Burnage: Repercussions of the Murder of a School Boy

The findings of the Macdonald Inquiry into the death of 13 year old Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, after being stabbed by a fellow pupil at Burnage High School on Wednesday 17 September 1986, were published in 1989 with the title ‘The Burnage Report: Murder in the Playground: Report of the Macdonald Inquiry into Racism and Racial Violence in Manchester Schools’ (see Further Reading). This chapter refers to summaries from that report, but primarily aims to focus on the impact of the events on Manchester City Council and its implementation of new policies. A culture of violence in the school and racial tensions were the precursors of the attack, but how the incident was handled inflamed racial divisions and had repercussions for a long time after. In 2016 it will be 30 years since this tragic death. To mark this anniversary the Education Trust established in his memory are building an archive that reflects on and commemorates Ahmed’s death and legacy.
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Murder of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah
With the traumatic Poundswick dispute reaching some sort of resolution in January 1986 (at least insofar as the politicians were concerned – resolving the issues in relation to the pupils and teachers at the school took much longer), just seven months later, another, even more traumatic, school-related event took place at Burnage High School. This was the murder, in the lower school playground, of a 13-year-old Bangladeshi boy, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, by a white pupil at the same school.

The events that led to the attack on Ahmed Ullah, the failure of the school to deal with them, including the failure to deal properly with the problems of the pupil who killed him and the attack itself and its aftermath, are all covered extensively in Ian Macdonald’s book ‘Murder in the Playground’[1]. I intend to focus on the impact of the events on the Council and its implementation of new policies.

Following the local elections in May 1986, Richard Leese had been elected as the new Chair of the Education Committee[2]. At that time Richard had only been a councillor for two years, but he had been a key figure on the Education Committee during the Poundswick dispute and had previously worked in education as a teacher and a youth worker. The murder of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, on Wednesday 17 September 1986, took place within just a few months of Richard taking over as Chair.

Racism was a common experience of black and Asian people during the 1980s, although the problem went largely unrecognised by the majority of the white population. In schools, all pupils of Asian origin were often referred to derogatorily as ‘Pakis’ and teachers frequently failed to effectively challenge pupils’ racist language or behaviour.

From around 1978, Manchester Council’s approach to the influx of people into the city from the Commonwealth and other countries had been to encourage “harmonious race and community relations” by adopting a programme of “multi-cultural awareness and education”. Councillors believed that schools had to play a greater role in encouraging good race relations but, according to Ian Macdonald, they failed to recognise the racism prevalent in society at the time. Within the Council’s Education Service (and indeed throughout the country) the approach often adopted was that black children had ‘special needs’.

A report to the Education Committee in November 1981 continued to highlight the multicultural approach to be taken to promote positive racial attitudes:

“The key to multicultural education lies in the teachers’ attitudes and their willingness to become aware of the cultural background of their students and members of society at large and to take account of this in their teaching.”

During the 1980s the Education Department employed a team of peripatetic advisory teachers as part of the Schools Inspectorate and Advisory Service (IAS), who worked in schools to try to encourage new approaches to teaching. Burnage had two advisory teachers to support the curriculum, multicultural education and special educational needs, but not for behaviour support. According to Macdonald and others on the political left, however, this was not an adequate approach to tackling racism, which is not just a result of cultural misunderstandings, but is an operation of power relationships. Macdonald quotes a statement from the Institute of Race Relations in the summer of 1980:

“Just to learn about other people’s cultures, though, is not to learn about the racism of one’s own. To learn about the racism of one’s own culture, on the other hand, is to approach other cultures objectively.”

In the aftermath of the Moss Side riots in the summer of 1981 (see chapter 7), a report to the Education Committee recommended that all education institutions in the city should produce policies on racism. The report provided examples of such policies produced by schools in the Inner London Education Authority. It didn’t define racism, though, nor provide any guidelines about formulating anti-racist strategies, their implementation, nor how they might be monitored.

Policies to Address Racism
The City Labour Party’s Manifesto for the 1984 elections included a strong statement about racism:

“Manchester must become a city at the centre of opposition to racism. Asian and African-Caribbean people in particular face prejudice and discrimination at every level. Immigration law, employment, education, housing and policing practices are areas where this is particularly severe. Racial abuse and attack, as well as more subtle forms of discrimination, are serious problems. We are committed to positive action to support the rights of black people, both against the government’s policies which attack them, and in council employment and services.”

