'History tells us we must nip it in the bud'

4th June 2004 at 01:00
The BNP is targeting schools as part of its bid for respectability. As the far-right party prepares to field more than 400 candidates in next week's elections, Wendy Wallace reports on the teachers who are fighting back

The logbook lists a depressing catalogue of incidents. "Called victim a 'Paki slut' by email"; "Had swastikas on his arm and said he couldn't stand Jews"; "Threw pop at victim and told him to 'go home'."

But this log is a source of pride at the 562-pupil Mitchell high school in Stoke-on-Trent, which is committed to confronting racism in its community.

Teachers here say that keeping a record of harassment (as schools are required to do by law), and giving pupils the confidence to report abuse, is an important way of challenging racism.

Mitchell, an 11-16 comprehensive in the neighbourhood of Bucknall, sits on a hilltop surrounded by streets of run-down semis. With few amenities, the area is the poorest in Stoke, and one of the most deprived in Britain.

When, last year, five newly arrived Czech Roma asylum seekers dropped out of Mitchell in the space of a term, staff at this mainly white school realised they had a problem. "The children had a very hostile reception from just about everybody, fuelled by the local paper," says assistant head Sharon Till. "We thought, 'we've got to do something'. We want to give every child a good start, but until they came the racism had not really been articulated."

Following the disappearance of the Czech students, senior staff interviewed all 17 of the school's ethnic minority children, and their families. Many of the children said racism was so routine they did not really identify it.

"Young people were almost accepting inappropriate behaviour or language and didn't see it as being focused through a race agenda," says Mitchell's head, Deborah Sanderson. Disturbingly, the children revealed that the racism didn't come only from pupils. Many were offended by some staff who used the word "coloured", could not differentiate between asylum seekers and refugees, and were impatient with learners of English as an additional language.

What followed - a vigorous focus on reporting and dealing with racist incidents, training sessions for all staff, and the creation of a student diversity council to inform assemblies and citizenship lessons - is part of a drive for a wider culture change. "This is a very needy community, but dynamic and with a hunger for entitlement," says Ms Sanderson. "We need to be a signpost to learning, and emotional and social opportunities." As one of the new breed of extended schools, Mitchell offers a range of services to the community; in January Ofsted described its engagement with the locality as "an area of excellence". Staff are confident that the experience of the Czech children, some of whom have enrolled in another school, could not be repeated at Mitchell.

Mitchell school's action takes on added significance at a time when the far right is trying to recruit disaffected whites. "The BNP is a tough agenda for all heads in the city," says Ms Sanderson. "Things are bubbling under and every now and again you get a break-out. It's a scary time."

Stoke-on-Trent city council already has two British National Party councillors. With its declining pottery industry and widespread poverty, it is a focus for the party, which is fielding candidates in eight of the 20 wards in next week's local elections. "They target areas that are down at heel and predominantly white, and make ethnic communities the scapegoat for all that is wrong," says Paul Farrelly, Labour MP for neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme and governor at a secondary school. "The best defence is giving kids education so they can break out of the cycle of deprivation and get more opportunities."

Local members of the National Union of Teachers and other trade unionists believe the party has the Stoke mayoral post and a local parliamentary constituency in its sights. The NUT's assistant secretary in Stoke, Jason Hill, was attacked while leaving an anti-fascist meeting and another trade unionist appeared on the far right's hate site, Redwatch.

"Jamie", a 15-year-old Year 11 student from another mainly white school in the city, and member of the North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (Norscarf), says some Year 10 and 11 boys attend local BNP meetings, and increasing numbers sport skinhead haircuts as a badge of allegiance. BNP graffiti appears in the toilets and on desks at his school, but he has been discouraged from displaying anti-racist material. "The BNP are managing to brainwash some children. You hear them say, 'oh, the effing Pakis' and things like that. It's ridiculous that they get away with spraying 'BNP' on the walls and I'm not allowed to put up a simple poster."

