasis on the core subjects (English, Maths and Science) and foundation subjects with a testing regime. The Inner London Education Authority was abolished.
Furthermore, the pressures on schools to perform well in league tables led to putting pupils ‘off-roll’ and permanently excluding those who would perform poorly. Local Management of Schools provided the wedge to ease schools out of Local Authority control and finally to move towards privatisation. The era of teacher autonomy and curriculum innovation was over, with the overwhelming demand for compliance by school management and teachers with the whip hand of school inspections.
Elected in 1997, Blair reinforced and expanded the neoliberal pivot of the Thatcher era and continued the market policies of choice and diversity. The smaller dispersed rebellions in northern England, including in Oldham and Bradford in 2001, sparked by far right attacks and the launch of ‘war on terror’ after 9/11, were attributed to a lack of ‘community cohesion’ within poor multiracial communities, which were seen as not sharing the same ‘British values’ by people leading ‘parallel lives’.
This was to be corrected by the Education Act (2002) laying the foundation of ‘Fundamental British Values’ which evolved into active promotion of ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’ through ‘citizenship studies’ over the decade. On the contrary, as Sally Tomlinson has argued, the failure by New Labour to develop a curriculum for a multi-ethnic society contributed to an increase in xenophobia and racism, with no educational policies to deal with the increased hostility towards young Muslims. Home Office policies targeting refugees and asylum seekers encouraged racial hostility towards their children.
To remake the large multiracial communities in London, New Labour commenced state-led gentrification with crackdowns on anti-social behaviour, in the belief that the close proximity between middle and working classes would lead to the imparting of middle class social and cultural capital to the working classes. This led to an extensive expansion of the academies project and the simultaneous development of Pupil Referral Units (PRU), both open to private sector management. Perera concludes that “It was New Labour that fired up the exclusion engine and firmly established it as an essential cog in the state’s neoliberal education machinery”.
Academies, unlike state schools, were exempted from financial penalties for excluding pupils. Perera finds the legacy of the academy project to be profound and New Labour’s manifesto pledge that ‘we send a clear message – every child has a right to a good education, but no child has the right to disrupt the education of other children’ prophetic. The result was that “the academy programme and PRU system have continued to work hand in glove, producing de facto race and class segregation between schools.”
The Conservative-Liberal coalition passed the Academies Act (2010) which saw a mass privatisation of local authority-maintained schools, removing democratic accountability and exempting Academies and Free-Schools from following the national curriculum, to provide market choice. In the aftermath of the 2011 inner city rebellion, David Cameron asserted, “We need an education system which reinforces the message that if you do the wrong thing you’ll be disciplined.” Soon the Education Act (2011) was passed, focusing on behaviour, discipline and exclusions. Overseen by Gove, a network of military-style state schools recruited ex-army veterans to manage disruptive youth.
The Act gave ministers powers to close PRUs deemed inadequate — and outsource them to new private sector providers. Such Alternative Provision, and Free Schools in particular, were seen a route for new voluntary and private sector organisations to offer high-quality education. Of course, for these schools to be viable, there must be a constant stream of young people being excluded. “The idea of private investors profiting from vulnerable young people deemed ‘disruptive’ in a competitive market was no problem for the education secretary,” says Perera.
The Johnson government has made a priority of ‘good behaviour’ in schools and established a regime of ‘zero tolerance’ for poor behaviour. It boosted investment in Alternative Provision to provide an enclosure for excluded students. Schools began setting up ‘isolation booths’ where disruptive pupils are made to sit in silence for hours without any consideration of risks to mental health.
The low achievement of black working class youth is still attributed to the dysfunction of black families, the lack of fathers, the prevalence of single mothers, etc. In the 1970s there was a manufactured moral panic about black ‘muggers’ and decades later this panic shifted on to knife crime and gangs. Following the declaration of the ‘war on terror’, Muslim communities became ‘suspects’ with a panic about radicalisation and extremism among Muslim youth.
