Tony Sewell, Baron Sewell of Sanderstead

February 3, 2023

There are many roads to the House of Lords. Few have been as long and rocky as that trod by Baron Sewell of Sanderstead, better known as Tony Sewell, chair of the 2021 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

Tony was introduced to the Lords last week by two Conservative peers, Neil Mendoza, provost of Oriel College, Oxford and Dean Godson. He told me that as a “Church of England boy” he felt quite at home with the ancient rituals of the place and overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome he received from other peers and House of Lords staff. Lord Simon Woolley (ennobled by Theresa May), one of the few other black peers and a critic of the Sewell report, offered a congratulation.

How has he come to join this select club? Born to Jamaican parents in Brixton in 1959, he was in his own words “burned out in a racist schooling system.” In October 2010, writing in a seminal issue of Prospect magazine entitled Rethinking Race, alongside Munira Mirza, Swaran Singh and others, he lamented that neither the hosts nor the guests had been prepared for the arrival of a significant number of people from the Caribbean.

The school system was no exception: “In schools, many able Caribbean students were assigned to the lower streams, with teachers refusing to deal with them, or ill-prepared to adapt to a changing school population. In 1971, education expert Bernard Coard wrote a pamphlet, ‘How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system.’”

Tony survived, graduated in English from Essex in 1981 and has gone on to dedicate much of the rest of his life as as researcher, teacher and then educational entrepreneur to combatting the underachievement of black boys in British schools. Along the way he has been a columnist on the Voice newspaper and a radio show host. But a conservative and religious upbringing, and always keeping close ties to Jamaica, seems to have immunised him against the left’s version of anti-racism that became so dominant from the 1970s onwards.

And by the 1990s he had become more actively sceptical. Writing in that 2010 issue of Prospect, (which I then edited): “As someone who has experienced the education system throughout this period, as a child in the 1960s, as a teacher in the 1980s, and as a researcher today—I can say that, while the level of underachievement for black boys has remained the same, the reasons behind it have changed. The MP Diane Abbott has claimed that ‘teachers are failing black boys,’  arguing that ‘black boys do not have to be too long out of disposable nappies for some teachers to see them as a miniature gangster rapper.’”

“My challenge to these claims is that times have changed. What we now see in schools is children undermined by poor parenting, peer-group pressure and an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour. They are not subjects of institutional racism. They have failed their GCSEs because they did not do the homework, did not pay attention and were disrespectful to their teachers.  Instead of challenging our children, we have given them the discourse of the victim—a sense that the world is against them and they cannot succeed.”

He had a hunch that if he worked with Caribbean boys over the period when they were most vulnerable to a victim mentality, then he could help them succeed. He set up a charity, Generating Genius, to work with black teenagers. Through a programme of summer schools, internships, and other interventions, he encouraged them to realise their potential and aspire to professions in the sciences.

Generating Genius has led to other boards and commissions promoting ethnic minority advance in the schooling system and he has made a significant contribution to Britain’s (and especially London’s) remarkably good record in this area (though still not including enough black boys). And he intends to make one of his main themes in the Lords how the recent success of London schools, partly driven by immigrant ambition, can be spread around the rest of the country. “This is one of the keys to levelling up,” he told me.

I remember speaking alongside him at the Runnymede Trust race equality charity in 2011 debating the motion “This house believes race is no longer a significant disadvantage.” (A debate we clearly won against Joseph Harker of the Guardian and the writer Afua Hirsch, though I may be biased.)

He still, then, felt an element of discomfort speaking against the consensus in his own community. In the years since he has become more confident making the argument of the CRED report that, while race discrimination still exists, the different outcomes for different groups have as much to do with class, geography and cultural norms.

He has also, of course, became an object of scorn from the anti-racist left as we saw with the wild attacks on him after the publication of the CRED report—fellow peer Lord Woolley described it as “the worst report in modern British history by a long measure”—and then the farcical withdrawal of an honorary degree by Nottingham University.

Tony may be one of the leading figures in the ethnic minority intelligentsia who have broken with the left consensus on race but he is far from being a predictable establishment figure and if those who appointed him to chair the CRED thought he would be easy to control they soon had to re-think. He makes his maiden speech next and his Lordships would be wise to listen to him carefully—and they will have to as his thoughts and words are not always completely synchronised—especially when speaking about race and education.


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