The New East End: kinship, race and conflict

24th March 2006 at 00:00
The New East End: kinship, race and conflict By Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young Profile Books pound;15

Lord Young of Dartington, who died in 2002, was the author of the welfare state manifesto of 1945 and of The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) besides being the creator of the Consumers' Association and the inspiration for the Open University. His achievements and influence were immense.

One of the first publications from the Institute of Community Studies, which Michael Young founded in 1952 in Victoria Square in his beloved East End, was Family and Kinship in East London, written with Peter Willmott and published in 1957. This book is the sequel which, as its title signals, charts a profound change in the East End. It focuses on the borough of Tower Hamlets and the experiences of the newly arrived Bangladeshi community and the remaining but progressively alienated white residents. It tells a very different story from the first book: the binding forces within the area are still "family" and small "family businesses", but among the Bangladeshi rather than the fragmenting white community.

Perhaps it's this family factor which is contributing to the remarkable progress in educational achievements by Bangladeshi pupils. At least that's one of the conclusions of the authors in an excellent chapter on education and segregation. It also exposes three other vital issues.

First, it makes clear the tireless efforts of individual and teams of teachers whose expertise, commitment and energy are at the heart of the remarkable success story of most Tower Hamlets schools, and Bangladeshi pupils in particular. Second, through the testimony of witnesses, the book underlines the importance of support staff who live and are known in the area the schools serve, and who promote tolerance and respect among pupils from different races in the playground and in the corridors, when outside the school gate mutual suspicion and mistrust often spills over into violence. The third point relates to this, for much of the work of headteachers and senior staff can be taken up with living with the consequences of race-related "incidents" which occur frequently in the evenings and weekends but sometimes alarmingly at the end of the school day. The schools' success is the more remarkable.

Finally, no one reading this chapter can be in any doubt that unless the current education bill addresses the issue of covert selection along race lines by some faith schools, we are storing up problems in London which will make Northern Ireland look like a tea party. As HG Wells, another writer influenced by a very different east London, once said: "It's a race between education and catastrophe".

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