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New face of race

He's a man of many guises, and he's not afraid to speak his mind, as people are already finding out. Wendy Wallace meets Trevor Phillips, who started his new job as head of the Commission for Racial Equality this week.

Trevor Phillips arrives late for his appointment at Preston Manor school in Wembley, blaming the traffic on the North Circular and looking a bit like a teacher, albeit one on an advanced skills salary, in soft, new black cords, rimless glasses and a cornflower blue shirt. He's chosen Preston Manor for the meeting with The TES because it offers solutions to problems that greatly concern him. "I love this school," he says. "They know what they're doing here and I'd like that to go wider. It's to do with acknowledging children's differences, recognising that being black or a Muslim is different from being white."

Appointed by David Blunkett in January, Mr Phillips took up his job as head of the Commission for Racial Equality this week. His first initiative - the formation of a "community security task force" - is aimed at addressing the racial and religious tensions likely to follow a war on Iraq. But despite a crowded big picture for the CRE, education remains Mr Phillips's personal top priority.

His views on the continuing high exclusion rate of Afro-Caribbean boys and under-achievement of children from ethnic minorities make uncomfortable listening for schools, Ofsted and the Government. "Schools have a role in failure," he says. "People have been saying for 30 years it's about background, culture, single-parent families. That infuriates me. That's saying it is the child's fault."

Mr Phillips selected Preston Manor, a thriving school in the once famously radical north-west London borough of Brent, to feature in his forthcoming Second Chance documentary series, scheduled to start next month on Channel 4, about young people who have failed in one school but succeed in another.

After a year's filming - "time-consuming", says headteacher Andrea Berkeley, "but beneficial because it prompted a lot of reflection" - the Preston Manor story did not work out. "We got to the boy too late," says Mr Phillips. "He was 15 already and wanted to go to work; it made holding on to him difficult."

But his belief in the school is undiminished. Preston Manor - with predominantly Asian and black students, a higher than average free school meals rate and excellent academic and pastoral track records - shows what can be done. Ninety per cent of the 1,365 students are from ethnic minorities; 65 per cent got five A*-Cs last year and, more importantly, says Ms Berkeley, almost all achieved A-Gs.

Yet in 1995 Preston Manor was in serious weaknesses, with Ofsted identifying a particular problem with low achievement among Afro-Caribbean boys. Ms Berkeley and her team have turned this around, introducing mentoring, counselling and a system of interviewing pupils about teachers'

performance. Parents are encouraged to come into school and a psychotherapist is employed one morning a week (see Friday magazine, March 1, 2002) working with children and staff to "understand what might lie behind children's behaviour". There are few exclusions and results are high and improving. Trevor Phillips rests his case.

"Are we helping you push out this programme on Afro-Caribbean boys?" he asks Andrea Berkeley, scribbling notes on a pad of Post-its next to his electronic personal organiser. "We bung out five million a year to race equality councils but maybe there's a place for schools to do some work.

Maybe we can lever some dosh out of David (Blunkett)." CRE staff have visited, she tells him, and cited the programme here as good practice.

Before leaving he visits a classroom, displaying the ability to move smoothly between contexts that characterises his political life. "What do you think of this cross-dressing thing?" he asks the Year 9 English class studying Twelfth Night.

Trevor Phillips is only partly the product of the British education system.

Now 49, he was the seventh of seven children, born in north London, to Guyanese parents. After being sent back for a spell of primary schooling in Guyana, he attended Alexandra Park junior school in Haringey then moved up early to what is now White Hart Lane, then a grammar school. "There weren't many like me in the school. You kind of count," he says. "There were only six of us, and just one other black boy in my year." By 13, he was "getting into scrapes, quarrelling". He says: "Out of control's not the right word.

I was over-enthusiastic. And not someone who knew how to sit in rows very well, or hush when asked to."

The genesis of the Second Chance television series becomes clear, as he describes how his parents decided to move to New York - "we had female relatives in America who wore stockings, lipstick, were interesting and interested. My mother saw it was possible to have a life beyond sewing furs in Palmers Green" - and at the same time place him in school in Guyana.

"Being sent back was the making of me," he says. "Next to the family, education is the most formative experience of your life. I think I was going to get into trouble."

Instead, he got into Queen's College boys' school in Georgetown and went on from there to Imperial College, London, to study chemistry. He became the first - and so far only - black president of the National Union of Students in 1978 before making his name in television journalism, notably on the London Programme (he was awarded the OBE in 1999 for services to broadcasting).

His contacts with senior Labour figures go back to those days: it was the then NUSpresident Charles Clarke, now Education Secretary, who encouraged him to go for NUS office; and an old London Weekend Television contact by the name of Peter Mandelson was best man at his wedding in 1981 to psychotherapist Asha Bhownagary. He chaired the high-profile race think tank the Runnymede Trust from 1993 to 1998; and in 2000, having stood as deputy in Frank Dobson's disastrous campaign to become mayor of London, was elected to the Greater London Assembly, which he chaired until last month.