There was no reference to anti-racist policies in the education section of the manifesto, however, just a further reiteration of the multicultural approach:

“Multicultural education and peace studies are essential to the curriculum in all schools.”

The 1986 Manifesto did at least refer to anti-racism within education:

“Special emphasis will be given to multicultural and anti-racist education and to the development of classes in peace studies, world studies, women’s studies, trade union and political education.”

Although there was a strong commitment from the new administration to implement anti-racist policies in Manchester’s schools, not all the teaching staff were as committed. There were also teachers who were committed to anti-racist principles but went about things in a way that turned out to be counter-productive, as at Burnage. But in order to understand the events there in September 1986, it is necessary to look at the educational changes in the city being implemented from 1982 onwards, and events in the school, including a previous serious racist attack that had not been handled properly.

Prior Racial Tensions at Burnage High School
On 21 January 1982, a year 11[3] pupil at Burnage High School (who happened to be the son of the Bangladeshi Deputy High Commissioner) was seriously injured in an unprovoked attack. He was in the school careers library with another Bangladeshi pupil during the lunch break when he was attacked by a group of six boys. Among other cuts and bruises, he suffered a fractured cheek bone, which necessitated hospital treatment (and several subsequent operations), but he was sent to hospital without being accompanied by a member of staff. The school failed to recognise the racial undertones of the attack and in fact failed to deal satisfactorily with it even as an unprovoked violent attack causing serious injury. The boy’s father wrote a letter about the affair to the Education Authority and a senior education officer, David Jones, carried out an investigation into the handling of the incident.

Racial tension and violence were not unique to Burnage High School, but there were geographical and class elements to the problems at Burnage in addition to racial and cultural tensions. Burnage was a predominantly white area, with very few Asian families, and many of the Asian pupils were not ‘local’, coming from Longsight and Levenshulme. Their parents sent them to Burnage High School because it was perceived as a good school and they had high aspirations for their sons. The majority of the white boys were local to the area, and many of them were working class.

David Jones convened a community meeting on 18 February 1982 to discuss ‘racial attacks in Manchester schools’. Although this was described as a community meeting, I’m not sure if it was attended by anyone other than the Asian community, or even if anyone else was invited. A list of issues to be tackled was drawn up at this meeting and these were raised by officers with the senior staff at Burnage High School in March 1982.

The staff and officers drew up a 14-point plan in response to “the intolerable level of violence in the school”. But no mention was made of racism, racial attacks, racial violence or racial name-calling.

According to Ian MacDonald, by denying the existence of racial violence, the school and the Local Education Authority (LEA)[4] were, in effect, signalling to white pupils (and by implication the staff who failed to tackle their racism) that their indiscriminate attacks on black students would be viewed simply as ‘misdemeanours’ and that “having a go at ‘Pakis’” would be dealt with just as ‘bullying’ or just ‘being violent’. Macdonald believed that this was:

“acting in the most blatantly insulting way to black people by displacing their anxieties and concerns with platitudes and empty rhetoric about ‘promoting a greater appreciation of our multicultural and multi-racial society’”.

The school and LEA’s attempt to manage the situation did not reassure the ethnic minority communities and some parents removed their sons from the school. As one parent put it at the time,

“If this terrible thing could happen to the son of the deputy high commissioner, who provoked no one and wasn’t even involved in a fight, what hope is there for my son?”

In addition to dealing (or not) with the racial dimension in Manchester schools, the LEA was in the process of implementing a city-wide reorganisation of secondary education. It had decided to create sixth-form colleges serving the whole city and remove sixth forms from secondary schools, some of which were very small and not able to offer a very wide range of subjects for advanced-level study. The reorganisation, which was implemented from September 1982, also introduced a new feeder system for the admission of pupils from primary to secondary schools.

The reorganisation enabled the LEA to assist schools in making staff changes and in reviewing their curriculum. The latter was particularly important in relation to the implementation of the LEA’s policies and the abolition of corporal punishment, for which the LEA provided in-service training and support from the advisory teachers in the Inspectorate and Advisory Service.

