Towering success

The east end of London used to be one the BNP’s electoral targets. MATTHEW BROWN reports on how the policies and priorities of one local borough has improved community relations.

Juneha Chowdhury is nearing the end of her first year as a newly qualified teacher. It hasn’t been easy but, at 27, she’s finally beginning to fulfill the promise she first made to herself as a school girl more than 10 years ago. “I remember realising quite early that I could help my friends learn,” she says. “I suppose I had a natural talent to teach.”

But Juneha’s path from school girl to school teacher has been far from smooth. She went to Mulberry girls’ school, in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, the once struggling education authority that has recently received swathes of praise and press coverage for its vastly improved exam results and fast improving schools. She left with nine GCSEs and three A levels, but family disapproval prevented her taking up an offer from the London School of Economics to study law, which she’d applied for in secret.

Instead, aged 18, she went to Bangladesh to get married. Four years later, after struggling with the authorities to bring her husband to the UK, and with a seven month old son to look after, she eventually enrolled at East London University to study English. Despite living in a hostel, and for a time officially regarded as a homeless family, Juneha got her degree.

After that, the decision to train as a teacher was easy – made easier, indeed, thanks to Tower Hamlets council. As a resident and ex-pupil in the borough, Juneha was eligible for one of the authority’s many innovative initiatives to encourage local people to work in local schools. She received a £3000 bursary when she took her first teaching job in a Tower Hamlets school, and she’ll get a further £2000 if she stays in the borough for at least two years. It certainly helped to make up her mind.

“I had offers from schools in Wanstead and Hackney,” she says. “But the bursary helped me make the decision. It’s a great incentive.”

Now teaching English at a local secondary school, Juneha is just one of the latest among a new generation of teachers and school support staff who have emerged from Tower Hamlets’s multi-ethnic and immigrant-rich communities to help transform the borough’s schools and the academic prospects of its children. As such, she’s a symbol of the changing face and fortunes of an area that, not long ago, was synonymous with the kind of racial tension, far right activism and educational underachievement that seems to characterise those northern towns where the BNP has made such headway recently.

A decade ago this area of the east end was a main BNP target. But now, while councils in towns such as Oldham, Burnley and Bradford have been criticised for policies that encourage “community apartheid” (see box) – leading to the disturbances of 2001 and, arguably, the recent BNP election successes – Tower Hamlets has won beacon status for “community cohesion”. It wasn’t always this way.

Stephen Lawrence

Nineteen-ninety-three is etched into the minds of anti-racist campaigners as the year when Stephen Lawrence was killed. But that year also saw a number of other vicious racist attacks, notably against Bangladeshi schoolboys around Bethnal Green and Mile End. For a while, the atmosphere was tense and, at times, scary. The BNP fought street battles with anti-fascist campaigners in Brick Lane, and the Anti-Nazi League organised large, noisy protests outside Bethnal Green’s York Hall, where the BNP held a rally.

Most frightening of all, the BNP won its only council seat for many years on the Isle of Dogs, benefiting from the white community’s hostility to the council’s housing policy, a hostility fuelled, in part, by the Liberal Democrats. At the time it seemed like the thin edge of a very sharp wedge. As it happened, Derek Beackon did not last long, partly because the massed ranks of the London-based anti-racist organisations concentrated their forces on the ward, and focused on exposing the BNP’s racist underbelly. Luckily, back then BNP members were still wearing lace-up boots, black bomber jackets and short hair cuts, crassly conforming to their folk devil image and falling neatly into line for a media-led moral panic.

Of course, no-one would seriously suggest there’s no longer any racism in Tower Hamlets – the numerous incidents of abuse and harassment against ethnic minorities, Muslims in particular, in the wake of September 11, are testament to its continued existence – but there has certainly been a change in what used to be called “community relations”. What’s more, that transformation has come, partly at least, thanks to a number council initiatives, the kind of policies that just might start to make a difference in Oldham, Blackburn, Burnley, Halifax, Bradford, Stoke, and the like.

None of these seem like radically new ideas – they include, for example, housing policies designed to break up ethnically homogenous estates and spread people from different communities around the borough. There’s also a rapid reaction unit which responds to aggravation between teenage gangs – a continuing problem in the Bangladeshi community – run by the youth service, not the police. And there’s a jobs programme which has helped 1500 residents get work locally, increasing the proportion of local people employed at Canary Wharf by 50 per cent.

But the biggest difference has been made in education. Back in the early 1990s, Tower Hamlets’ schools were notorious as educational graveyards. This was an area where newly trained teachers took their first jobs because there were masses available and the authority provided cheap housing as an incentive. All too often, they survived for two years, then left to further their careers in kinder pastures. When the council took control of education from the Inner London Education Authority in 1990, only eight per cent of pupils achieved the equivalent of five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, and a fifth of all pupils left school without any qualifications. By 1998 things had improved, but only slightly, and education almost passed into the hands of private management.

