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Bury the good news

How the truth about state schools is twisted by journalists who go private

Discarded needles, enforced mediocrity, petty bullying, too much political correctness, not enough Jesus or competitive sport: New Statesman readers with children in state schools will be surprised – but perhaps not that surprised – to hear that these are common features of our nation’s schools, at least according to our press and broadcasting media, few of whose leaders use the system they so relentlessly traduce.

Last month’s offering by the Sunday Times was depressingly typical and typically depressing. Written by the paper’s “award-winning war correspondent” Christina Lamb, it posed the question: “What’s wrong with winning?” At considerable anguished length, she went on to explain why she had moved her son from state to private schooling.

The main problem, according to Lamb, was the lack of any competitive ethos within what was, by her own account, a happy primary school, led by a “firm headmistress and young, dedicated teachers”. Forced to resort to “subterfuge” in order to find out her son’s overall ranking in the class, Lamb was later horrified to find that at sports day, “instead of racing against each other, the children were put into teams with a mix of different ages . . . with each team doing different activities”.

Indignities such as these – plus scant knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer at the school – even­tually forced her to join the queue at the local oversubscribed private school, and there she was deeply gratified by the head’s open boasting about everything from sporting achievements to A grades to Oxbridge entrance successes.

Lamb makes much of her own state education and avowed abhorrence of the “two-tier” system of education in this country. This theme of reluctant conversion is a common journalistic line, most powerfully demonstrated by the novelist Will Self in the London Evening Standard last October. In his column, boldly headed “I’m a diehard lefty but my son is going to private school”, Self described his decision to take his son out of a state primary but concluded that he personally could not be labelled a hypocrite, as he had never believed that state education was an engine of social change in the first place.

Presumably both Lamb and Self will have taken comfort from the sad story of William Miller, the now middle-aged son of the theatre director Jonathan Miller, who, in the Mail on Sunday in February – under the banner headline “Atrocious lessons and daily bullying . . . why I won’t send my children to a state school” – castigated his father for “a mistaken ideology”. According to Miller, he and his two siblings were “the victims of the most cavalier of social experiments”. Yet this was, it should be pointed out, more than 30 years ago; all would agree that state schools are very different places today.

Every such story relies on unchallengeable, intimate details and anecdote. There is no place in them for the part played by parenting, individual temperament or other behind-the-scenes factors or conflicts; according to these writers, and dozens more like them, it is the school and school alone that causes a child’s lack of achievement or unhappiness.

The reader has no way to address the manifest contradictions that arise between these stories. Lamb’s son was in an admittedly happy, co-operative primary where, according to his mother, his ruthless edge was not being sufficiently sharpened. Self’s son was alleged to have been bullied and tested to the extreme. Miller blames his lack of academic education on his middle-class parents. And yet regularly other newspaper features will castigate the middle class for claiming that the state education system, rather than their own privilege and efforts, enabled them to achieve good results.

Writers and journalists who have sent their children to state schools are treated either as slightly exotic birds that have successfully contained a rare tropical disease, or as disingenuous or deceiving, as Martin Samuel in the Times has argued, because they ruthlessly exploit their own affluence and connections to cover up their children’s poor education.

The real politics of education is always placed on the back burner. Lamb declares herself impressed by “the astonishing range of facilities and activities” on offer at the private school she finally chooses for her son. Yet the resource argument, central to the privilege and achievements of the independent sector, is relegated to a marginal feature in her decision, rather than being woven objectively into the story.

A quick search on the website of the Inde­pendent Schools Council demonstrates the extent of the enduring funding gap. Keeping a secondary-age pupil in the independent sector costs as much as £9,000 a year (up to £30,000 for some boarders). Funding for state school pupils has slowly edged up, but is still only around £5,000 per annum. Yet it is easy to forget how much state education has improved over the past decade or more. There are fewer failing schools than there were ten years ago. Almost two-thirds of the state schools inspected by Ofsted last year were judged to be good or outstanding. There are more good teachers and heads; results are better than ever.

