James Farmer

Legal Commentary

Race, Poverty and Education - Lessons from the UK learned while spending Christmas in London December 2019

Monday, January 13, 2020
In August 2018, the 26 year old black rap musician, Stormzy, established a scholarship under which he would pay the tuition fees and accommodation for 4 black students to attend Cambridge University.  At the time, he was accused of racism.  His response, as recorded in a rap that went high in the charts: “I done a scholarship for the kids, they said it’s racist.   That’s not anti-white, it’s pro-black”.  He later said that he was endeavouring to address the disadvantages and barriers that young blacks faced.

In December 2019, another philanthropist,  Sir Bryan Thwaites (aged 96), a distinguished academic who as a boy from a family that could not have afforded the tuition fees had attended Dulwich College and Winchester College on scholarships, offered scholarships to both schools for white boys from poor families, these being pupils that research showed were the lowest attainers in the entire education system.  Both schools had been founded originally – Dulwich 400 years ago and Winchester 640 years ago – to educate “the poor and needy”.   (Both schools currently provide some degrees of fee relief based on need.)

Both schools, after deliberation and what was said to be widespread consultation including the taking of legal advice, rejected the scholarships offer.  In a scathing commentary in The Times (30 December 2019), Trevor Phillips, a former Labour party politician and Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality whose parents had emigrated to England from British Guiana, said that the schools had misunderstood the intent of the 2010 Equality Act (which Phillips had been one of the authors of) in apparently thinking that the Act was constructed purely to favour people of colour.  “It is not”, he said, “it is designed to ensure equality, and in this case, the disadvantaged, under-represented group happened to be white”.  Sir Bryan, he continued, wanted to do the right thing by families who need support and the “guardians of our great schools should not be putting their own insecurities and sensitivities between his generosity and young people of talent”.  

Another Labour party member, Frank Field, who was an MP for 40 years and had been the Minister for Welfare Reform in the Blair Government, said that the controversy “has exposed all that politically correct stuff you get in this area” but also observed that schools like Dulwich and Winchester had no idea how to educate poor white children in large numbers and lacked the expertise to do so (Times, 1 January 2020). 

The Times, in its Editorial of 30 December, weighed in also in criticism of the schools’ decision to reject the scholarships offer.  It referred to data published by the House of Commons Education Committee which showed that pupils from white working-class homes achieved the lowest General Certificate of Secondary Education scores of any ethnic group.  Given this, The Times said: “The notion that Sir Bryan’s generosity might somehow entrench generations of racial inequality is preposterous.  He is plainly seeking the exact opposite, targeting help on those who are most in need of it.”   Reference was made to the award of scholarships by public schools for less worthy aims, i.e. sporting excellence (a matter that has been controversial in respect of some private schools in Auckland for whom First XV performance is of premium importance).  The Times then concluded: “A public culture that disdains a humanitarian bequest for purely pusillanimous reasons is in a poor state”.

One thing that I take from this is that issues relating to race and poverty and efforts to address them are more complex than may initially appear.  The Thwaites case shows that putting a label (in this case racial discrimination) on conduct may have an adverse effect on another social evil, in this case lack of educational opportunity through poverty.

The Thwaites case has also stimulated discussion on the much broader issue of the relationship between poverty and education.  The fact that in the UK at least it is the children of white working class or poorer people who perform worst at school was expounded on in letters to The Times (31 December 2019).  In one, Chris Pratt, the author of “Building a Learning Nation”, said that research showed that “white working class families tend to be less engaged with their children’s education than other ethnic groups, which are generally better at supporting their children in doing their homework, accessing a computer at home, having reasonable bedtimes and eating together as a family”.  (A New Zealand educator has previously told me that the family tradition of eating together has broken down to a considerable extent in New Zealand with adverse consequences for younger children particularly.)

Another letter to The Times, from Neil Roskilly, CEO of the Independent Schools Association, while deprecating the decisions of Dulwich and Winchester to reject the opportunity offered by Sir Bryan Thwaites, looked at the wider picture and said that “private philanthropy, no matter how generous, would not even dent the national disgrace of disadvantaged white boys’ under-achievement, particularly in coastal areas”.  He attributed this to low familial aspiration and under-resourced schools which, he said, “are a deadly combination that blights many communities, feeding the cycle of ill-health, under-employment and homelessness”.

Low familial aspiration for the future of the children of the family is undoubtedly a major contribution to the lack of educational opportunity for those children.  If the parents don’t see that education is the principal means of breaking the cycle that Roskilly refers to, it would be a rare child who will do it on his or her own.  

But aspiration is not enough.  The schools must be of a standard that will enable all children to reach levels of attainment that will give them the best prospect and incentive to undertake tertiary training (of whatever kind) that will be their passport to successful adult lives which will in turn enable them to provide aspiration and opportunity for their children.  

New Zealanders have long believed that their State school system is of the highest standard but the recent prolonged protests by teachers at being remunerated at a level that does not match their dedication and abilities, added to the paucity of resources for the so-called lower decile schools in the poorer areas, must surely question the current validity of that belief.   

Yes, there was a recent one-off grant by the Government to schools to assist with long-needed maintenance of buildings – buildings which are in many cases in a very bad state of repair, with dampness and leaks in particular putting children’s and teachers’ health at risk.  But the question has to be asked whether an ad hoc grant of that kind (one which was not permitted to be used for capital expenditure) does any more than just scratch the surface.  As Michael Bain, the Principal of Te Mata School, was quoted as saying after the announcement of the grant: “It’s all about putting good stuff in front of kids.  If we want 21st-century education we can’t do it on an 18th-century budget…”  

The case for putting far more money into primary and secondary schools is surely unanswerable; the lack of real, effective, political will appalling.  As a country, we have to do better and adjust our priorities if we really do want to do something effective about the social problems that increasingly dominate political agendas.

Jim Farmer

January 2020

Disclosure Declaration:  After attending State primary and intermediate schools in Onehunga, where I was very well taught, and having been accepted out-of-zone by the Auckland Grammar School, I was awarded an entrance examination scholarship to go to King’s College, which I did.   Either way, my secondary education to a very high level was assured.  
Either way too, I was doomed in later years (along with others attending one or other of those schools) to be branded as privileged and contrasted with pupils from lower decile schools who did not make it to law school (or medical school or to University at all).  It would be said that that privilege gave me unjustified preference and an easy path to jobs and positions.  
Hmmm …   My first legal job application – to Russell McVeagh – never even got me an interview, King’s College or no King’s College.  I was told on the telephone that the academic results that I had achieved were unlikely to be consistent with the requirement for a lawyer to be “practical”.   Ironically, after pursuing post-graduate academic degrees and an academic career at Auckland and Cambridge Universities – and thereby practising impractacility - over the next 9 years, I did manage eventually to be taken in by Russell McVeagh (but as a partner).  
Times have of course changed (and for the better) with it now being standard practice to treat academic distinction as an important criterion for employment decisions and for New Zealand law graduates to undertake post-graduate degrees either in New Zealand or abroad before embarking on or resuming a job in a law firm.

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