Monday, 22 February 2016

Art teacher to black pupil: ‘How would you feel if I called you a nigger?’

British schools are supposed to be places where enlightenment and learning should be the order of the day. Place’s where teachers should be leading by example ensuring young people are provided with a positive learning environment helping them understand the world around them through learning, discussion and debate.

United Technical College Elstree is in Borenhamwood, Hertfordshire and is part of the The Mellor Educational Trust whose head offices are in Milbank Tower South London.  

David Mellor (no not that one), is the Chair of this Trust and a firm supporter of the Tory party. Someone who has donated cash to the Minister of Education, Michael Gove’s constituency party and other Tory constituencies parties and who was subsequently appointed a non-executive director for the Department of Education.

The Chair of UTC Elstree is Roger Morris Managing Director of the world famous Elstree Studios.

Now imagine yourself as a young black boy, 16yrs of age, sitting in your art class at UTC Elstree in an all-white class, in a predominantly white school.  

Then, out of the blue, a white male arts teacher points directly to you and says,

‘I don't mean to single you out, but how would you feel if I called you nigger?’

The shock would be visceral and serious offence would be taken. That is precisely what happened at to the son of Ms Claire Thomas at UTC Elstree in November 2014.

This weekend the boy’s mother contacted me and told me what happened during this incident. Both Claire and her son were unhappy with the way the school has dealt with the matter, despite them giving every opportunity to respond positively to their complaint about this incident.

The young man, Claire’s son, who wanted to remain nameless, told me how his ‘mind froze’ when confronted with the question from his arts teacher.

Her son told me ‘I was angry, the class was angry and we just couldn't understand how Mr Ferguson felt it was acceptable for him to say that to me, the only black boy in my class.’

The boy and the class protested bitterly both during and after the lesson. They immediately complained, to a Mr Rice Vice Principal at the school. Mr Ferguson was called to hear the complaint again.

Mr Rice in the course of hearing the boy’s complaint, not only defended his right to use the word, but also continued to use it again and again as the boys were making their complaint. Mr Ferguson personally refused to apologise and went onto tell the group of black boys who gathered to complain ‘ I don’t know what your problem is white man invented this word.’

Mr Frerguson was eventually instructed by Mr Rice to apologise, which he did begrudgingly. The boys challenged Mr Rice saying that Ferguson had only apologised because he’d been told to do so by his senior.

Ms Thomas’s son told me ‘I didn’t believe the apology was really meant or sincere.’

The young boy, completely frustrated and incensed at the schools failure to deal with this matter properly, left the school that day smashing his fist into a table on the way out and badly bruising his hand. Such was the deep anger and humiliation he felt.

Ms Thomas clearly still affected by the incident told me,

 I came home from work that day my son was in a right state. He was visibly upset and frustrated at what had happened. All of his friends at the school were black and white supported him in pointing out to the school just how deeply inappropriate and offensive

Mr Ferguson had been. School is meant to be a place of safety where everyone is equal and not discriminated against but it was not a place of safety for my son on the said day.

Ms Thomas went on,

The school hadn’t even bothered to ring me and tell me what happened, I had to chase this up.  Eventually I demanded a meeting to discuss what had happened to my son. It was obvious the school were trying to play the incident down.’

At a meeting held later at the school that same week, the school apologised stating that Mr Ferguson's comments were nothing other than an, ‘unfortunate and inappropriate outburst.’ 

Ms Thomas told me 'They told me that this incident had made him feel like he'd only just qualified as a teacher because it had knocked his confidence'. Unbelievably the school was trying to portray the teacher as the victim. 

Ms Thomas and her son concluded that UTC Elstree wanted to downplay the incident and sweep it all under the carpet.

The school didn't think the matter was serious. They totally played it down hoping it would go away. That's why they didn't contact me when it happened. This was a very serious incident that I should have been contacted about but it was me that had to chase them for an explanation.

She added,

Given my son was about to leave and go to college we had hoped that this might have been a teachable moment for the school and him. Clearly this has not been the case I'm very disappointed and angry that nothing seems to being done to tackle this teacher.’