The racialisation of gang culture, knife crime and radicalisation has led to the securitisation of schooling. Pupils are the subject of risk assessment, to work out the threat they pose to the stability of the social order. In tandem, it brings into being a continual surveillance of black youth using video cameras in schools. Face recognition technologies, finger identification, palm vein and iris scanners are being used to monitor children in Alternative Provision. The call for stricter disciplines has led to School Based Police Officers (SBPOs) and the employment of ex-military officers as teachers. All these strategies can be seen as a continuum with the prison-industrial complex embedded in the criminal justice system.
Adapting the concept of ‘Schools to Prisons Pipeline’ (SPP) which is widely used by community activists in the US, Perera puts forward the concept of a ‘PRU to prison pipeline’ specifically for the UK. According to this framework, PRUs are run for profit and are pathways not for education but trajectories for future incarceration. The HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales found in its annual report for 2017-2018 that a staggering 89% of detained (or ‘imprisoned’) children and young people aged 12-18 reported being excluded from school. Perera convincingly argues that the system that has emerged in inner city London has led to ‘educational enclosures’. Black working class youth are excluded from mainstream education into ‘enclosures’ of PRUs and Alternative Provision where they are assimilated into a monoculture focusing on Fundamental British Values. They are thereby torn away from the collective history and experiences of their communities while being subjected to continual surveillance.
Drawing on her research on gentrification in London where she found that regeneration projects severed working class family networks by displacing them and pricing them out of upmarket amenities, she sees a strong parallel in the new emerging education market for ‘gentrifiers’ which similarly decants poor working class youth from mainstream schools into PRUs and Alternative Provision, on the grounds that they lower standards. Academies and Free Schools have been found more likely to permanently exclude pupils than maintained schools. Perera says that the result is we have a “two-tier state education system: academies for the aspirational and pupil referral units for the defiant and apathetic.”
Instead of improving the prospects of black working class youth, the last five decades have damaged them. In creating a highly competitive system largely run by private providers to the advantage of the middle classes, black youth have been marginalised. Academies of all kinds with combined assets of £60 bn have not created more educational opportunities for working class children. Although the case study focused on London, it would be surprising if its findings are not applicable to the rest of the country.
We need to act to stop this ever-expanding exclusionary system that is damaging the future of so many working class pupils. This report is a powerful tool in the hands of campaigners against exclusions, giving them an analytical perspective of the underlying social and political drivers of the system. Perera’s voice in defence of the right of poor black working class Londoners to a good education is a passionate call against injustice. It echoes the demands of Black Lives Matter against the criminal justice system resulting in impunity for police brutality and connects it with the structural injustices of the educational system which normalises the exclusion of black youth.
The key issue we face is whether the transformation of education under Conservative governments is so deeply embedded that it is irreversible. This is a practical question of resistance by the black community to mobilise a coalition with other groups against the system. This would aim to put the issue on the political agenda to challenge these policies which have led to exclusion and segregation in education.
Such demand for change should not be for schools merely to go back to Local Authority control, but to create a new vision where schools will be democratically accountable to the communities they serve. One transformative policy could be that schools are governed by Community School Trusts (CST). Such CST schools would be inclusive and abandon exclusion as an instrument by considering their duty to educate every child no matter how difficult. They would put in place conflict resolution, mediation and targeted support to ensure that pupils who have behavioural difficulties are supported.
Following the precedent that Academies and Free Schools are exempt from the National Curriculum, such CST schools would also be free to design their curriculum that would take into account the multi-ethnic and multicultural society we live in. The destructive competition of testing and league tables would be abolished. There would be lines of accountability with the trust governing bodies elected by the community that the school serves. Parents, teachers and students would have greater involvement in the running of schools. This might sound utopian but we need to transform our educational system to remove it from the grips of private unaccountable organisations as part of a wider agenda for democratisation.