How the BNP set its sights on Stoke's schools

The party now has governors at seven schools in Stoke-on-Trent.
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The Independent Online

In 2001, Michael Coleman was quoted on the front page of Stoke's The Sentinel newspaper saying: "I certainly am a racist and I don't apologise for that." The comment came in an article in which Mr Coleman was defending the distribution of leaflets, near two schools in Stoke-on-Trent, which claimed that a "low-intensity race war" was going on within them. "Enforced multi-racialism – our worst enemy", read the leaflets.

Nine years on, Mr Coleman, who leads the British National Party's seven councillors on Stoke-On-Trent City Council, denies that he is a racist, saying he was misquoted. He is a BNP candidate for Stoke-on-Trent South in today's general election and is a governor of one of these schools, Longton High School, where the number of ethnic minority pupils is above the national average. And, to the consternation of many anti-racism campaigners, he also now chairs the council committee which scrutinises education policy across all 88 Stoke schools.

This latter revelation provoked gasps of disbelief at the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) last month.

But how did it happen? And can those who argue that the far-right party should have no representation in decision-making processes affecting schools do anything about it?

Stoke-on-Trent is now arguably the focus not just of BNP attempts to gain a greater foothold within the schools system, but of its general election effort. To some, it presents the perfect stage for a party trading on disaffection with mainstream politics: an economy still reeling from the closure of the mines and the decline of the pottery industry, and a chaotic record of local government. More than 90 per cent of its estimated 240,000 population is white. Whether the BNP's advances in education there in recent years might be replicated elsewhere is a key question.

Stoke-on-Trent was the venue for the launch of the BNP's manifesto two weeks ago. The city has been described by Nick Griffin, the party leader, as the BNP's "jewel in the crown". The party is contesting all three Stoke parliamentary seats today.

In January, 17 people were arrested after members of the English Defence League clashed with anti-fascist protesters in the city.

The rise of the BNP in Stoke dates back nearly a decade, its fortunes apparently transformed after its candidate, Steve Batkin, came third in an election to become the city's first elected mayor in 2002. It now has governors in seven Stoke schools: three secondary, three primary and a special school.

In March, Mr Batkin became a governor at Edensor Technology College, the other school – previously called Edensor High School – mentioned in the 2001 leaflet. His appointment may fit what is seen by the BNP's opponents as a disturbing recent pattern.

Within the 60-member council, each political party is given the chance to nominate governors to a local authority school every time a governor vacancy arises. On occasion, other parties have managed to use their votes to appoint their own governors. But Mr Batkin was elected unopposed, because the mainstream parties could not find any of their own volunteers to do the job. All seven BNP governors' posts went through this local authority nomination process.

Since 2008, Mr Coleman has been chair of the council's Children and Young People's Overview and Scrutiny Committee. He owes his position to the convention that the leadership of scrutiny committees is shared between the parties in proportion to votes.

Jason Hill, president of the Stoke-on-Trent branch of the NUT and a retired teacher of visually-impaired children, told the NUT's annual conference that BNP members should be barred from serving as governors or teachers.

He says: "The BNP say that whatever political views they express as councillors are not relevant to their positions as school governors. That's rubbish: if people are racists, they are racists."

There is evidence of governors raising BNP views, he suggests. He says: "I have witnessed a governors' meeting where a BNP governor challenged the whole basis of a school's reporting of racist incidents, saying the school only reported incidents affecting ethnic minority children and not those affecting white children." He claims that, at another meeting, a BNP governor had complained about the number of languages spoken in Stoke schools.

All those working in schools have had a duty to promote community cohesion under legislation dating from the 1970s. Mr Hill and others argue that the BNP's ethos is antithetical to this.

The post which Mr Coleman holds, as chair of the scrutiny committee, is also potentially pivotal, giving him the right to check on sensitive council decisions such as school closures. Mr Hill and his NUT colleague Ivan Hickman argue that the council should take the blame for allowing him the role. They suggest that the other parties did not want the post. Stoke-on-Trent, where in 1997 Labour held all 60 seats but now has just 14, has been plagued by in-fighting for years.

But if a party is part of the democratic process and has won seats on a council, it appears to be difficult to stop it wielding influence over schools.

NASUWT (The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers) was reported last September to be planning legal action to ban BNP councillors from being elected on to school governing bodies. But the application for judicial review mooted at the time has yet to be pursued by the union. However, other councils appear to have succeeded in taking a stand. In 2004, Calderdale in West Yorkshire voted to abandon its practice of distributing local authority places on governing bodies among the parties depending on the number of councillors they had.

This policy, designed to keep out the BNP which had three councillors at the time, is still in place. Now, individuals apply to be governors and then go before a panel including representatives of the three "main" political parties. A council spokesman said it was more successful at filling governor vacancies and had been adopted by other local authorities.

Mr Coleman says he was misquoted in the 2001 Sentinel article. He says: "I want to work to preserve the uniqueness of my race, and my culture. That's my position. For anyone to suggest that my views are extremist, in that case an entire community must be racist or extremist, since I stood on this platform when I was elected [as a councillor] three years ago."

He adds: "People will try to call me a racist, but I'm not really. I have denied that I'm a racist. I'm not a rabid hater, as some have tried to paint me. I have a lot of involvement with ethnic minorities within the community."

He says the scrutiny committee is made up of councillors trying to do their best for pupils. But he says the BNP rejects existing race relations legislation. He adds: "Schools in Stoke do have kids from differing backgrounds. But there should be one unifying fact within these schools: they are British, and the British way of doing things, and British values, must prevail."

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