BNP activity is not, of course, restricted to Stoke. The party claims to be putting up 400 candidates in next week's European, London and local elections, and aims to move itself into the mainstream of British politics. InApril, Simon Smith, a maths teacher at St Peter's RC school in Solihull, was suspended from his job when it was revealed he is standing for the party in the European elections. Mr Smith could also face disciplinary action by his union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

The Young BNP claims a growing membership; its website lists more than 70 schools and sixth-form colleges where it says it has supporters. And there have been reports of BNP activity focused on schools in Oldham, Blackburn, Halifax, Southend and Leeds.

The YBNP is working to promote an image of schools riddled with gang warfare based on racial lines, aiming to fuel fear among white voters, particularly - post 911 - of Muslims. This tactic was at work in March when the leader of the BNP, NickGriffin, went to Glasgow to lay a wreath after a local white schoolboy was murdered. "Have you noticed the large Asian gangs in your canteen?" asks a downloadable leaflet on the YBNP website. "If you are happy that whites are going to be a minority in our country by 2060 then just throw this leaflet away."

Bizarrely, in its bid for respectability, the BNP denies that its policies are racist. Fifty-six-year-old Tony North is BNP organiser in the south-west, the party's main Euro candidate for the area - and a parent governor at Furzeham primary in Brixham, Devon. He cites his fundraising work for the school and how he acquired an allotment for the pupils to boost healthy eating, but becomes finger-jabbingly angry when his party is described as racist. "If you're going to call us names, apply it to the Asians in Banglatown, the Jews in Golders Green. It is unfair to do it to white people who want to live with their own kind in their own country."

Mr North claims he "leaves politics at the gate" in his role as a governor at Furzeham, which has a number of ethnic minority pupils. But it is difficult to square his legal duty to promote racial harmony in school with his response to the hypothetical arrival of an Asian family at Furzeham.

"It would ring an alarm bell," he says. "I'd think, 'are we now going to have a mosque, ritual slaughter, halal food?', and onwards we go to multiculturalism, which most of the people do not want. They like things as they are."

Andrew Kinder, Furzeham's head, is off sick but said in a prepared statement that he would expect all members of the governing body to respect the school's diversity and inclusion policy, regardless of their political views.

Heath Clegg, a parent governor at Whitehill primary in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, stood for the BNP in a council by-election last October. He was not elected, but won 31.5 per cent of the votes cast. He is not standing in the current elections. Richard Mulhall, leader of the BNP's group of three councillors in Calderdale, said in a press interview last year that the party would be targeting governing bodies.

But if the party's strategy is to influence school policy, there is no evidence of success so far. "It has not affected school life," says Whitehill's head, Roy Hepplestone. "We have just reviewed the race action policy, we are proactive and we want to drive bullies - including racists - to the surface. I hate the politics of the BNP, but Mr Clegg has not tried to put his viewpoint in an inappropriate manner. If he did, there would be a very strong backlash."

Sue McMahon, secretary of the Calderdale branch of the NUT, believes the BNP aims initially to increase its respectability by getting on to governing bodies and, if it gains a foothold, will try to influence school policy. "Parent governors are not allowed to state their political affiliation," she says, "so how many more are out there? BNP governors should not be allowed, full stop." If the party wins substantial numbers of seats in next week's elections, it could - in some LEAs - be entitled to have governors co-opted to schools.

Some local authorities seem ill prepared to meet the challenge posed by the BNP. A spokesperson for Lancashire, which has experienced serious problems in Burnley where there are six BNP councillors, told The TES: "LEA officers need to remain politically neutral at all times and this is of paramount importance during the local election period." Union activists in Calderdale are critical of some LEA officials who have been slow to respond to incidents.

Stoke-on-Trent is taking a more interventionist approach. Its chief education officer, Nigel Rigby, says the LEA has a close working relationship with the Race Equality Council and the local police, and shares intelligence with both, as well as holding meetings when necessary with headteachers. "We keep an eye out, and work with police, representatives of the youth service and others. We're fleet of foot and we move in if the police think trouble is likely." He credits this joint working - whereby Asian and white youth workers are deployed in areas of rising racial tension - with the fact that there have been no large-scale racial disturbances in Stoke.

