Advocates of Bussing Should Learn From British History and not Just the US

04/10/2012 17:13 BST | Updated 04/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Should "bussing" be introduced in London's schools to reduce social and ethnic segregation? Yes, according to David Levin, head teacher of the independent City of London School for Boys, whose arguments were covered in the Evening Standard this week.

Mirroring the well known American model, bussing, Levin's argument goes, should take place when schools have over 85 per cent of pupils from one background, with children above that "quota" being bussed to other schools.

However, whilst some commentators have (rightly) compared to the American system, none have acknowledged that bussing has actually taken place in the UK before - and that it was a failure which ended in a racist murder.

In the mid 1960s, following a recommendation from the then Department for Education and Science (in a circular entitled "Spreading the Children") two local authorities with high ethnic minority populations - Ealing and Bradford - decided to introduce bussing. Little archival information exists about bussing in Bradford but records in the National Archives show that in Ealing the policy was toxic.

Introduced in response to protests by white parents in the borough's Southall area against a 60 per cent ethnic minority school, the policy was very much framed by the idea that the authority should disperse and spread the "burden" of "immigrants", supposedly in order to improve the education of white children in the school.

The local ethnic minority community - who of course had no say in the matter - were up in arms, and understandably so. The policy brought great inconvenience - children had to wait at bus stops in the dark early in the morning, parents had to collect their children from school far away if they fell ill and it made it even more difficult for ethnic minority pupils and parents to participate and engage in after school activities.

But most significantly, the policy brought stigmatism and in many cases, violence. The fact that 100 per cent of those children bussed were from a non-white ethnic minority made them an easy target for abuse and instantly marked them as outsiders when entering a new majority white school. Many secondary school students faced racist abuse and violence when waiting for and boarding their buses. Most shockingly, bussing resulted in the tragic racist murder of Shakil Malik in 1974, who was bottled to death when boarding his school bus. The policy was eventually stopped in Ealing, and bussing on the grounds of ethnicity alone was ruled illegal in the UK in 1975.

Of course, I am not suggesting that Levin is working in the same mindset as Ealing Local Authority in the 1960s, and clearly race relations have moved on a long way since.

But the example of Ealing raises the question, does Levin expect schools which are over 85 per cent white to bus pupils in order to supposedly integrate them more effectively with ethnic minorities? Or schools with over 85 per cent of students from a middle or upper class economic background? Something tells me that this is unlikely. However if only those who are disadvantaged are bussed it immediately marks them out as being a "problem" and "other" and even if abuse is not racially motivated, if children are so obviously marked out as being supposedly different, whether it's by race, religion or class, they are more vulnerable to bullying and less likely to be accepted by other pupils.

Whilst increasing mixing between different groups is a laudable aim, the lessons from Ealing show that bussing can create more barriers and tensions between groups rather than Levin's intention of solving a so-called segregated Britain. Politicians should be sure to look at closely at this example before considering making a return to a policy of the 1960s.

Vicki Butler works for the Runnymede Trust, the UK's leading race equality think tank. She wrote on bussing in the organisation's Bulletin magazine in September 2007 and undertook research on the issue whilst studying at the London School of Economics.