Most improved

Last year, however, 44 per cent of pupils got top GCSE grades, a huge nine per cent increase on 2001, compared to a one per cent rise nationally. It was the biggest improvement in England. Only four per cent of Tower Hamlets pupils left school without qualifications in 2002, and the number going on to higher education has increased by more than 200 per cent. These results were built on the success of Tower Hamlets’ primaries, whose SATS results rose more rapidly than in any other education authority between 1998 and 2001.

Of course, exam results are a crude and distorting measure of children’s education, at best, and of the standard of schools and teachers in particular (whatever the government thinks). But such improvements do indicate that something significant has changed, especially given that, socially and culturally, the area is still characterised by the kind of deep poverty and huge ethnic diversity that’s often regarded as a barrier to educational success.

Indeed, despite being squashed between the pin-striped wealth of the City and the shiny glass glamour of Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets is still the most deprived borough in the country – 17 of its 19 wards are among the worst five per cent in England; more than 60 per cent of households have an annual income less than £9000; and 62 per cent of pupils are entitled to free school meals (compared to 18 per cent nationally).

It’s also famous for being the first area of settlement for generations of immigrants, going back centuries. It was French Huguenots, 50,000 of them fleeing persecution at the hands of Catholics, who started the famous textile trade around Spitalfields in the early 18th century. When they moved on the area was inhabited by Jewish refugees from central Europe. There were some 150,000 by the end of the 19th century. There were Chinese seamen, abandoned at the docks a couple of miles down the Thames; Indian lascars, pitched up by the shrinking Empire; and Caribbeans enticed by post-war promises of work and welfare.

In the last two or three decades the area has become home to a largely Sylheti community from Bangladesh. Brick Lane, now known as Bangla Town, is a tourist attraction because of its lines of curry houses, and Mosques have taken their place beside the churches and synagogues, sometimes in the same place.

The present Bangladeshi community now make up more than 33 per cent of the population, according to the latest Census. This is an ethnic group consistently labelled – alongside black Caribbeans and Pakistanis – as ‘educational underachievers’. More than half of Tower Hamlets’ pupils are Bangladeshis, while another 11 per cent come from black African and Caribbean backgrounds. A total of 90 different languages are spoken in the area, and 72 per cent of pupils speak English as an ‘additional language’, another long recognised barrier to educational success.

Yet, as the latest GCSE results suggest, such barriers are being broken here with increasing ease. Last year, almost half of all Bangladeshi pupils (48 per cent) got five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, a leap of seven per cent on 2001, and higher than the proportion of white pupils (32 per cent) or black Caribbeans (31 per cent). Back in 1991, only 14 per cent of Bangladeshi pupils made such grades.

Not everything is perfect – a third of the borough’s primaries are still considered below the national average, for example – but Tower Hamlets clearly has lessons to teach other authorities about educating poor and ethnically diverse children. There have been some simple initiatives to “desegregate” schools, such as encouraging pupils from different backgrounds to sit next to each other, for example. But the main change has been in the make-up of the workforce, brought about by the council’s commitment to giving people from local communities, especially parents, opportunities to work in schools.

Sarah Gale is head of the authority’s equalities and parent partnership development unit. “We’d been encouraging parents to come and help in schools for years,” she says. “But although they’re often extremely skilled, many parents in Tower Hamlets don’t feel comfortable – because of language barriers, or low levels of literacy – so we looked at ways for them to be involved that are non-threatening and can build confidence.”

Under the council’s encouragement, some schools set up informal parents’ groups, or set aside areas where parents could meet without feeling under pressure to enter the classroom. More specifically, the council began to advertise ‘family learning courses’ at its parents’ advice centre in Mile End, so that parents who wanted to could train to become more involved in school life.

A way in

The ‘helping in schools’ programme has encouraged numerous parents to take up support staff positions as nursery nurses, classroom assistants and administrators. The council also runs access courses during work time on communication skills, GCSE maths and English, an Open University specialist teacher’s assistant certificate, and, from next year, an employment-based foundation degree for TAs. The idea is that these form steps towards becoming a teacher, for those who want to, thus increasing the authority’s stock of locally-raised, locally-trained staff.

“We realised if we were going to encourage local people to become classroom assistants and teachers, we needed to address people’s personal needs and professional abilities,” says Ms Gale, who reckons about 500 classroom assistants a year take council-funded courses. “Having children in school can act as a catalyst for parents to start learning themselves. But some parents found school an ambivalent experience, others may have had no formal education in this country, and have no knowledge of it. Our strategy allows them a way in.”

There’s also a series of financial incentives designed to entice graduate teachers like Juneha to stay local. Alongside the ‘golden hellos’ for NQTs, the unit also funds a graduate teacher programme, in which mature students do one year’s ‘on-the-job’ training in schools. Further bursaries are available to local residents for a full-time, three year undergraduate course on primary and early years teaching, based at the local professional development centre. Teaching assistants and nursery nurses can be seconded to the course on full salary.

“Our aim is to give more local people greater access to careers in schools,” says Ms Gale, who is at pains to point out that none of these initiatives are specifically aimed at particular ethnic groups, just local residents. Nevertheless, there’s little doubt they’ve already begun to change the ethnic make-up of Tower Hamlets staff rooms. Of the 57 NQTs who have taken advantage of the bursaries, for example, 61 per cent are from ethnic minorities, and 90 per cent of those are Bangladeshi. More than half the people who have taken the graduate teacher programme so far are Bangladeshi, and more than half the 47 people currently on the three year training course are from ethnic minorities.