The BNP is not banned, Mr Rigby points out, and has a legal right to air its views if they do not flout race relations legislation. "We're not afraid to make that fine judgment and have managed to control situations that went out of control in other places. Attitudes in Stoke were basic; there was little experience of diversity. Now there is much more and we, as an LEA, have promoted the value of diversity."

The attention to recording incidents of racial harassment - neglected by many schools because they fear being branded racist - is an important plank in the Stoke strategy. "It is non-reporting that is damaging," says Mr Rigby. "We have to manage this; it is a moral imperative. Schools are increasingly coming on board."

Three 19-year-old men who spurn the leaflets on offer at the Norscarf stall in Newcastle-under-Lyme on Saturday morning say they would vote BNP "because they'd do something about all the foreigners taking our jobs". Ian Brown, a printer, goes on, rather contradictorily, to say: "I don't mind foreigners in the country as long as they're doing something."

Misinformation abounds. BNP member Steven Hallam, standing in Stoke's Blurton ward next week, tells voters in his election leaflet that "in some of our schools, English is not the first language taught", which will come as news to teachers.

But while some passers-by turn down the Norscarf leaflets, many offer support. Andy Beeken, civil servant, father of two and one of those signing the campaign petition, believes ignoring the BNP is not an option. "It is crucial that we don't allow them to get a foothold. History tells us we need to nip it in the bud; we could be back in the 1930s very quickly."

Unite Against Fascism, PO Box 36871, London WC1X 9XT; www.uaf.org.uk


Can you hold racist views but work and speak in schools for the benefit of all children, regardless of their ethnic background?

Membership of the British National Party does not disqualify individuals from a role in schools, because it is not a banned party. But for a teacher or governor to discriminate against children contravenes race relations legislation, professional standards and union codes of conduct. Whether it is possible to hold views such as those espoused by the BNP, but not exercise or voice them in any way in school, is a grey area.

"We have a multicultural school population - with about one in eight children from ethnically diverse backgrounds - and every teacher's duty is to promote the rights and welfare of all children and maximise their achievement," says Carol Adams, chief executive of the General Teaching Council of England. "Teachers have a duty to be committed to the welfare and education of all children that is incompatible with the values and beliefs of the BNP. It is as simple as that."

It is against the National Union of Teachers' code of conduct for a member to "discriminate, to harass or to be guilty of discriminatory or offensive remarks by reference to race, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation of others including, in particular, colleagues and pupils." "Offences against this section would be referred to the appropriate committee for adjudication," says John Bangs, NUT assistant secretary. Membership of the BNP could provide material evidence in such a case, he adds.

"It is the responsibility of governors to ensure that schoolsI comply with the laws of the land, including legislation on race discrimination," says a DfES spokesperson. "Governing bodies also have a specific duty to promote equality of opportunity and to promote good relations between persons of different racial groups.

"If any governor believes that another governor has acted in a way that is inconsistent with the school's ethos or religious character, and has brought, or is likely to bring, the school or the governing body or the office of governor into disrepute, they can request a motion to suspend the offending governor."

What does the BNP say about education?

British National Party education policy, as outlined by party spokesman Dr Phil Edwards, formerly a university lecturer in theoretical physics "A lot of the students do not seem interested; that's why I left. They weren't focused. We used to say it was like casting artificial pearls before real swine. The education system is absolutely awful. Young people can't spell.

"Black boys do very badly in their GCSEs. We would make pound;1 billion available for repatriation. That proves we're a generous party.

"I blame diversity. They're delivering what they call an anti-racist curriculum, and that is getting in the way of a proper education. Even all-white schools are teaching anti-racism.

"We would close down these teacher training colleges because this is where it begins. They weed out the ones with any normal instincts about what being British, being patriotic, means. The boys are effeminate, the girls are weak, and they end up as schoolteachers. The colleges are hotbeds of brainwashing and multi-culturalism. Twenty five years ago, graduates were allowed to teach and we had a better education system.

"A British National Party education secretary would reintroduce corporal punishment. When I was at school we had a bloody inkpot with a pen in it.

If we blotted our copybooks, we got whacked. We didn't grow up barmy and dysfunctional."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today