Opportunity blocks

Racial equality is sliding down the government’s agenda, says Sally Feldman

November 29, 2012

In a speech given earlier this month, the education secretary Michael Gove coined the memorable phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectation”. He was commenting on a study by Simon Burgess, professor of economics at the University of Bristol, which showed that children from ethnic minorities are being marked down by teachers who expect them to do worse than others in tests. Black students do better in external assessments that are marked anonymously.

It’s a worrying finding but one that doesn’t surprise Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote. “Black children’s future is being jeopardised by racial prejudice,” he commented. “Too often, poor marks lead to low achievement which, in turn, can lead to unemployment and problems within the criminal justice system.”

He is someone who has long recognised the damage that racism can do - and has spent his life opposing it. Which is why last week he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Westminster.

Woolley developed his initial idea - to encourage young black people to vote - into an influential national organisation. His mission, he says, is to nurture a black British political voice. In this, he sees himself as a disciple of Martin Luther King, whose fundamental project was to engage black Americans with the electoral system. And Woolley’s achievements on behalf of ethnic minority young people have been formidable.

Operation Black Vote has extended its original remit to encourage participation not just in politics but more generally in public life. It was Woolley who persuaded Lord Irvine of Lairg, then Lord Chancellor, to support a mentoring initiative to encourage people from ethnic minorities to become magistrates: there are now more than 75 magistrates from the scheme. Their average age is 20 years younger than the norm.

Another project twinned ambitious young black candidates with senior politicians. The first Conservative female MP of African descent, Helen Grant, is an alumnus of the scheme.

Above all, though, Woolley’s passion is education. This, he believes, is where so many children are channelled into downward spirals but also where they can be redirected and motivated to fulfil their potential. His ambition is to inspire young people to become agents of change - to refuse to accept the status quo and to believe that they can make a difference.

So you might think that Gove’s acknowledgement of teacher bias in schools would chime with Woolley’s own beliefs. After all, among his public offices Woolley sits on the government’s task force, Reach, which focuses on higher educational attainment of black boys.

But the coalition does not appear to have developed any meaningful policies to support the advancement of disadvantaged black kids. Indeed, several recent governmental moves appear to have put more obstacles in their way. The first was the removal of Education Maintenance Allowances for students in England last year. These £30-a-week grants were designed to encourage young people from low-income families to stay on at college. And of the 60,000 or so who benefited, a large number were black.

Then, of course, came the hike in higher education tuition fees. The most recent report from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service shows a 12 per cent fall in UK students starting degrees this autumn. And while there is no evidence that those from ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected, it remains the case that young people in disadvantaged areas are still almost three times less likely to apply to university than their richer peers.

But recently the government made another onslaught on efforts to advance equal opportunities. It has slashed the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) by 62 per cent from £70 million in 2007 down to £26.8 million for 2014-15. And there is fear among insiders that the figure may be reduced further to £18 million.

The outgoing full-time chair of the commission, Trevor Phillips, has been replaced by a part-timer - the cross-bench peer Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve, who will work only two days a week. This reduction in duties, and the radical cuts to the budget, mean that the UN could strip the commission of its A-list status, which it shares with most Western European bodies.

And such a radical reduction will certainly curtail many of its activities, especially as a bill recently passed in the Commons aims to remove some of the commission’s general duties - including a commitment to support human rights and tackle discrimination.

Woolley, who has served as an EHRC commissioner for the past three years, has been one of the most outspoken critics of these cuts. He is the only black member of the board and was praised by the commission itself just a few months ago as an “outstanding leader”. The only other ethnic minority commissioner, Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, also voiced her concerns about the cuts. And while other commissioners appear to have been automatically reappointed for a further term of office, Woolley and Hussein-Ece have not.

Diane Abbott, the shadow public health minister, said: “It’s very worrying. Simon has a wonderful record working with all political parties and had a great reference. The fact that they wouldn’t even interview him was a calculated insult. It seems to me that race is slipping off the agenda at the commission.”

In another limit to its powers, the commission has been moved from the Home Office to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Perhaps it should go instead to Education. So that, if Gove is serious in his opposition to racism, and to the stereotyping of young black boys in particular, he might be in a position to do something about it.

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