Three years ago 14 per cent of all Tower Hamlets’ teachers were from ethnic minorities, but by spring this year that had risen to more than a fifth of teachers, (and nearly 40 per cent of support staff), compared to seven per cent of teachers nationally. Juneha, for one, has seen a major change. “When I was at school it was very rare to find Bangladeshi teachers, other than teaching Bengali,” she says. “Now, the girls I teach will see me, and realise they can do it too. For me it was a dream, like trying to reach the sky. They’ll see it can be reality.”

While she’s had to endure a degree of suspicion both from white parents and Bangladeshi girls, unused to seeing one of their own in such a position, Juneha has also seen attitudes to education changing within her community. “I do see girls in my own school still not getting the parental support they need,” she says. “But teachers like me can help them to see that being in a profession is respectable.

“Nine years ago there wasn’t a community of people going to university, so how could I possibly go? Now, my parents’ attitudes have changed. My dad was heartbroken to see the trouble I went through to bring up a child while going to university, and now my younger sister is at college studying law. The whole community is changing. I just broke the mould, and what makes me proud is that now I’m able to share it.”


Community apartheid?

Following the ‘disturbances’ of 2001 in the cities of Oldham, Bradford and Burnley, considerable attention has been focused on the lack of contact and respect between people of different racial backgrounds in those towns. The situation in some places was described as a kind of ‘community apartheid’, and numerous reports were produced to try and uncover how such segregation had come about.

Lord Herman Ouseley, former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), wrote of Bradford that: “Communities are fragmenting along racial, cultural and faith lines… Rather than seeing the emergence of a confident, multicultural district where people are respectful and have understanding and tolerance for difference, people’s attitudes appear to be hardening and intolerance towards differences is growing.”

In the UK, enforced segregation on racial grounds is unlawful under the Race Relations Act but there are all sorts of social, economic and political reasons why ‘self-segregation’, or ‘congregation’ occurs. A report into the disturbances by the CRE found that “more than half the Pakistani population [the predominant ethnic minority group] in each of the three towns was concentrated in three wards or fewer; in the case of Burnley, in just one.”

While this can partly be explained by the understandable desire of newcomers to live near people like themselves, says the report, “economic circumstances, discrimination in the housing field, ‘white flight’, and newcomers’ experiences and fears of racism, also play a significant role in polarising communities”.

In Bradford, for example, the report found that only two per cent of council housing had been allocated to Asian households. In Oldham, between 1984 and 1993, the council had been housing Asians on different estates from white people, and in lower value properties. Even after this practice was reviewed, Asian residents tended to apply for housing in areas where others from their communities lived, reinforcing congregation. Inevitably, some estates became almost entirely white, others Asian.

It wasn’t only the council, however. In 1990, three Oldham estate agents were found to have been advising white customers to buy houses in ‘white’ areas, and pointing Asians to areas with large Asian communities. In Bradford, estate agents would contact neighbours when an adjacent house was sold to an ethnic minority family, suggesting their property’s value may decline – leading to ‘white flight’ and further segregation.

Inevitably, such residential apartheid has ‘knock on’ effects on other aspects of life, notably education. In Bradford, for example, there are 14 primary schools (out of 101) where Asian pupils form between 90 and 99 per cent of the school roll, and 26 where they make up more than 70 per cent. In Oldham, Asian pupils make up 80 per cent  of the roll in 17 of its 100 primary schools, more than 95 per cent in 13 schools, and more than 99 per cent in seven. In five (of 15) secondary schools, less than five per cent are Asian, and they make up 98 per cent in one, and 77 per cent in another.

The CRE report comments that “there is considerable ethnic segregation in education in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley”. Primary schools, it says, reflect the residential segregation of their catchment areas, but secondary schools, which from their location might be expected to have diverse intakes, have “come to be seen by many people as either ‘white’ or ‘Asian’ schools”.

Since the 1996 Education Act, ‘parental choice’ takes precedence in law over the Race Relations Act, so if parents choose to send their children to schools with other children of their own ethnic origin, or avoid schools where most children are from a different ethnic background, they are entitled to do so. Then there are faith schools, of course, which are entitled to give priority to families of their faith. Four of Oldham’s 15 secondaries are church schools, three of which were reported to have “virtually excluded” children from Bangladeshi and Pakistani families.

The CRE report concluded that: “Among the underlying tensions revealed by our research into the disturbances in the North of England, the frequent lack of connectedness and mutual understanding between adjacent but different ethnic communities stands out as the greatest threat to a socially cohesive society.”

It is into this gap between communities, it seems, that the British National Party has been able to tread.


1 Comment

  1. Summer 2003 - ILP
    20 October 2010

    […] at some of the social and political roots of the BNP’s success in northern and midlands towns Towering success Matthew Brown reports on how one London borough has helped to improve community relations The power […]

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