A Tool for Action

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Review of 'Tell It Like It Is', editor Brian Richardson, Bookmarks Publications and Trentham Books £6.99

In 1971 the Grenadian scholar Bernard Coard published a seminal pamphlet, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System. Within it he challenged the endemic racism within the British education system by arguing that it was not the fault of individuals or their communities that they were failing, but rather that the system itself was designed to perpetuate inequality. Having exposed the real root of the problem, Coard went on to discuss ways of dealing with it, and his pamphlet was the driving force behind the setting up of supplementary schools and many of the radical movements in education in the 1970s.

Today the gains in multicultural and anti-racist education brought about by these movements are under a vicious attack by a Labour government hell-bent on ignoring the call of 'high quality education for all' that Coard makes in his 2004 article for this book. Instead we are faced with a government determined to dismantle comprehensive education and replace it with two-tier selective schools, while Cognitive Ability Tests, SATS, an increasingly narrow curriculum and 'tougher measures for disruptive students' label children as failures as early as possible.

Tell It Like It Is is an immensely important book. Bookmarks and Trentham Books have reprinted Bernard Coard's article, and editor Brian Richardson has assembled a range of new essays and reflections from 31 contributors who discuss Coard's ideas from different perspectives, debate their relevance today, and look at what we can do about it. The foreword is by Doreen Lawrence, the preface by Herman Ousley, former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, and the introduction is by Ken Livingstone, and that's before you even get on to the book proper.

Tell It Like It Is takes a hard look at the situation today. How far have we come? David Gillborn shows the devastating effect of streaming on black kids, and how a disproportionate number end up being placed in the 'low ability' groups which deny them the possibility of even gaining a pass grade. A series of personal perspectives shows continuity and change across the generations. Wonderful poems by Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson are interspersed with articles by members of the Tricycle Group in Brent who give the perspective of the young. Weyman Bennett reflects on his experiences at school and how School Kids Against the Nazis and the 'Punky Rebellion' helped him learn his place in the world.

So what can be done? Sharon Geer from Lewisham describes her school-based work on raising the achievement of black boys, while Paul Mackney of the lecturers' union Natfhe looks at developments in further education. Gary McFarlane proposes a more progressive cross-curricular approach to the curriculum, 'So when discussing the science behind the invention of the self-lubricating engine, invented by African American Elijah McCoy, we could also consider the historical context in which he lived, or when learning the history of the revolution in Haiti we might take the opportunity to learn some French.'

In a concluding piece Hassan Mahamdallie looks at how changes were won in the past and proposes a way forward. If, in the words of 1960s Black Power activists, the worst aspects of racism 'originate in the operation of established and respected forces in society', then our struggles today require a challenge to the whole way in which the education system is organised.

The strength of these articles is not just their diversity. They grapple with the problems still facing students, parents and teachers today, and most importantly they really make you want to go out and do something about it. The excitement generated by these articles has been echoed in launch meetings of the book up and down the country - we're having one at my school, and many people have bought copies already.

The London-wide launch was a great political debate, but it also had a real sense of urgency about the need to act - at the end of the meeting a young woman stood up and said we should stop talking and start acting. Once you've read this book you'll want to do just that.