Burnage High School and two other schools, Whalley Range High School for Girls and Parrs Wood High School, campaigned to retain their sixth forms and appealed to the Education Secretary, Keith Joseph. He declared them to be ‘schools of proven worth’ and exempted them from the Council’s reorganisation. This meant that, in addition to retaining its sixth form, Burnage avoided the need to review its curriculum and the staff remained very much as before. The prevailing ethos at this point was still that of an old grammar school (which is what it had been prior to becoming Comprehensive in the 1960s), where corporal punishment was still widely used and the curriculum was very traditional with subject streaming.

The three schools that had won their case for exemption from the Council’s reorganisation were, to some extent, regarded as no longer part of the ‘family’ of schools in the city and were left to their own devices. As they were all in electoral wards with no Labour councillors they were not a high priority for the right-wing Labour administration.

New Management Team in 1982
Burnage appointed a new Headteacher, Dr Gerry Gough, and a new Deputy Head who took up their posts in September 1982. The last permanent headteacher had left in the mid-1970s and the school had had a succession of temporary heads since then. The new headteacher had to implement a raft of new policies, including the abolition of corporal punishment, which had been adopted as Council policy in early 1982), and policies on anti-racism, multicultural education and Section 11[5]. Dr Gough had a particularly crusading zeal for the anti-racist policy and he set up parents groups for Asian and African Caribbean parents (a separate one for each) from which white parents were excluded. This was against the advice of headteachers in London that he had consulted.

Some of the teachers were resistant to change, but even those who supported the pursuit of anti-racist policies felt that the head’s management style was not conducive to encouraging co-operation and in fact alienated staff who might have been won over. The behaviour of the pupils was a cause of great concern and the staff became increasingly polarised into those who supported what the head was trying to do and those who opposed him and the new policies. The school’s split site didn’t help[6], with more focus being placed on the older pupils in the upper school and a tendency to ignore the developing culture of violent behaviour in the lower school. The lower school building was also in much worse physical condition than the upper school and this led to an air of neglect about the place.

After two years of increasing problems, there was a concerted attempt by staff and trade unions in July 1984 to get action from senior management on standards of behaviour and the increase in incidents of staff being verbally abused and physically assaulted by pupils.

LEA inspectors were called in, and found unprecedented levels of aggression in the school corridors, and unacceptable behaviour by pupils, that was not being tackled consistently. The recommendations in the inspectors’ reports from their visits in 1984 and 1985 were not shared with the staff and so they felt that their concerns were being ignored by the LEA as well as by the senior management in the school.

Governors’ Sub-committee
Dr Gough was still determined to push ahead with the new policies and in the summer of 1985, he encouraged the school governors to set up a sub-committee to investigate the divisions among the staff. It was clear to the governors that there were problems among the staff about the policies of the Council and the way senior management was implementing them. The two main teacher unions, the NASUWT and NUT[7], were on different sides of the fence in relation to the kind of school they wanted Burnage to be and their support for what Dr Gough was trying to do.

Seven governors were appointed to the sub-committee, but only five[8] of them were able to attend all the consultations and meetings that were required. The remit of the sub-committee was to investigate the breach between the teaching staff and the senior management, listen to staff’s concerns and look at the way the school was being managed, including the governors’ role. An initial letter to explain all this was sent to staff. There were then three days of consultations, followed by 15 meetings during July and August 1985.

The governors found that most of the teachers didn’t want to talk to them and they had to work hard at building up their trust. It was clear that there were very real problems and they made a series of recommendations in their report, which was sent to the LEA as well as to the school’s senior management and the rest of the governors.

Their report stated that the sub-committee was impressed by the overall level of dedication and professionalism in the school and believed that the senior management and staff had the ability to make the healing process a success. But they found low staff morale and an atmosphere of mistrust, allegations and innuendo, with many teachers seeking jobs elsewhere. The majority of the staff in the lower school felt that there had been a decline in standards of discipline in the previous two years, with increases in swearing and violent behaviour towards younger boys and much aggressive behaviour in the corridors.

The governors concluded that there had to be a fundamental change in the attitude of senior management to the processes of management, communication and staff relationships at all levels and that there was an urgent need to develop a firmly-based, cohesive policy on discipline. They recommended that the entire staff should spend time in consultation, discussion and debate to formulate agreed policies on communication, discipline and codes of conduct, as well as coming to an agreement on the implementation of the new policies on anti-racism and multiculturalism.

