Institutionally lazy and fashionable;Another Voice;Opinion

19th March 1999 at 00:00
THE headline should say J'accuse. The Office for Standards in Education has labelled British schools "institutionally racist" and that is, like the case against Dreyfus, a trumped-up and prejudiced condemnation. Well, at the very least, I accuse OFSTED of institutional laziness or institutional cowardice.

Laziness, because it has borrowed a definition, for its publication of the survey of ethnic achievement in schools, from Sir William Macpherson's report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence without bothering to check that it applies. I could here enter a subsidiary accusation of being institutionally fashionable.

The inspectors' report says that Chinese and Indians do better than anyone in the exam result stakes and that other groups, such as males of Caribbean origin and Bangladeshis, do badly.

Macpherson's definition, as applied to the police, was that they failed to provide a service to the entire ethnic population. The word "racism" was judiciously, if wrongly, used. The Chinese and Indians would certainly qualify as culturally and racially distinct. Schools, on the definition of success, haven't failed to provide a service to them. Some fudge or fail to be specific out of cowardice.

The two charges, lazy thinking and pusillanimity, are not distinct. OFSTED says at the end of its report that Afro-Caribbean males are, as a statistic rather than as individuals, disaffected, hostile to learning and have low aspirations. A recipe, one would have thought, for low achievement with or without the "institutional" attitudes of the school being thrown into the pot.

The spectre of institutional failure stalks the land and the Macpherson test, like nuclear fission, can't be uninvented, though it may be made safe.

Its popularity and current usage originates not in any judicial or sociological text but in the rhetoric of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Unable to match the macho style of the American Black Power cadres, with their dark glasses, berets, licensed guns and lexicon of anti-white abuse born of centuries of antagonism, the British Black Power movement resorted to politer, political analysis. We had no Rap Brown taunting "honkies" or Malcolm X preaching that "you catch arse because you're black".

The British humour and sense of irony would have made a mockery of such an assault. British Black Power, seeking a political handhold and refusing to allow whites the escape route of repentance for the sins of their forefathers and the unwitting sins of their psyches, formulated the idea of "institutional racism".

The tenor of the speech (I know, I delivered a few myself) was: "I don't care if you call me a Paki or you think my food smells. That's between you and your psychiatrist. Your attitudes and racism are a mere nuisance and we can deal with them and we will! Decisively! It's the institutional racism of Britain that we have to fight. You can reform but the institutions you have made can't. They have to be destroyed by revolution."

It was all good stuff, dedicated to proving that a capitalist democracy would inevitably have flawed and racist institutions. The Macpherson report, 20 to 30 years after those first rhetorical formulations, has caught up, just as the judge who asked "Who are the Beatles?" probably knows by now. Sir William has turned the definition from the cry of the revolutionary to a complaint on behalf of the consumer. The police do not provide the service they should.

In adopting this definition, the inspectors have restated the prima facie case. Achievement statistics for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Afro-Caribbean males are not up to the scratch that whites, Indians and Chinese have made on the slate and therefore the schools are failing to provide the certification they should.

OFSTED can't have failed to see that what it has is the beginning of a report not, as in Macpherson, the conclusions of one. Though late in the day, it would be courageous to find out why these groups of children fail.

There is a fear of approaching this line of enquiry because one would first have to eliminate the argument that they fail because they are innately less capable of getting GCSEs and A-levels - the old differential-IQ bogey. The other possibilities then need a hard and scientifically passionate examination.

It has never been done. Instead, we have notions about "culture", "role-models", "stereotyping", "positive images", "low expectation" and "unwitting racism" floating about, which are grasped from the fashion ether and put into play in every circular discussion of the wretched subject.

Doesn't any institution want to draw up some correlative tables about class conditions, family conditions, details of parenting, cultural pursuits at home, amount of homework done, behaviour in class, voluntary attention spans, respectful and polite behaviour, however animated or lively, and the great goal of achievement?

That's what OFSTED should pursue, and not retreat into cowardly and fashionable copycat-ism.

Farrukh Dhondy is a writer and former commissioning editor of multi-cultural programmes for Channel 4

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