Do we want the BNP in our schools?

Arguments over whether or not Adam Walker’s comments were “racist” obscure the real issue.

A BNP activist and former teacher has been cleared of racism by the General Teaching Council. Adam Walker, 41, used a school laptop to post comments online describing immigrants as "savage animals" while working at Houghton Kepier Sports College, in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham. He also claimed Britain was a "dumping ground for the filth of the third world".

Despite declaring itself "troubled" by Walker's views, the GTC decided that while Walker's postings demonstrated an attitude that might be considered racist, the specific references to immigrants were not necessarily "suggestive of any particular views on race".

The ruling has been criticised by teaching unions, including the NUT, whose leader, Christine Blower, described the decision as "perverse".

The decision in March by the then schools secretary, Ed Balls, not to ban teachers from joining the BNP outright means that the debate has now descended into an argument over semantics. (The GTC, in effect, is saying it's not racist to describe immigrants in general as "filth", because immigrants are an ethnically diverse group -- a line of argument not unlike that of a comedian who makes jokes about black people saying "I'm not racist, I hate everyone . . .") But this threatens to obscure a more fundamental question: should BNP members have any involvement in our schools at all?

The education system plays a crucial role in the far-right party's quest for respectabililty. It has made a determined effort to get its members elected to school governing bodies. (This has been made easier in recent years by a shortage of ordinary people willing to take up governors' posts.)

In Stoke-on-Trent last year, for example, three BNP councillors attempted to join the board of governors of Edensor Technology College, a school where 80 per cent of the pupils are Asian.

Speaking outside the GTC hearing in Birmingham, Walker and his party chairman, Nick Griffin, presented the case as a free speech issue. But there is a clear difference between expressing privately held views and being a member of a political organisation that is committed to dividing British society along ethnic lines -- the party's 2009 county council manifesto, for example, declared that mixing white and non-white children was "destroying perfectly good local secondary schools".

Furthermore, Walker plays an active role in the BNP. He stood as a parliamentary candidate in May and, as the NS revealed in April, during the BNP's election campaign he was frequently pictured by Nick Griffin's side, wearing army fatigues. Here is how we reported it at the time:

On Saturday [Walker] was parading in front of news cameras gathered in Barking to cover the BNP's campaign launch. Asked if he was a real soldier, he admitted he wasn't. "I'm wearing this uniform in solidarity with our boys in Afghanistan," Walker said.

David Cameron has already said that he sees membership of the BNP as "incompatible" with the role of a teacher. It remains to be seen whether his government will take a fresh look at the matter.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

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.