Dr Gough was clearly shocked by the report’s conclusions. It was apparent that he thought the governors would be more critical of teachers – how conservative they were; that they were trying to hold back his changes; that they had racist attitudes. Instead they were more critical of the way he and senior staff were implementing the new policies. While the governors found that some teachers were indeed racist and intransigent to change, the head’s management style was felt to be more of a problem. He wasn’t seen walking about the school enough; he communicated via ‘directives’ on paper rather than face to face; he operated in a ‘divide and rule’ way (doing things on a one-to-one basis rather than openly in meetings); and he treated staff in an unprofessional manner by haranguing and shouting at them. The results of the LEA inspectors’ reports (from their visits in 1984 and 1985) had not been shared with the staff; the role of Section 11 teachers had not been explained to everyone; and there was a lack of in-service training for the staff.

The governors’ report recognised that Dr Gough had good points too. He was very good at communicating with pupils and he was completely committed to anti-racism and building the self-confidence of ethnic minority parents.

The governors felt they had to keep the staff together and couldn’t distribute the report to teachers without senior management support. Because the report was received so badly by Dr Gough, they produced a second, shorter report, which held back some of the criticism. But this wasn’t quite what the teachers had expected them to do.

Events Leading to the Murder
During the summer holidays prior to the start of the 1985/86 academic year, the school’s art block was burned down – by Darren Coulburn, the boy who went on to kill Ahmed Ullah. He appeared in the juvenile court in the autumn of 1985 for that offence, and also for stealing a motorbike. He had a history of truancy, lateness and bullying and teachers had three times requested that he be moved to a special school that could tackle his substantial problems. But nothing was done by the senior management team.

At the first governing body meeting of that year, Diana Kealey was elected as Vice Chair. Although she was still relatively new, she had shown her commitment to the school by her work on the sub-committee and she was viewed as not being as divisive as Audrey Jones or as heavily committed as Ben Glaizner. As a result of the governors’ report, the school received a lot of support from LEA inspectors, particularly from one of the senior inspectors, Ethel Milroy, and it was clear from their reports of inspections of different departments in November 1985 that they were aware of the problems and doing what they could to assist.

Then, around March 1986, the Chair of Governors had to give up the position for health reasons and Diana Kealey took over (reluctantly because of her heavy commitments), while Ben Glaizner was elected as Vice Chair again.

Despite all the work by governors and the LEA, very little seems to have changed at the school during that academic year. Bullying and violence were still rife and money was regularly extorted from Asian pupils in the playground and on the way to and from school. Diana planned to stand down as chair of governors at the AGM in the following autumn term, but felt unable to do so after Ahmed Ullah’s murder.

The events that led up to the fatal attack on 17 September, as outlined in detail at Darren Coulburn’s trial, began in a fairly trivial way, with a scuffle over a football. Four Asian boys had been kicking the ball about at break time and Darren Coulburn took it off them and threw it onto a roof. They threatened to report him to the Deputy Head and so he retrieved it, but threatened to ‘get’ one of the boys after school, which he did. He punched the Asian boy and knocked him down before making him sit down and stand up while saying “Sorry, master.”

Ahmed Ullah saw the incident and intervened, forcing Darren to do the same thing. Ahmed was a tall boy for his age and regularly intervened in bullying incidents to defend younger and smaller boys. Unlike Darren, he was a successful student and well liked by his peers and the teachers. The next day, in the park after school, there was a fight between Darren and Ahmed, with a group of others boys egging them on until the fight was stopped by older boys. The following day, Darren walked into school with a small knife from home and boasted to other boys that he was “going to have a fight with a Paki. I am going to kill him.” Around 8.30am, in the school playground, a crowd of boys gathered to watch the fight, during which Darren took out the knife from his pocket and stabbed Ahmed in the stomach. As Ahmed collapsed, Darren apparently shouted racist taunts and then ran off and dropped the knife down a drain.

There was some confusion about who called the ambulance and when, but it apparently took much longer to arrive than it should for such an emergency. Ben Glaizner believes that if it had arrived more quickly, Ahmed might not have died.

The Immediate Response
Later on the day of the murder, a police spokesman told the press that there was no evidence of racial overtones to the killing. This rash and pre-emptive statement made the members of the Bangladeshi community very angry and jeopardised the chances of future co-operative working between them and the police.

