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Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

When I was a teenager I smuggled a package into my parents’ home. I hid it in the back of a cupboard, and gradually consumed the contents when I was sure that no one was looking. But it wasn’t a bag of drugs.  It was a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, borrowed from Huddersfield public library.

I hid it because I would have been acutely embarrassed to be caught not just reading, but with clear evidence of having visited a library. Let me scratch the record at this point.  This column is not about to descend into an awful hard luck story about how I lived in a hole in the road, ate gravel as a treat and so on.

In fact, I went to an averagely performing comprehensive school in an averagely prosperous town. But even from this average background, I could feel the gravitational pull of the powerful anti-education culture which screws up the chances of so many working class kids.

It wasn’t just that trying hard was uncool and library visits embarrassing.  Expectations were low. My careers teacher at school (also the remedial teacher) asked how many GCSEs I thought I’d get a C in.  When I said all of them, he implied I was cocky.

I don’t know where this culture came from.  Maybe it’s a mutant version of the Victorian public school cult of effortless achievement.  Maybe as Mike Emmerich says, it’s something to do with the low-skill nature of Britain’s early industrialisation, or a leftover of a time when unskilled men could walk straight into a decent job in a factory.

What I do know is that the anti-education culture held back people I knew: particularly white working class boys (and black) whom it gripped most strongly.

And I do mean culture, not money or class. Poorer Indian pupils on free school meals are as likely to pass their English and Maths GCSEs as black pupils who are not.

Poorer Black and Asian girls who are eligible for Free School Meals are more likely to go to university than white and black boys who are not. (Only nine per cent of white boys on free school meals go.)

Culture and aspiration really matter, and there were two important rows about them last week. Strangely, both involved the rapper Stormzy, who was asked to do a Bible reading on BBC 1 on Christmas day.

The first started when a leading Headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, criticised Stormzy’s lyrics for being racist, sexist and glamorising violence. She talked about the negative effects this had on inner city pupils and suggested some more positive black role models.

Twitter-land erupted in rage. One tweeted: “This woman shouldn’t be allowed around children”. Another: “How can a “headmistress” be so uneducated?” One left wing academic asked: “So you want to ban Shakespeare?”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite his constant use of the n-word and frequent references to women as “bitches”, Stormzy has become something of a go-to figure when establishment organisations reach for “relevance”.

Earlier this year the charity “Youth Music” extolled “the benefits of students exchanging Mozart for Stormzy as part of a re-imagined music curriculum”. Indeed, why have Mozart when you can have gems like:

“We a bunch of bad niggas (bad niggas)
/

So is Jennifer with them bad bitches (bad bitches)/


Like we pour up man, we got cash nigga/


Like I get money, fuck what you have nigga.”

Stormzy is just one person.  But young black (and white) men are being fed a toxic cocktail of such messages from multiple sources, telling them they need to prove themselves with violence, that normal work is for losers, and normalising disrespect for women. Birbalsingh is surely right to want different role models, and to say that twenty years ago this stuff wouldn’t have been considered normal.  The reaction against any criticism of it is scary.

And there’s something really creepy about the idea that there are particular groups for whom “higher” culture isn’t appropriate, who should instead be served up something more “relevant” to them instead.It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations.

The second row was sort of a mirror image.

It was about trying to raise aspirations – through scholarships for particular ethnic groups. It was revealed that Dulwich College in London and Winchester College in Hampshire had declined a bequest totalling more than £1 million to support the fees of white working class boys from Bryan Thwaites, a prominent scientist and academic who himself attended both schools on scholarships.

Sir Bryan defended his proposed grant by citing none other than… Stormzy, who established a Cambridge University scholarship scheme solely for black British students earlier this year. Through the Stormzy Scholarships, black students can get up to a £18,000 grant.

Such programmes are increasingly widespread: Oxford recently announced new Arlan Hamilton scholarships for Black undergraduates.  UCL has scholarships for black and minority ethnic (BME) postgraduate research students. The Bank of England also has scholarships for African Caribbean students.

Let me be clear: Stormzy and others are trying to do a good thing.  I’m glad he is spending his money on encouraging black kids to apply to Cambridge. There is still a lot of racism out there and generally black people are worse off in lots of ways than white.

But there are some massive questions here. Commenting on the case, Trevor Phillips noted that there would be nothing illegal about scholarships for poor white pupils:

“This is not what we intended when we drafted the equality laws. As one of the authors of the [Equality] Act, and having encountered this situation before, I can see that the schools’ lawyers read the Act as though it were a law constructed purely to favour people of colour. It is not; it is designed to ensure equality, and in this specific case, the disadvantaged, under-represented group happens to be white.”

But do we want to go down a route of ringfenced funding for racial groups, be they black or white? Collecting statistics on people’s self-identified racial background is one thing.  Having ringfenced funding for one racial group is quite another, and leads into a minefield.

Last year, 44 per cent of Black African background pupils got five good GCSEs, but only 40 per cent of those from a Pakistani background.  On what basis should the latter be refused a scholarship only open to someone with slightly different skin colour? What proportion of your grandparents have to be of a particular ethnicity to count as “mixed race” and be eligible for a scholarship?

Apartheid South Africa had cruel racist laws to assign people to racial groups on the basis of things like “hair colour”, “facial features” and “eating and drinking habits”.  Could future court cases turn on such creepy arguments?

In the US, “affirmative action” has gone much further and has indeed led to court cases and legislation to control it. Issues have included discrimination against Asians who have then sued, problems with higher drop-out rates among favoured groups, arguments that it ends up helping richer members of favoured groups over poorer members of non-favoured, and arguments that it undermines members of favoured groups who would have succeeded anyway without the affirmative action.

Most leading UK universities rightly do quite a lot to “aim off” for students’ backgrounds. If you get top grades despite attending a school where few do so, you are more likely to get let in.  They look in detail at individuals’ backgrounds.

I think this fundamentally different to quotas or ringfenced grants: looking through people’s current disadvantages to assess their future potential as individuals is different to treating people as members of groups. Above all, if we want more people from some disadvantaged groups to be able to go to university, the main thing we need to do is to raise their achievement at school, which is why we need to put rocket boosters under our school reforms.

In the 2020s we should get more interested in the culture facing young people and who gets held up as a role model.  We must avoid sliding into US style quota-ism. We must do more to help people climb the ladder, but not be afraid to try and change parts of our culture that keep them down.

33 comments for: Neil O’Brien: Stormzy, “niggas”, “bitches” – and scholarships. Do we really want to fund racial groups?

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