When it was time, we took our nearly five-year-old son to be enrolled in the closest school to our home.
We lived in Bethnal Green, East London, just two blocks away from Cambridge Heath Road and there, on the other side of the road, was Bangabandhu Primary School.
Perfect – less than five minutes walk.
We made an appointment and turned up to meet the Head Teacher. She showed us around with pride. Quite right too. A new and purpose-built primary school, beautifully equipped. And yet, as I remarked: “Oh my goodness, you still have blackboards and chalk!”
I was told, very sternly, “We don’t call them blackboards. They are chalkboards.”
Ah well. My first lesson in the reality of education since my older children had left 20 years earlier. No harm, just a slight feeling of, “What?”
This, by the way, was 22 years ago. The term ‘political correctness’ hadn’t really gained traction outside of academia. The debate was going on in the background, but most of us were blissfully unaware.
The school, as we understood it, had at least partly been built using donations from the local Bengali community. The name itself, Bangabandhu, means ‘Friend of Bengal’. Given the increasingly diverse cultural mix of the area in which we lived, neither his mother nor I gave any of this a thought, beyond thinking that community involvement is a wonderful thing. It just seemed a lovely environment for our bright young’un, with a vocabulary way beyond his years.
We were only three days into his tenure when the problems started. He was inattentive in class, we were told. He was disruptive, we were told.
I’m going to cut a long story very short here: it turned out that in a class of 30 boys and girls, he was one of three who had English as a first language. Each reading lesson, for instance, required four translators. They must have been agonising experiences for the form teacher. For the kids, it was pure torture.
Now fast forward 22 years. The story has moved on. Schools in certain parts of England are having to hire teaching assistants who speak eastern European languages to help immigrants for whom English is not a first language. Data has been collected by schooldash.com (which currently covers only schools in England) that suggest there are hotspots around the country where as many as 25% of pupils don’t have English as their first language.
Meanwhile, the furore over ‘Trojan Horse’ Islamic schools might have died down, but that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. It’s just another tribute to our attention span. The Crown Prosecution Service is said to be involved in the potential closure of one such school, and, according to The Sunday Times, Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw is ‘preparing to tell Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, that children are (still) exposed to’ extremist faith education in Birmingham, Bradford and Tower Hamlets.
(Incidentally, there is no suggestion – from me or from anyone else – that Bangabandhu Primary School is part of this problem).
Recently, Ofsted reported it had discovered 50 illegal faith schools since January this year. One third of these were Islamic. One in six were Christian or Jewish. God knows (you see what I did there?) what the other 50% were.
With getting on for eight million children in the state education system, 200,000 non-English speaking pupils (the current estimate) might not sound very much. But whatever the educational establishment tells us, education generally moves at the speed of the slowest learner.
We may have progressed somewhat in this regard. But when a quarter of a class is having to pick up the language of the rest of the class, no amount of teaching skill can compensate the other 75%. A minimum 10% of our pupils are being held back from day one of their schooling. The problem may be much bigger than that.
The UK was already 23rd in international literacy rankings in 2013 (PISA). That is shameful on any level. Our literacy standards have gone backwards in the last 50 years. Among those aged over 50, average reading age is 14. Among those aged under 40, average reading age is 9.
As the fifth largest economy in the world, it is beyond shameful.
Discussing these matters is still likely to get one branded a racist. But the reality is, our masters decreed we should be multi-cultural, largely without our consent (which, frankly, might not have been given; and that would have been to our detriment).
Having decreed we should be multi-cultural, however, they did nothing, absolutely nothing, to determine that we would also be integrated and that something as fundamental as our education system would not be disrupted.
And that simple failure is costing our children and grandchildren dear.
There is racism, and there is realism. And the reality our children are living with is the result of this debate being forbidden for two decades on the grounds that only racists would want to have it.
Racism and realism. Two sides of the same coin? Not really. Not even obliquely. Not even remotely.