The day after the murder a community meeting was convened by the LEA at Bangladeshi House, a community centre a mile away from the school. The Chief Education Officer’s personal assistant, Ruby Khan (later a councillor) had to very quickly find some Sylhetti speakers to act as translators, as most of the Bangladeshi community was from the Sylhet province. A number of people were on the platform, including the Chief Education Officer himself, Gordon Hainsworth, and the Vice Chair of the Greater Manchester Bangladeshi Association, Kabir Ahmed. Police Chief Superintendent Ray Sherratt, who was due to be on the platform, arrived late and exacerbated the mood of the crowd by repeating what the police had said before – that there was no racial aspect to the murder. People were so angry at this that he was asked to leave the meeting.

The Asian youths who were present were angry at the way they were treated, both by the police and by their own ‘elders’, and they subsequently set up their own organisation called the Ahmed Ullah Memorial Committee with a slogan of “self-defence is no offence”. This was similar to the Asian youth movements in Newham, Southall and Bradford. The community elders insisted that the Council set up a public inquiry and that the police retract their statement about there being no racial aspect to the murder (which they eventually did).

The Council’s Response
A number of meetings for parents were held, but in separate groups. White parents voiced their frustration that parents had not been able to meet as parents but were defined by their racial background. Marilyn Taylor, who was one of the local councillors for Burnage and a governor at the school since 1983, appealed to the Labour Group officers to intervene, but they didn’t.

At the time of the murder Diana Kealey, the Chair of the Governors, was in Geneva on holiday and knew nothing about it until she got back to Manchester on the following Sunday, 21 September. There were no mobile phones in those days.

At the City Party meeting on Monday 22 September, John Nicholson gave a detailed report on the events and expressed outrage that the Manchester Evening News had refused to publish the Council’s press statement, but had published an article by Ray Honeyford[9] criticising anti-racism. The City Party resolved that the Council should immediately take steps to improve links with the Bangladeshi community, approach the press trade unions in relation to the Honeyford article and, as a last resort, disassociate itself from the MEN in terms of placing advertising and so on. It was also agreed to send a tribute to the funeral service the following day.

The funeral service on 23 September took place at Platt Fields Park and a coach was organised by the school to take teachers, governors and pupils. Diana Kealey got on the coach and talked to some of the teachers she knew to find out more about what had happened. The Deputy Head, Peter Moors, then got on to the coach to announce that the white pupils were not going to attend the funeral, because the school had received information that it wasn’t considered to be safe for them.

The rumour was that it was the police who had given that advice. Diana thought this was a big mistake and wanted to get off the coach to see Dr Gough and challenge the advice, but she stayed and went to the funeral. It later transpired that it was in fact one of the parent governors, Zia Jamal, who gave the advice, based on the reactions of some of the local Asian taxi drivers who wanted to take retribution on white pupils and teachers. Dr Gough could have, and should have, consulted with others before taking that decision as this exacerbated the polarisation between the white and ethnic minority pupils. The white parents at the funeral service were furious that their sons hadn’t been allowed to attend and grieve for a fellow pupil, particularly so the father of one of Ahmed’s close friends. The teachers were also very upset that white pupils weren’t allowed to go.

Graham Stringer was away on a visit to China at the time. So, in his role as Deputy Leader, John Nicholson reported the situation to the Joint Policy Committee on 6 October and agreed to make a full report to the City Party, which he did, together with Richard Leese and Val Stevens (as Chair of the Equal Opportunities Committee). The City Party supported the description of the killing as a ‘racist murder’ and backed the Group officers’ decision to set up a public inquiry into the background to the murder. John Nicholson proposed that Ian Macdonald QC be appointed to chair the inquiry; if Graham Stringer had been there, it is unlikely that he would have agreed to this. According to John, neither Graham nor Frances Done took any part in trying to resolve the situation following the murder.

The Macdonald Inquiry
Darren Coulburn’s solicitor took out an injunction to stop the inquiry starting before the trial, but in November 1986 the Council asked Ian Macdonald to chair the inquiry, which was formally established at the December Policy and Resources Committee[10]. Macdonald waited until after the trial and conviction of Coulburn for murder in early February 1987 before setting up the inquiry panel and drafting its terms of reference. He eventually decided on a private inquiry, because members of the Bangladeshi community were reluctant to give evidence in public for fear of reprisals, while teachers were also reluctant to speak publicly. The governors supported the inquiry being private.

