Great Britain

‘White privilege?’ Don’t believe a word of it

ROBERT HALFON’S attempt to blame anti-racists for bad results in underfunded schools rather than his own government’s spending cuts, is one of the nastier attempts to use “culture war” themes to cover Tory education failures.

But it’s also a bit of a tradition: Tory education ministers often blame “liberal values” for bad results from badly funded education. Every time they do, school funding drops and the results get worse.

Halfon, leading the education select committee, showed white kids on free school meals are doing very badly in school results: that’s because the poorest kids in de-industrialised towns are doing even worse than the poorest kids in cities.

The Tories have led the government for over a decade. Their austerity programme, cuts in school and college funding, abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, grim benefits regime and cuts to local authorities in left-behind towns raised barriers to these schoolkids doing well.

But Halfon didn’t want to blame his own government so claimed liberal teachers talking about “white privilege” was the main cause.

The term “white privilege” isn’t a useful way of describing racial discrimination because it implies all white people benefit from black people losing out — which they don’t.

Halfon gives the game away by raising this as his anti-slogan: it’s barely used in education but did give him a chance to make it seem poor kids doing badly was the fault of teachers “favouring” black kids.

Halfon is in a long Tory tradition of trying to blame “liberal” ideas for educational poor performance — though his attempt to make anti-racism the central target seems especially dirty.

Tory Education Ministers have long claimed “trendy” ideas were the real schools’ problem, not underfunding.

In the 1990’s Tory Prime Minister John Major made John Patten his education secretary. The “liberal” press welcomed Patten, who they admired as posh and “clever.”

An Observer profile gushed Patten was an “aesthete, witty, romantic and fastidiously stylish” and said, “his willingness to go out and see for himself and to listen to contrary opinion, will please the seriously fed up teaching profession.” The Guardian said he would be “suave and charming to a suspicious education world.”

But those who knew him better thought otherwise. His former girlfriend, Lucinda Lambton, said Patten was “the slimiest skeleton in my cupboard,” and that when he walked into the same room as her in the 1990s “felt sick” and “had to leave” as he had been “repellently smooth.” She told a friend: “In my greasy past, he is the biggest grease spot of all.”

Lambton was right and the liberal papers were wrong. Patten launched “reforms” using the standard formula of more tests not more funds. He wrapped up his politics in a reheated version of Thatcher’s “Victorian values.”

Patten wrote a high-profile article arguing, “Dwindling belief in redemption and damnation has led to a loss of fear of the eternal consequences of goodness and badness” — ie that youngsters were out of control because they did not fear the devil and hell anymore.

Patten wanted to end university-based teacher training, replacing trained teachers with a “mum’s army” — it was an attempt to combine cuts and the culture war.

Patten claimed classroom teachers only needed “common sense” not “trendy values” or ideas about “child-centred” education. His plan would also mean cheaply trained, lower paid teachers. But teachers and parents saw through and vocally opposed his scheme.

Patten fell sick, taking months off. The press reported he was demoralised by teachers’ protests and an “almighty bollocking” from John Major. In his autobiography John Major wrote that Patten was “rather worn down by it,” to the point where “his health suffered and I decided he needed a sabbatical.” Patten’s ministerial career ended.

Michael Gove revived Patten’s plans some 20 years later. Like Patten, Gove was originally described by the media as a “thoughtful liberal.” Gove also wanted teacher training moved out of universities and made a cheaper “on-the-job” scheme.

Gove dressed up his reform in alarming “culture war” rhetoric. Gove claimed universities exposed trainee teachers to what he called “the Blob,” a dangerous “educational establishment” full of “1960s values” and “Marxist” thought.

Unlike Patten, Gove got some of his plan through, but the result was a disaster. The new scheme wasn’t popular or efficient and led to teacher shortages, making it worse for the schoolkids Halfon claims to care about.

Before Gove and Patten, there was another education “culture warrior,” called Rhodes Boyson. A comic-looking character with mutton-chop whiskers, Boyson was adored by Tories and seen as a sick joke by teachers and pupils.

He wrote an influential set of “black papers” in the 1970s, attacking “trendy” education ideas. Thatcher made Boyson a junior education minister, where he argued increased spending was just a waste of money because “1960s” education methods like pupils doing “projects” meant kids were “less disciplined and less able to concentrate.”

Boyson wanted an “old fashioned common sense” approach, with a particular focus on beating children. Pupils who wanted corporal punishment banned in schools called Boyson “the minister for flogging.”

Boyson’s “cultural values” finally became too reactionary even for Thatcher: Boyson stopped being a minister in 1987 and became a backbench embarrassment.

In 1995 he was the last of the “hang-em-flog-em” Tories, ranting in Parliament that, “Capital and corporal punishment are coming back around the world, including in America. Eventually, they will come back here. We shall all have to have a drink together on the day that that happens.”

Halfon has in some ways been worse than Boyson, Patten or Gove. Like them, he has tried to divert questions of funding education into “cultural” issues.

But he has also tried to racialise the debate — an approach that could stir up antagonism against black and Asian kids and make it seem that those who care about racism are responsible for bad treatment of poor white kids.

I hope we can all look forward to the day when he is seen, like Patten or Boyson, as an embarrassment.

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