She went on, ‘I didn't get the sense they either understood or accepted the seriousness of the situation. They were a new school and I decided to give them a chance so long as they made sure it didn’t happen again’

Ms Thomas had hoped the school would be investigated allowing the school to learn from the incident, ensuring another pupil would have to endure the humiliation of racism at the school. Over a year on and whilst she is aware there was an investigation into the incident, she and her son have heard nothing since.

Interestingly a member of the senior staff at UTC Elstree Mr Mitchell (acting principal) a young white male art teacher seems to have adopted black urban culture to his heart under the name William Stopha.

He can regularly be seen on YouTube beat boxing, rapping and doing spoken word poetry. He also defended Mr Ferguson’s use of the word ‘nigger’ and repeated on numerous occasions, to the group of black students, saying that he uses the word all the time and uses it with his black friends.

What is clear to me is that this teacher and UTC Elstree believes that he and the school are entitled to call a black pupil 'nigger’ with out any apparent consequence.

When the offence was pointed out to them. Senor staffs at UTC Elstree were nothing more than only slightly embarrassed, utterly nonplussed almost defiantly resolute in their sense of entitlement.

Whatever the teacher's views, the action taken by the school should have been in accordance with the highest standards of teaching profession.

Calling a black boy a 'nigger; in the classroom should result in immediate disciplinary investigation and action, unless part of a carefully considered lesson plan relating to the subject of racism. Certainly indiscriminate casual use should result in disciplinary investigation, suspension and possible sacking.

They can be few, if any circumstances other than those described above, in which this word can be used, and directed at a black boy, in a majority white school, without serious consequence for the teacher.

Neither the Board of Governors of UTC Elstree, chaired by Roger Morris millionaire owner of the local Elstree Studios, nor his senior management team have handled this matter with the degree of sensitivity and seriousness that such a serious incident deserves.

It is frankly appalling that this teacher can, it seems not only use such poisonous racial rhetoric in the classroom, then shamelessly defend his use of the word, then go on to use it again and still remain without proper sanction from the school itself.

All over the country there are many such Black and Asian children in this difficult position of being one of the few black children in their schools.

It is in these situations where schools race equality policy, understanding of multiculturalism, experienced teachers and heads are relied upon to have the political commitment and cultural competencies necessary to understand the dynamics faced by young Black and Asian people trying to negotiate, prosper succeed and survive in an environment when either they, their culture and/or history may not be well understood.

It is in these environments where robust race equality policy, experienced teachers and a dynamic school Principle can make all the difference as to whether isolated Black and Asian children survive and thrive.

We all know the statistics that point to failure of British schools to successfully educate some black and ethnic minority children. The exclusion of boys from British schools has long been a scar on the face of British education and has remained consistently disproportionate over the last 30 years.

One can only imagine the furore had this young man had reacted in the wrong way to such insult and provocation.

Excluded? Certainly. Police called and being charged with an criminal offence? Quite possibly. An incident that could affect the young man for life? Most certainly.

In recent years, due to changes in education policy and the advent of Free schools and Academies we know less about exclusions issue today than we did in the 1980’s when local authorities and all schools were forced to publish their exclusion figures.

Today that is no longer a requirement and as a result its impossible to tell how many Black and ethnic minority children are being excluded from Free schools and Academies, many of whom have no effective equality policies, no equality monitoring framework and no understanding of commitment to the Public Sector Equality Duty as outlined within the Human Rights Act and Race Relations legislations.

The danger here is that a teacher with no real experience of back youth or understanding of black culture can have a hugely negative affect on young black minds who are attuned and understand the realities of racism in Britain. Teachers must be culturally competent and sensitive when dealing with Black and Asian young people when discussing black culture or the realities of radicalisation through the Prevent agenda. 

This disgraceful incident at UTC is bad enough however over the next few weeks I will be writing an update describing how this incident has played out and had a huge effect on the school, the teachers and pupils. Watch this space.