Initially, not a single teacher would come forward to give evidence, just as they had been reluctant to speak to the governors’ sub-committee. Macdonald and panel members addressed a meeting of about 70 of the 100 staff, at the end of which just two teachers came forward prepared to give evidence.

Racial Tensions Escalated at the School
During February and March 1987 there was a polarisation of white and Asian pupils at the school, which affected friendship groups and developed into gang formation and fights after school. Outside the school, opposing groups distributed leaflets that exacerbated the conflicts. The school failed to deal with the situation and simply called the police to break up the fights.

On 23 March, in the dinner queue, an Asian boy was attacked by two white students and had his nose broken. The next day, the Asian boy’s older brother attacked one of the perpetrators and apparently a large group of Asian pupils gathered together to target a ‘hit list’ of around 12 white students. The school staff gathered these pupils together in the gym to protect them and then they were escorted to the dining room by the year head.

Around 150 Asian students (including non-pupils) gathered in the school grounds outside. The dining room doors were locked and the Asian students outside tried to kick in the glass and threw chairs. The white boys were then locked in the kitchen store room for protection while the teacher tried to calm down the Asian boys. One of the 12 boys’ parents was telephoned and asked to come round and take the boys home. He reversed his van to the back of the kitchen and the boys ran out and into the van. The parent said, “It was like a scene from a film.”

The school made no contact with the parents of the white boys and all but one of them remained out of school forever. They were not excluded formally and none of them were ever asked by the school about their involvement in the March events. The Macdonald inquiry concluded that this was an unforgivable example of extreme racism and that if those pupils had been from an ethnic minority, there would have been a national outcry at their treatment. Even after the event, Dr Gough failed to recognise the link between the way the school treated the white students and the potential for racial conflict outside the school.

On 27 March 1987, the LEA sent two experienced youth workers, Mukhtar Khares and Geoff Turner, to work in the school to try to mediate between the Asian and white pupils, but they received no co-operation from the school management and were ‘cold-shouldered’ by the teachers. One of the LEA Inspectors, Mick Molloy, also worked extensively in the school.

On 31 March, a special school assembly was convened, which, according to Macdonald, turned out to be a complete disaster. The police were there, along with the Deputy Chief Education Officer, Roy Jobson, and Richard Leese (as Chair of the Education Committee), but there was no involvement by the youth workers. Richard read out a prepared statement, which included the assertion that “what is going on is not tolerable and will not be tolerated”, but this top-down approach to communicating with the students was perceived as patronising and created more problems than it solved.

In relation to these events of February and March, the Macdonald report concluded that if the school had dealt effectively and adequately with the grievances of the Asian students, there probably would not have been any hit list or forced withdrawal of students from the school. Once the school discovered the existence of the list, it should have taken action to discover those who had compiled it and to make clear that it was unacceptable. The senior management should have drawn on the experience of the two youth workers and ensured that they had discussions with the head of the fifth year, who would continue to have responsibility for the students concerned until the end of the summer term.

Macdonald was particularly scathing about the school’s scant regard for the welfare or subsequent education of the white students, who were taken out of the school as an emergency measure but were then effectively ‘left to rot’.

The volatile situation in the whole Burnage area was of enormous concern to local councillors and Marilyn Taylor[11] again appealed to the Labour group officers on 14 April 1987 for further action to resolve the problems, but the buck was simply passed back to Richard Leese. Marilyn believed at that time that the only solution was for the school to be closed, but finding alternative accommodation for the pupils would have been impractical.

Inquiry Findings
Between May and September 1987, the Macdonald Inquiry took evidence from 165 witnesses and statements from around 200 people. There were also informal meetings, separate interviews with Asian students and a general attitudinal survey of 900 students from three different schools (not including Burnage).

The inquiry panel concluded that the murder was racist, though it found no evidence that race hate was the killer’s prime motive. Its wider inquiry into racism and violence in Manchester schools suggested that a murder could have happened elsewhere.

