When I was asked to address today’s conference I was given the brief of talking about the importance of free education so I set about writing why I have opposed the rise of student fees. Like you I believe that Labour’s pathetic announcement that they will cut student fees to £6,000 is a policy that will not go far enough to eradicate or prevent the prevailing threat of education as a privilege or the threat of privatisation.
With that I support the call for student fees to be abolished. I support the abolition of student debt and demand the reinstatement of EMA.
Furthermore, I reject and oppose the profit-driven academies, fee-paying and free schools whose aims and driving force is based on churning out drones for the workplace.
I am a member of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, a coalition of trade unionists and concerned individuals who stated right from the very beginning that the austerity budget would impact disproportionately on the black community. We say no cuts to education; in fact we say no to all cuts.
Not only has the tripling of student fees and the scrapping of EMA hit black students hard but we are now living in a time where over 50 per cent – and in some place 75 per cent – of our young black people aged between 16-25 are unemployed. This disparity will take over four decades to address even with the most progressive economic and social plan.
This economic crisis was caused by casino gambling bankers and yet it is the most vulnerable who are paying for it. There has been a rise in racist attacks and black communities as well as newly emerging economic migrant communities are being targeted and used as scapegoats.
As an activist I am extremely proud to state that I will make every effort to attend rallies and marches. I support every student occupation and every staff and student strike. I will continue to make available space and time for discussions about how the rise of student fees would impact on students, families and communities.
But what I am most proud of is that at every rally pertaining to student fees and EMA, at every teacher strike and demo, and at every discussion about the welfare of students my son from the age of 13 – sometimes in his school uniform and always with a placard – makes a conscious decision to stand up, not just for fairness and equality, but for equity. As my son struggles through this minefield of an education system I assure him that as his mother first, and an activist second, I will challenge ‘by any means necessary’ every single threat that prevents him from realising his potential and achieving his goals.
Furthermore, I am a Pan African and I come from a culture that upholds the principle that it takes a village to raise a child and as an active member of my village I see every child as my responsibility. So as I make the assurances to my son that I will do everything in my power to ensure that he receives an education that is beneficial to him I offer that same commitment to every single child.
The call for Free Education is an important one and should be taken up by all, not just those who are facing the prospect of paying back enormous debts. The call for Free Education goes further than asking for the abolition of student fees and debts and the reinstatement of EMA.
Free Education dares to stand up and challenge the current trend which is turning our schools into target-focused, drone-assembling, profit-driven institutions. It demands that they be radically reformed in order to provide an education system which serves the interests of people from all backgrounds, regardless of class, gender, disability, ability, sexuality, religion, faith and race.
But what does that radical reform look like? For over 40 years the African-Caribbean community have been demanding radical reform. In 1971 Bernard Coard published a pamphlet: How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain and the for the most part his work stands the test of time because the problems we face as African-Caribbean parents and the problems our children face have fundamentally remained the same.
As a Black parent with over 31 years of experience with a child being in education, 18 years for my daughter and 13 years more for my son, I have struggled every week, every term and every year of their education. Racism, inequality, fear, the lack of understanding of culture, the unwillingness of schools to listen to parents, have determined the quality of education and the experience that my children have had. From battling teachers to live up to the mantra that every child matters I was dubbed as the ‘aggressive mad black woman’. This title has led me to second-guess my intentions to ensure that my children are treated equally and fairly and that they receive the highest quality of education.
Fortunately I have not had the experience of having a child excluded either temporarily or indefinitely, placed in seclusion or farmed out to a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU), but black children are disproportionately subjected to these practices, all of which have long-term impacts. The former Director General of the Prison Service Martin Neary, in a report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, said that “the 13,000 young people excluded from school each year might as well be given a date by which to join the prison service some time down the line.”
These exclusions contribute to a cycle of poverty and deprivation. It has a profound effect upon social cohesion and the socio-economics of the black community and is transferred from one generation to another.
I believe that the Free Education campaign, in their bid to radicalise the education system, will join the 40 year long battle to address such issues. They have acknowledged and recognised the demand to ensure that teachers, classroom staff and governing bodies reflect the communities that they serve. This is as well as campaigning to see an overhauling of the curriculum which is not merely populated with tales of how the white man emancipated us from slavery but endeavours to reflect the rich and numerous contributions that we have made to civilisation, science, literature and society as a whole. This I believe will be the true test of Free Education.
And with that I thank you for asking me to address the conference.
I stand under the banner of Free Education: No fees. No cuts. No debts, and re-affirm my commitment to the struggle.
Black Activists Rising Against Cuts