Grant us strength to fulfil his legacy

28th April 2000 at 01:00
FINDING words to eulogise a friend is never easy. When the someone is a controversial politician, your own private mentor, and you are in the midst of a bitter election campaign, the choice of every syllable seems life-defining. But as I stood at the rostrum and looked out at some 3,000 faces at the MP Bernie Grant's memorial last week, it seemed easier. For a start, he inspired a style that urged us to throw caution to the winds. Second, in the style of Guyanese funerals, the affair was a marvellous multicultural casserole which went on for four hours, during which more than 40 speakers took the stage. They ranged from the measured grief of the Prime Minister to the sincere tribute of a local pensioner, to an irresistibly uplifting political rant by the Bolsover MP Dennis Skinner.

If you want multiculturalism in action, this was it. The casket was led into the huge hall by a lone Scottish piper, a token of that part of Bernie's heritage which probably came from Scotland. The stage was taken by African drummers and dancers, Cypriot singers, an Irish band, an Indian group and many more, ending in a rousing rendition of "The Ballad of Joe Hill", a song which touched Bernie deeply at a concert just months before his death. If there is a video, I hope it includes Sir Herman Ouseley's statement that Bernie said what many of us wish we could say, but fear to.

In no area was this more true than in the education of his three children. As a left-wing politician, who owed much support to local teachers, it would have made sense if Bernie was against selection, for non-traditional teaching methods, against New Labour centralisation and standardisation, and scathing of those who, like the Prime Minister, passed over neighbourhood schools. His view was the opposite.

In the past few years he spoke bitterly of the "betrayal" of his children by the education system. I took a specia interest in this, since he and I were neighbours for most of his past 15 years, and he sent his boys to the school that I attended for three years. It would be an injustice not to acknowledge his frustration at the lack of resources available to schools in the state sector. But it would equally be wrong not to heed his fury at what he saw as low expectations of black pupils by teachers, especially in secondary schools.

Taught by Jesuits in an old-fashioned Caribbean boys' school, he had fixed ideas. I confess that since my own parents removed me from my London school to a boys' school in Georgetown, I share many of his prejudices. The fact both of us were raised by Guyanese teachers of the old school - his father, my aunt - may also be significant. Bernie said if he had his time again, he would have been guided less by political orthodoxy, more by his children's needs.

I was only slightly surprised to hear a black nurse in south London at a meeting last week plead for someone to do something about London schools. Her son was excluded from his local school; she found cash for a fee-paying school, where he was thriving. Why should she have to do this? It's hard to offer an answer that doesn't begin "If only...". She is not the only such black parent I have met in recent months.

That, perhaps, is why many black faces are brightening at the proposals that would make it easier to set up voluntary aided schools, possibly under religious denominations. Such schools are popular with London parents, doubly so among black and Asian parents. Bernie Grant leaves many legacies, but maybe the most important is the most difficult: recognition that disappointment has eroded the loyalty of ethnic minority families so far that black parents are choosing any option that is not their neighbourhood school.

Trevor Phillips is Labour's candidate for deputy mayor of London

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