A renowned educationalist critiques recent Citizenship Foundation guidance for teachers on dealing with the BNP and other radical groups in schools.
Speaking in parliament in November 2006, the secretary of state for education and skills, Alan Johnson, described Community Cohesion (which all schools in Britain have a legal responsibility to promote) in the following words: ‘Working towards a society in which there is a common vision and sense of belonging by all communities, a society in which the diversity of people’s backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and valued; in which similar life opportunities are available to all; and a society in which strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in schools and in the wider community.’
This is a powerful and unambiguous affirmation of societal organisation in which racism and other forms of discrimination have no place and must be given no invitation to promote their ideas, expressions and practices. ‘Schools’ are included as vital institutions and forums where the communal unity of young people and their teachers is a bedrock, and its antagonist racism, must have no admission. Three and half decades ago when the fascist party, the National Front, a forerunner of the British National Party (BNP), was actively promoting racist hatred outside schools and occasionally obtaining local education authority permission to use schools to have their meetings, a generation of activist teachers dedicated to anti-racism, made sure that such meetings were always powerfully picketed and resisted.
I remember one such meeting in the early 1970s at Haggerston School in South Hackney where a group of local teachers including Blair Peach (who was killed by the Metropolitan Police, on their own recent admission, protesting against the National Front in Southall, West London in April 1979) managed to gain entry and disrupt the proceedings before being violently ejected. Teachers like Peach saw any presence of National Front members on or outside school premises as an outrage and they would take whatever expedient was necessary to prevent such an eventuality. They saw it as absolutely necessary as a means of protecting their students and their students’ families from the most dangerous, demeaning and divisive ideas and behaviour and as a first principle of being both a teacher and an active citizen.
Such committed and vigilant opposition is what continues to keep fascism at bay, and this was shown yet again during the May 2010 general and local elections campaigns, where the relentless work of anti-fascists such as those of Unite Against Fascism and Hope Not Hate made a crucial contribution to radically reducing the vote of the BNP in erstwhile strongholds in Stoke-on-Trent, Dudley and particularly in Barking and Dagenham where all twelve BNP councillors and parliamentary candidate and party leader Nick Griffin were overwhelmingly defeated.
Such results are strong stimuli for anti-racist action in schools and colleges and are also at powerful odds with the ‘advice’ offered to British teachers by the ‘Citizenship Foundation and Association for Citizenship Teaching’ in their ‘guidance’ document entitled ‘Dealing with the British National Party and other radical groups’, which ‘attempts to set out the key issues and arguments in order to help schools arrive at a clear policy which can be confidently implemented’. In this exposition, its authors, Billy Crombie and Don Rowe, dignify the BNP by labelling it a ‘radical group’ by virtue of it being one of a number of ‘democratic parties operating within the law’. They ask the question which Blair Peach answered with his protest and ultimately with his life, ‘Should BNP members or other radical parties be allowed in school?’ and posit two approaches. The first is the ‘prohibitive’ position which they state expresses the ‘no platform for racists’ strategy which anti-racist teachers have invoked and manifested for generations. They argue and caricature that such a position is ‘”wheeled out” reactively’ and likely to be ‘experienced as oppressive, selective, “politically correct” and anti-democratic’.
The second is the preferred ‘permissive’ approach which could involve schools inviting in ‘all parties’ including the BNP and hosting a ‘panel in which there is a broad balance of parliamentary candidates, including radical groups’. Thus is the green light given for ushering racist groups like the BNP into the heart of school life and curriculum, an open collusion with racism which needs to be rejected outright by teachers and school governors. That a ‘respectable’, apparently credible and close-to-government ‘charitable’ organisation like the Citizenship Foundation (which received funding from, amongst others, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Ministry of Justice and has Cherie Blair QC as a trustee) is commending such an approach is particularly worrying for our schools, their curriculum and most crucially, their students. It is also completely contrary to Alan Johnson’s description of ‘Community Cohesion’.
The alternative strategy is exemplified in the lives and permanent opposition of teachers like Blair Peach. For whenever the BNP or other such antagonists are invited into schools using the bogus rubric of ‘democracy’ to which they have absolutely no alignment, such teachers will organise and resist within their own schools and others too. As parents and community, we must be ready to defend and support them. As a Scottish ‘concerned local resident’ alerted the local school’s constituent parent body and beyond during the pre-election period: ‘The BNP are to appear at a hustings at an Aberdeenshire High school this coming Wednesday. Please help to stop this from happening by calling the principal and voicing your concerns…’
From Aberdeenshire and everywhere, the call still resounds.
Read the Dealing with the British National Party and other radical groups: guidance for schools here (pdf file, 120kb)
Read about the Maurice Smith Review here