Remedies or riots

16th June 1995 at 01:00
Few managed to predict the winner of Saturday's Epsom Derby, but many must have foreseen the weekend's events in Bradford. Inner-city riots are not quite as much a fixture of the English summer as Wimbledon and the Henley Regatta, but there was a horrible inevitability about the Asian youths' bloody clashes with the West Yorkshire constabulary. Tempers invariably rise in early summer even if the temperature does not, and the last major disturbance in the city, the 1989 Satanic Verses demonstration that resulted in 54 arrests, also occurred in mid-June.

Equally predictably, the education service was immediately held partly responsible for the wrecking spree - a calumny that was given some credence by reports that a teacher had been among those arrested. But the post-mortem knife should really be directed to other parts of the body politic. The catalyst of the violence was the alleged police assault on the sister of a youth that officers were attempting to arrest. However, the roots of the trouble can be traced to factors such as poor housing, heavy-handed tactics by a predominately white police force, and unemployment - Bradfordian Asians are three times as likely as their white counterparts to be jobless. It also seems that the city's young Asians have a much less deferential attitude to authority than their parents did.

But even if schools are not guilty as charged - the local education authority was once derided as "awful" by former secretary of state John Patten - it would be stretching the truth to say that the city's education committee should be proud of what it has done for Asian youngsters. Many of the once-handsome Victorian schools built with the brass of wool merchants are crumbling, mainly as a result of government underfunding, and last November's school performance tables revealed that in three of the city's comprehensives less than 7 per cent of teenagers obtained five or more grade A-C GCSEs. It is true that many of those who failed to reach that benchmark started school unable to speak English - that largely explains why Bradford finished bottom in the first key stage 1 SATs league table in 1991 - and have parents who are illiterate even in their own language. Nevertheless, such figures compare badly with the national average (43.3 per cent) and look appalling when set against the results for the independent Bradford girls' and boys' grammar schools (99 and 96 per cent respectively). No wonder Max Madden, Labour MP for Bradford West, says that the products of such schools are "pessimistic about the future".

Such pessimism is, of course, endemic in Britain at present, as the Barnardo's report on parents' expectations for their children showed again this week. It would probably take a miracle such as a return to full employment to banish this malaise but the National Commission on Education, which today produced its concluding report, is rightly frustrated that the Government has made so little effort.

The Commission, both in its November 1993 report, and again this week, has called for a concerted school improvement drive in disadvantaged areas such as Bradford's Manningham district and warned that society will ultimately pay a heavy price if an underclass is allowed to form. It has also recommended high-quality nursery education for all three and four-year-olds, primary reception classes of 20, a substantial increase in spending on schoolbooks, equipment and accommodation, and a revitalised training and education programme to motivate unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds. Does anyone doubt that such policies would greatly boost the attainment levels of children in Bradford and elsewhere? Would anyone dare to criticise the normally urbane and diplomatic Sir Claus Moser for denouncing the Treasury "rats" who have apparently blocked some of the Commission's more expensiveproposals?

The commissioners and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which underwrote the cost of their work, have done the country a great service by highlighting the defects in the education system and proposing remedies. But even in the unlikely event that most of their recommendations were eventually adopted there could be no guarantee that the problems which led to last weekend's riots would disappear. Young Asians, and blacks, not only need help to achieve the same levels of academic success as their white peers (many already do); they must be confident that they are competing on equal terms for jobs.

Positive discrimination would only lead to the sort of white backlash witnessed in the United States, but more stringent application of equal opportunities legislation would help. More policing of the jobs market might mean that fewer panda cars would be needed on our inner-city streets.

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