When the Labour government came to power in 1997 roughly half of all children were leaving primary school without reaching the expected levels in English and maths. Today that figure is about 20 per cent. In 1997 about 45 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs. Now the figure is more than 60 per cent – more than three times the proportion that left school with five O-levels in the so-called golden age of the grammars, an era often subtly misrepresented to disparage today’s predominantly comprehensive schools.

About £3bn a year is being spent on new school buildings, ensuring that many state school pupils will have access to facilities for learning art and drama that some private school pupils can only dream of. And more young people than ever are going to university, but even that good news story is distorted by a disproportionate emphasis on the numbers of state school pupils going to Oxbridge – or not.

Even these figures can be looked at differently. How many people know that just under a third of state school pupils who apply to Oxbridge get in and just over a third of the private school applicants get accepted? Or that many Oxbridge colleges accept state school pupils in roughly the same proportion as they apply? Access to Ox­bridge may be less to do with second-rate state schools than with how, as the Sutton Trust’s research has shown, simply not enough state school pupils with the appropriate grades apply.

But the success stories have state schools, and their supporters, in a double bind. As they improve and exam results begin to creep up, new lines of attack develop from the media. Every positive message about new buildings, rising standards, more children at university, is obscured by another, more insidious news item that undermines the good work being done.

Better exam results are not a cause for celebration but an opportunity to question the value of the qualifications themselves. The independent sector and parts of the media, joining in an unholy alliance, frequently attempt to demoralise state school parents.

All of this obscures a simple, uncomfortable truth: most parents use state schools and more than 80 per cent of them are satisfied with the service they receive, according to successive polls. But those parents (and they are the overwhelming majority, as the proportion of children in private schools has remained static at about 7 per cent for the past decade) cannot count on the nation’s most powerful opinion-formers to put their weight behind an education system in which thousands of children are flourishing, learning, feeling safe, passing exams, going to university and taking part in com­petitive sport.

How can those parents maintain their belief that they, too, are doing “the best” for their children against a constant backdrop of sniping, damaging assertions, anecdotal evidence or distorted application of statistics? They may also be unaware of the complex politics behind, or the context within which, so many of these negative stories – or equally stereotypical TV programmes and films – appear.

Feature writers and columnists have at least to declare their motives, to lay bare some “human-interest” details of their apparent dilemmas. However, we know far less about the personal choices and politics of the senior presenters, editors and managers of newspapers, television and radio stations, who are responsible for commissioning, selecting, editing and presenting stories on education, day after day.

Most newspaper editors and senior broadcast executives use private schools. Yet all have strong views about state schools, which suggests they may possibly have a long-term vested interest in portraying the schools they have rejected for their own children in the grimmest light. Moreover, there is a subtle distinction in their opinions about the state education service and the National Health Service, to which many of them do entrust their families.

This goes to the heart of the matter. It is well established that what makes a public service powerful is the use of it by all ­sections of the population, not just those without choice. State schools are getting better and benefiting from huge investment, but still face challenges in their attempt to raise standards equally for children, particularly those whose home backgrounds may not automatically prepare them for learning, passing exams or going to university.

It is a great tribute to our state education system that it has continued to improve and that its prevailing ethos – that all children, regardless of family background or parental income, have the right to a free, excellent education – is still a cherished ideal among so many, despite the relentless criticisms of some of our most influential citizens. Just imagine, for a moment, how rapid educational change could be, and what spectacular steps could be taken towards a truly world-class system, if all the presenters, editors, columnists and commentators put their combined force behind improving the state system, rather than boycotting and belittling it.

Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn are writers and campaigners for state education

Fiona is the author of the recently published “The Secret World of the Working Mother” (Vermilion, £12.99)

Melissa’s latest novel, “One of Us”, is out in paperback (Vintage, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile