Worried teachers say that the BNP is recruiting children as young as nine to its cause. Ian Herbert reports on the rise of the right in schools
It is hard to extract much conversation from Emma Dunn, 12, as she leans against the railings outside Ling Bob Junior School in the run-down Pellon district of Halifax, west Yorkshire. But she is forthcoming about certain things – like what the letters BNP stand for, and how she thinks it’s trying to “save” her old school.
The source of this information is her father, Frank, 40, who rolls a cigarette as they wait for another of his four children to emerge from school. He talks of how he wants to put one of the three local British National Party councillors back in power again at June’s council elections. “They’re the only party that wants to keep Mixenden primary open,” he says.
Mr Dunn is wrong. Calderdale council’s Liberal Democrat members have also been campaigning to save the school, which has been threatened with closure because of its poor results. To say that no one else cares about its fate is a classic piece of BNP scaremongering to win votes. (In its last successful campaign, the BNP reignited memories of the Ridings disaster, when the nearby high school was branded the worst in the country.)
But the real significance of this school-gate conversation is the fact that the BNP seems to have entered the children’s lexicon since Adrian Marsden, a man with past links to the violent neo-Nazi group Combat 18, became Calderdale’s first BNP councillor 16 months ago.
At the National Union of Teachers’ conference last month, Calderdale branch secretary Sue McMahon said that the party was recruiting children as young as nine to its cause. A Calderdale primary school teacher, Jim Miller, said that when he asked 10-year-olds what gave them pleasure, one boy replied: “Kicking the fucking shit out of a bunch of fucking Pakis.”
There are no teachers who are known to sympathise with the BNP in Calderdale – unlike the maths teacher from the West Midlands who, it emerged last week, is a BNP European election candidate. But the party has put down roots in other areas of school life: a Calderdale parent governor stood for the BNP in a November by-election, and a local school secretary is a known supporter.
Teachers in the area decline to be quoted on the issue – a result of the culture of denial about the BNP threat by their head teachers, they say.
But John*, 58, a primary-school supply teacher with 30 years in the profession, says that the party’s invective has all but legitimised racist abuse in primary classrooms: “It’s coming down from parents and older siblings… as a norm in the home.”
There have been few more vivid examples than the recent primary-school football competition in central west Halifax, attended by the England 1966 World Cup star Ray Wilson, to which attendance had to be restricted after teachers were told Asian children would be abused by white parents or older siblings.
Last summer term, John found a group of nine, white Year 6 children in the corridor of a Halifax primary hurling the taunt “Pakis, Pakis” at a smaller group of white pupils. Many teachers say difficult students latch on to the party’s vitriol because of the rebellious, macho image it conveys.
In class, 10-year-olds have BNP and racist jargon scrawled on the covers of their jotters and racist language is a norm, according to Steve*, 38, another Halifax supply teacher. “Dealing with the writing is straightforward,” he says. “You say ‘no graffiti on books’. But the abuse is different. They are already at an age where you can’t just order them to stop. We’re trying to get them talking about why they feel they can say such things – how they might feel if somebody had a go at them if, say, they were blind.”
The support, however, may be less substantial than the BNP would have us believe. Last year, more than 80 primary and secondary schools were named on the party’s website as having pupils who support its views. Closer scrutiny revealed that at least one of the six schools listed in Kirklees, which borders Calderdale, did not exist.
The dangers of legitimising the BNP’s attempts to pump up its strength were also demonstrated by a recent e-mail from Chris Keates, the deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, which told members the union had been advised that 23 teachers were standing for the BNP in the June election. The union now concedes the figure came from a BNP website and last week referred enquiries on the subject to the BNP.
But the party does deploy teenage members of its Young BNP (YBNP) offshoot party to befriend and recruit secondary pupils, sometimes with free CDs as an incentive. “The kids playing five-a-side football nearby will be another target,” says Gerry Gable, publisher of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. “They involve themselves with disaffected kids around the edge of the local football scene. Many of the party’s boot boys in the North graduate from small, local football clubs.”
In addition to Calderdale, teaching unions report canvassing activity in Oldham, Blackburn and Stoke-on-Trent – all BNP political targets.
The party’s education policies include the ending of teaching in languages other than English and the separate education of “foreign” pupils who do not have the required language skills. But the full invective of its message to children is apparent in the canvassing literature recovered from secondaries in Calderdale. Headlined “What the school won’t tell you about racism,” it tells pupils that it is “unnatural to want to mix with other races.” Information on the YBNP website plays on even more extreme paranoia – offering children protection against sexual abuse by teachers.
The party works off rumour and fear, picking up on news of schoolyard fights and presenting them as evidence of whites under attack. It was a tactic used in March, when the party leader Nick Griffin visited the Pollockshields area of Glasgow to lay a wreath after a local white schoolboy, Kriss Donald, was murdered.
According to YBNP leader Tony Wentworth, a University of Salford politics student, children of 13 are the youngest canvassed. “It is part of the political process and necessary, given what we are working against,” he says. “Young people feel they might be punished or expelled for supporting us. In some cases, they don’t know how the system works against them.”
The Solihull Catholic school that employed the Euro election candidate Simon Smith as a maths teacher moved quickly to suspend him last week. The NASUWT, says that his BNP membership was a breach of its constitution.
But removing BNP members from every area of school life may be more difficult. The head teacher at Halifax’s Whitehill primary school, Roy Hepplestone, says that the decision of parent governor Heath Clegg to stand as a BNP councillor last November had no bearing on his ability. “Their politics are irrelevant to the management of the school,” he says. However, the local – predominantly Asian – Beech Hill school, which has a multi-ethnic twinning arrangement with Whitehill, has already refused to be involved in activities involving Mr Clegg.
And McMahon fears that the BNP’s influence in schools will only spread. “The BNP is already talking about securing seats as co-opted school governors if they increase their presence on the council.”
Back in Mixenden, some secondary-school children gave more indication of the aggression that the party provokes. “It were a great laugh when that Marsden got elected,” says Craig, 14. “Some lads down the road from here beat him up. Great laugh.”
* Some names have been changed