Mr Phillips's passion for justice in education appears to come largely from his own and his family's experience. "If the statistics had been true, I'd be what my father was - a man in a uniform supervising the delivery of your mail. I'd cut off my right arm before I'd allow that notion to continue to trap my children or their peers," he says.

He repeats the story of his brother - the academic and writer, Mike Phillips - being advised at his son's parents' evening that "it helps to have books in the house". It was partly this experience that persuaded Mike Phillips to educate his youngest child at home. Trevor Phillips sent his two daughters, Sushila and Holly, to the private North London Collegiate girls' school - because, he insists, of the multi-cultural environment.

"There's little that would convince me that, being black girls, they wouldn't suffer some disadvantage in a state school," he says. "That's less true in the school they went to, where 40 per cent are from ethnic minorities." Sushila is now in the sixth form at Westminster school, taking her A-levels alongside boys.

His daughters' private education undermined his bid to become Labour's candidate in the next London mayoral election; he pulled out last summer but refuses to deny future ambitions for the job.

Friends say Mr Phillips's own experience puts him in touch with constituents. "He gets a tremendous reaction from black women - mothers, who ask him, 'How can my son be like you?'" says Tottenham MP and junior health minister David Lammy, with whom Mr Phillips has canvassed. "Trevor was a beacon during the Thatcher administration, a voice on stop and search, the Brixton riots. When I was growing up in the 1980s, in terms of a British, black, articulate role model, he was it, for me."

But others believe his recent pronouncements on the failure of schools to meet the needs of black children have been unhelpful. "At a macro level, it's a good appointment," says veteran headteacher William Atkinson of Phoenix school in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. "But I'm not best pleased with his initial comments. We need carefully argued statements that articulate the reality on the ground; it's too easy to rebut generalisations." Mr Phillips's recent remark that white boys had to be "nutters" to be excluded irritated a lot of teachers.

His credibility in education is also diluted by his belief in the private sector. The first of the Second Chance series features a black teenager, Ryan Bell, excelling at the pound;15,000-a-year Catholic Downside school in Somerset after being excluded from a south London comprehensive, and might appear to be promoting private schooling. Mr Phillips denies the charge. "I want to get past this idea that one lot is better than the other. Most children do not have that choice, so making it a central idea is pointless." Channel 4 is paying Ryan Bell's fees; with Mr Phillips's television company, Pepper Productions, it is setting up a trust fund to continue supporting him through the sixth form at Downside.

Mr Phillips takes over the CRE at a low point in its 27-year history. The organisation, which employs 200 people and has an annual budget of pound;20 million from the Home Office, has suffered from in-fighting. And the previous chair, Gurbux Singh, resigned after a drink-fuelled row with a police officer outside Lord's cricket ground last summer. Mr Phillips admits the difficulties and says he wants to "raise the profile and renew the purpose" of the CRE. "It's not 'we need to be nice to black people'. A modern society has to feel it is equal, that anybody can reach their potential."

Dr Vince Padi, chair of Croydon's race relations partnership and director of the charity African and African-Caribbean People's Advisory Group, which found Ryan Bell for Pepper Productions, is guardedly optimistic about the appointment. "He has good aspirations. But politics gets in the way."

One of Mr Phillips's first meetings will be with the chief inspector, David Bell. The commission's most recent research into the inspection service, published in 2000, found that racial equality was seen as "one of a number of 'baubles on the Christmas tree' of school inspection, which, although important, may cause the tree to topple over". Mr Phillips hopes to "invest the race relations strategy with content", pointing to the failure of the Government and the CRE to respond to race issues in schools post-September 11. "There was no sense that the CRE or the Department for Education and Skills had any part to play." He plans the three-and-a-half-year CRE tenure as a stop on the journey, not the destination. "I'm still young enough to have a couple of large jobs in the future," he says.

Tory critics were quick to fire the "Tony's crony" salvo after Mr Phillips's appointment. Said to have the ear of the Government, he is one of a small number of black politicians who move between the mainstream and the grass roots, although he appears uncomfortably aware of spending more time in the former.

But he is not easily pigeonholed. He lives in Highgate, went skiing with the family at half-term and will make less money from the CRE job than in the media (pro rata, his salary is pound;94,000), though he is keeping one day a week to pursue his other interests. He wants, he says, to "learn a couple of extra languages" and spend some time on his production company.

But he has an enthusiasm for private schooling, corporal punishment and Saturday schools that sits oddly with other values. When he says "my community", which he does often, he might be talking about the Westminster political classes or West Indian parents. He writes as enthusiastically for the Daily Mail as for the Guardian, and promises "robust interaction" with his old friend Charles Clarke, most imminently on how increased university tuition charges will affect black students. "In different incarnations and for different reasons I'm different things," he says. "Culturally, I'm pretty used to moving from one guise to another."

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