The BBC2 documentary ‘The Primary’ focused on Welford Primary School in Handsworth, Birmingham, a school that brings together children from no less than 17 different ethnic backgrounds. As the website went on to describes it:
“The school has never had many white children, “There’s never been more than 10 within the school community of 480,” explains headteacher Chris Smith, and the mix of nationalities means that no ethnic group is predominant. Filmed over one autumn term at the school, this inspiring documentary follows the headteacher as he leads his diverse intake of children through the daily rituals of school life, working to maintain harmony while striving to promote an awareness of the children’s different cultures.”
All well and good, but what relevance did this programme have to the ‘White’ season and its focus on the white working classes? Beyond the programme identifying that there were only two ‘white’ pupils in the school – who didn’t appear to be from a ‘working class’ background – all the other ‘white’ people in the documentary (namely the teachers) would appear to have been ‘middle class’. I hasten to acknowledge that by suggesting this, assumptions are being made about the teachers and about how they would themselves offer a self-definition of their socio-economic status.
The reality at the school was far from a place where ‘rivers of blood’ would flow, as per the warnings from Enoch Powell that were dissected earlier in the series, but it was also a place where the programme makers were not futile enough to portray it as a modern-day educational Utopia either. Yet despite outbursts of interracial nastiness and minor instances of racism being highlighted between a handful of the pupils, Welford came across as a warm, inclusive place, filled with energy, vitality and lots of life. As the grandmother of one of the white children in the school put it, “Children are children…It doesn’t matter what sort they are.” But what role or relevance to the white working classes?
It seemed that underpinning the programme was a far more insidious message, one that had nothing to say about the white working classes but seemed to offer something more reflecting a warning or rallying call to them instead. Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s controversial comments from the early 1980s about Britain being “swamped by an alien culture”, the documentary seemed to root itself more specifically in the comments made by David Blunkett from April 2002. Despite (allegedly) being from the opposite sides of the political divide, Blunkett – who was supported by most of the Labour frontbench – reiterated Thatcher’s observation but with a greater sense of clarity. For Blunkett therefore, it was migrants and asylum seekers that were “swamping our schools”. Whilst being far from as arrogant or obnoxious as Blunkett, it did seem that the documentary’s message was one which amounted to little more than ‘we told you so’.
Without doubt, the documentary was a warm and touching one that shows the way in which multiculturalism can – and indeed does – work when allowed to. However, having read reviews of the series and its various programmes elsewhere, much has been made in terms of the series being something of a covert campaigning tool for the BNP. Without making such strong assertions, ‘The Primary’ did seem to be more concerned about sending a message to the white working classes rather than sending a message to others about them.