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Ray Honeyford: Headmaster who sparked controversy with an attack on multiculturalism


Ray Honeyford, the head teacher of a Bradford inner-city school, sparked national controversy in 1984 when he questioned multiculturalism in schools.

He was abused, suspended, reinstated and eventually hounded out of education. Headmaster at Drummond Middle School for four years, where more than 90 per cent of pupils were Asian, the mild-mannered and popular Honeyford devoted his career to the education of disadvantaged children, a background he knew well and one reason why he had such a passion for education as a force for social mobility. It was a measure of his success that the school was heavily oversubscribed, with the greatest demand for places coming from Muslim parents.

However, in January 1984, Honeyford wrote an article for the right-wing Salisbury Review in which he criticised multiculturalism, the doctrine that had held sway in state education since the 1970s. Ethnic-minority children were encouraged to cling on to their cultures, customs, even languages, while the concept of a shared British identity was treated with contempt. Honeyford thought this approach deeply damaging, and his article turned him into a figure both of hatred and hero-worship.

He argued that there was "a growing number of Asians whose aim is to preserve the values and attitudes of the Indian subcontinent within a framework of British social and political privilege, i.e. to produce Asian ghettos". He also criticised "an influential group of black intellectuals of aggressive disposition, who know little of the British traditions of understatement, civilised discourse and respect for reason".

He was particularly keen that all children should be taught English as their first language from a young age, writing, "Those of us working in Asian areas are encouraged, officially, to 'celebrate linguistic diversity', i.e. applaud the rapidly mounting linguistic confusion in those growing number of inner-city schools in which British-born Asian children begin their mastery of English by being taught in Urdu."

Honeyford also cast doubt on whether his pupils were best served by the local educational authority allowing such practices as the withdrawal of children from school for months at a time in order to go "home" to Pakistan on the grounds that this was appropriate to the children's native culture.

Anticipating that he might be accused of racism, he added, "It is the icon word of those committed to the race game. And they apply it with the same sort of mindless zeal as the inquisitors voiced 'heretic' or Senator McCarthy spat out 'Commie'."

Initially, the article went unnoticed, but it was then picked up by the national press. Bradford's then Labour Mayor, Mohammed Ajeeb, called for Honeyford's dismissal for demonstrating "prejudice against certain sections of our community". Following death threats, picket lines and torrents of abuse, Honeyford was given police protection to and from school. Pupils were given badges proclaiming "Hate Your Headmaster" along with a "Pupils' Charter" advocating open disobedience. Although supported by some within the Asian community, Honeyford found himself mostly alone, as many feared reprisals for openly supporting him.

In April 1985 he was suspended, then reinstated in September after an appeal to the High Court. This proved short-lived as some parents formed an action group, organising demonstrations and keeping their children away from school. That December Honeyford agreed to early retirement and a lump sum of £160,000.

The outcome left him bemused and angered, though he gained some small satisfaction in 2004 when Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, asserted that children needed to be given "a core of Britishness". Multiculturalism, he argued, suggested "separateness". He warned that "some districts are on their way to becoming fully fledged ghettos – black holes into which no one goes without fear or trepidation."

In words reminiscent of Honeyford's, albeit more delicately put, Phillips said that Britain "is sleep-walking into segregation ... For instance, I hate the way this country has lost Shakespeare. That sort of thing is bad for immigrants." The irony was not lost on Honeyford, who wrote in the Daily Mail, "He is lauded for his wisdom. I was sacked for my alleged racism." Some have argued that Honeyford was equally justified in his warning about Muslim separatism, which has dramatically increased since his article, as seen in the growth of Muslim faith schools and the informal official acceptance of sharia courts.

Born in Manchester in 1934, Raymond Honeyford was one of 11 children, six of whom died in childhood, in an Anglo-Irish working-class family. His father, a labourer, was wounded in the First World War and worked only intermittently thereafter. The Honeyfords lived in a terraced house with an outside toilet and no hot water.

Having failed his 11+, Honeyford attended Manchester Technical School until the age of 15, when he left for an office job in order to to support his family. He attended night school to train as a teacher and later completed an MA in Linguistics at Lancaster University. He went on to teach at a number of secondary schools in the Manchester area before becoming headmaster of Drummond Middle School in 1981.

Following his dismissal, with his career and reputation in ruins, Honeyford never returned to teaching. He dabbled in political journalism and gave talks, and served on the education panel of the Centre for Policy Studies, where he won respect for his integrity and passion; he also served for three years as a Conservative councillor in Bury.

Raymond Honeyford, teacher: born Manchester 24 February 1934; married firstly (marriage dissolved, two sons), 1982 Angela; died Bury 5 February 2012.