When discrimination works

Parents of children who are now at private school are already talking of moving them to the local st

There was a curious story on page three of the Sunday Times at the weekend. With the headline "Universities told to favour poor schools", it concerned one of the most intriguing institutions created by Gordon Brown's government when it was still in its full honeymoon flush.

The National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE), chaired jointly by the Prime Minister and his two secretaries of state, Ed Balls (Schools) and John Denham (Universities), was intended as a marker of Brown's intentions. The council, made up of people from the business world, headteachers, college principals and university vice-chancellors, has now made its recommendations to ministers. The news is that the NCEE has thought the genuinely unthinkable. In order to increase the numbers of students from poorer families attending the country's top universities, admissions tutors will be encouraged to take into account prospective students' school and social background.

As a former education correspondent, I know that the story has always to be that standards are falling, so it was no surprise that a genuine scoop was turned into a classic tale of "dumbing down". According to the news report, the NCEE was to recommend giving preferential treatment to students from bad schools. Independent schools, which depend for their very financial existence on their ability to deliver a certain number of Oxbridge places a year, were said to be up in arms about the new arrangements. Certain top universities are already running schemes to help boost the numbers of state school students. At that most significant focus group of all, the north London dinner party, parents with children at private schools are talking of moving them to state sixth forms to give them a better chance of getting into a good university. The thought that children from less privileged backgrounds might be given a fighting chance is sending shivers through the chattering classes.

Egalitarian

It is impossible to deny the injustice of the present set-up. It may come as no surprise that only a third of university students come from the lowest socio-economic group and that only one in ten in this group attends Oxford or Cambridge. But it is not justifiable. Gordon Brown knows that new Labour has made too little difference to social mobility in this country, which is one of the reasons why he felt it was so important to establish the NCEE. The fact that, after a decade in power of Labour, the educational chances of a British child still depend largely on the wealth of his or her parents is indefensible.

The NCEE is the sort of institution that supporters of a Gordon Brown premiership hoped he would set up: radical, high-minded and egalitarian in sprit. Its remit is necessarily far wider than university admissions alone. It is designed to advise ministers on how to push up standards in underperforming state schools so they reach the national average and ensure that mediocre schools aspire to the highest levels of achievement for their pupils (whatever their capabilities or talents).

I had a previously arranged meeting with Alison Richard, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, the day after news of the NCEE recommendations broke. As a member of the council, she refused to confirm or deny the newspaper reports, but was furious that the dumbing-down argument had again been wheeled out. She is right to be angry. How can it possibly be a bad idea to widen the pool of talent from which our top universities select their students? Everyone but the less talented children of the privileged benefits from the new arrangements.

Devastating statistics

I needed little persuading of the need for reform, but Richard, a former professor of anthropology at Yale, sat me down and presented to me a set of devastating statistics. Each year, for instance, 3,000 students whose qualifications mean they could be at one of the 13 most academic institutions in the country (the so-called Russell Group) simply do not apply. At the other end of the spectrum, of the 600,000 students who reach 16 each year, more than 300,000 fail to get five GCSEs at grades A-C. This is a national scandal in itself, as most of these children come from the lowest social groups.

If that weren't enough of an indication that we have collectively failed to provide a decent education for the poorest in society, then her final statistic was even more shocking. Of the children from the lowest social group who had performed badly at 16, a staggering 60,000 were at some point shown to have been in the top 20 per cent of the school population in academic performance.

So, as Professor Richard recognises, the problems stretch much further than the children with good A-levels from state schools not applying to the top universities. This is embedded deep in our culture. Take the case of Majid Ahmed, a remarkable 18-year-old from Bradford who won a place at Imperial College, London to read medicine after turning his back on a life of crime. When he admitted a conviction for burglary, Imperial told him he was no longer welcome on the course.

We are living in a post-egalitarian world, where we may talk the language of social mobility but do little to make a practical difference. The reality is that we are stuck. And the decision by Imperial College to withdraw that offer of a place to Majid Ahmed shows just how stuck we are.

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.