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Education: Dear Diane Abbott...

Feature Article by Michael Rosen, December 2003

Poet Michael Rosen slams New Labour's education agenda.

First of all, can I say thank you for having given socialists yet another reason not to waste any time in the Labour Party. Your decision to send your son to a private school helps those of us who say that New Labour is really about inequality.

If you were a Tory, then what you've done would be a simple matter. Tories say they believe in the privilege that comes with either money or birth or both. The problem is that you've spent the last 20 years giving out the message that you're opposed to it.

The Diane Abbott you've wanted us to see has been someone who's opposed the whole New Labour package. I'd have put you in that shady area of the committed left wing backbencher, occupied by people like Alice Mahon and Jeremy Corbyn. But the benches in the House of Commons tilt rightwards and I guess you're on the old familiar slide down to join the likes of Stephen Byers and Peter Hain.

I notice that your decision to send your son to a private school is embarrassing you, making a mockery of what you've said in the past about education. You may remember your confused burblings about white teachers and black boys. Your argument was that white teachers, especially women, couldn't deal with black boys. You seemed to be saying that black boys need an authoritarian black male hand to set them right. I, for one, thought that this was a load of nationalist, racist and sexist tosh. You seemed to be falling for most of the major myths peddled in British culture, namely that: (1) there is such a thing as the uniform stereotype 'black boy'; (2) that males who are seen as not conforming with mainstream values need tough males pushing them around; (3) that a multicultural society is always fighting against what's 'natural'; (4) that how individual teachers behave is how education works, that there isn't what we would call a 'system' that tries to constrain and restrict teachers' work. How interesting that by sending your son to a private school, you contradicted most of this.

Clearly, you've decided that your son is not like those other 'black boys'. You've decided that the white teachers, some of whom are female, at the City of London School, will be just fine for your son and the mixing of cultures will be fine too. You send him off to a private school, proving that, after all, there is an education 'system' with structures that 'deliver different services'.

You attracted a good deal of attention in the press, most of which missed some important points. The most obvious one is that our education system is not geared up to deliver the best education for all. It is structured in layers, each handing over a different product to fit the unequal capitalist society. Whatever nasty and dangerous bullshit you spout about the stereotype black boy, you must have a very good idea where exactly City of London School for Boys fits within the British class system. If not, let me help.

Britain has many, many different kinds of secondary school. In spite of New Labour's populist talk, there are no real comprehensives in England and Wales. Instead, we have schools that select on the basis of sex, religion, or a supposed skill in this or that; they also select on the basis of what society regards as a disability or a delinquency, and of course the ability to pay. This means there is also what might be described as a 'negative selection', a selection of those who are left over. It is tragic and laughable that these kinds of schools are called 'comprehensives'. They are nothing more and nothing less than the schools that were supposedly abolished in the 1970s, the secondary moderns, for children who had failed their 11-plus exam.

By sending your son to City of London, you avoid the possible stigma of slotting him into the top-level privilege of Eton, Harrow and Winchester - not that they would have had him anyway. You're black, not mind-numbingly rich and an ex grammar school girl. You could have got him into a private boarding school in the next echelon below, but he would probably have had his head kicked in for being black, of supposedly left wing origin and living in Hackney. No, with City of London, you buy yourself a slot with the so called professionals. It was a school founded so that the people who had made money through trade and finance, not land and birth, could have an education too.

Of course, living in Hackney, Diane, you have a special case. Over the last 20 years we've seen the closure of a raft of secondary schools, sold off by a Labour administration to smart developers turning them into 'loft-style apartments'. With the recent closure of yet another and the quiet transforming of another into an 'Arts and Media College', Hackney now has no non-denominational, mixed, non-specialist secondary schools. What's more, the chronic lack of spaces in Hackney secondary schools means that over 40 percent of secondary age kids travel out of the borough to go to school. How odd that the Diane Abbott who felt she could sound off about the failings of white female teachers didn't feel she could point the finger at those in her Labour constituency who've created this disaster.

The other point that the press missed was that in fact your son was offered a place at a single-sex state school in Islington. In fact, it's one of the old 'foundation' schools, opened by the Protestant or Puritan tradesmen of 300 years ago or so. As such, it manages to hang on to a tiny bit of status that encourages more people to apply for places, thereby creating its own inbuilt selection process. Even so, not good enough for you, Diane? Not the right class of boy there? Perhaps too many black boys?

Meanwhile, your leader is sounding off about yet more educational initiatives, which will mean the opening of more selective schools in the inner city. Right under your nose, here in Hackney, we've got one of these City Academies opening next September. Seven hundred kids have applied for the 200 places on offer. So that'll be 500 kids not going to a school they wanted to go to. But hey, that's just tough, eh Diane? After all, New Labour, as we say, is committed to inequality. And now you are too.

Yours in contempt,

Michael Rosen

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