The major conclusion (which had enormous repercussions for the Council) was that a key factor was the way in which its anti-racist policies were implemented at Burnage High School. The inquiry panel described the headteacher’s application of doctrinaire multiculturalism and anti-racism as an “unmitigated disaster – achieving the opposite of what was intended”. It recommended that the head and the two deputies be moved elsewhere. It also recommended that Equal Opportunities policies ought to include ‘class’, since schools in deprived white working class areas needed the kind of special help available to those with large numbers of black and Asian pupils.

The inquiry panel did praise the Council for its efforts to promote multicultural and multi-racial policies and drew attention to much good work going on in schools. It stressed that it was the particular approach adopted at Burnage (rather than an anti-racist policy per se) that was fatally flawed and had achieved the opposite of what was intended.

The panel’s conclusions included the following:

“Very little chance of racism being eliminated from Burnage under the existing management structure. Condemnation of head’s management stems in part from panel’s view that he has proved himself unable to tackle racism effectively in his school… become so obsessed with the ideology of anti-racism that he has become unable to see what was needed and what had to be done… sad to see a man so committed to the principles [of anti-racism] being responsible for one of the most obvious acts of discrimination we have come across in the course of this Inquiry. His failure to see the link between the way the school treated those white students and the potential for racial conflict in the neighbourhood outside the school is in our view unforgivable.”

Ian Macdonald formally presented his report to the Council in January 1988. Its planned publication on 30 March was cancelled because the City Solicitor, Roy Ingham, warned that parts of the report were defamatory (presumably the references to the head and staff at the school) and might expose the Council to legal action. There was apparently a stormy meeting on 25 March between the Macdonald panel and council officers and it was decided that further advice from specialist defamation counsel was needed. Macdonald was instructed not to publish or the Council would not accept the consequences. Legal advice was sought from leading libel lawyers who said that councillors could be surcharged for damages and costs if there was a successful libel action. Because all the evidence was taken in private, the Council would not be able to mount a defence.

Going Public
The Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, called for the inquiry report to be published. But after receiving a copy he declined to publish it under parliamentary privilege on the grounds of “fairness to named individuals – some of whom are criticised very severely and would be left with no means of redress”. He criticised the inquiry’s procedures and told the Education Select Committee that witnesses were not always given advance notice of the allegations made against them so that they could prepare their case, nor allowed to cross examine other witnesses making those allegations, and were given no opportunity to see, and comment on, the text of the report before it was submitted to Manchester City Council.

The Manchester Evening News then stepped into the breach and published a special news supplement on 25 April 1988, written by Laurie Bullas, who had closely followed the inquiry, based on a ‘leaked’ copy of the report. The MEN view was that the Council should have produced a summary of the report and because it hadn’t, MEN felt it was in the public interest for it to do so.

The national right-wing press then took up the story and blamed anti-racism and multiculturalism for the murder. They mounted a sustained attack on anti-racist and multicultural policies and ‘loony-left’ councils. Education officers and councils across the country who had been resistant to the idea of anti-racist education used the case to strengthen their opposition. Ray Honeyford (a ‘martyr’ to anti-racism, in the eyes of the right-wing press) weighed in, supported by the right-wing academic Roger Scruton and the Salisbury Review (see Appendix 10A).

Eventually, the Macdonald panel called a press conference on 9 May 1988 and issued a long and detailed press statement, concluding with the following (see Appendix 10B for further extracts):

“It is because we consider the task of combating racism to be such a critical part of the function of schooling and education that we condemn symbolic, moral and doctrinaire anti-racism. We urge care, rigour and caution in the formulating and implementing of such policies because we consider the struggle against racism and racial injustice to be an essential element in the struggle for social justice which we see as the ultimate goal of education.

“Schools and local education authorities, therefore, are invited to ask themselves, to what extent does their particular brand of anti-racist policy and the manner of its application result in even worse conditions for black people, and earn the policy makers ridicule from those on the right?”

But of course, this explanation and clarification was too detailed and complex for the tabloid press and there continued to be references in the local and national press to anti-racist policies being a cause of racial problems.

In May, the Council published eleven of the less controversial chapters of the report, but this did not take any of the heat out of the situation. In June 1988, there was an emergency motion to the City Party from Blackley CLP calling for the full report to be published as soon as possible, with factual corrections. This was carried, but no action was taken on it.

Despite the impasse, the LEA took action on the report’s recommendations in relation to the senior management team at the school. Dr Gough was encouraged to leave and was financially supported by the LEA to do a research degree at Keele University, and one of the deputies, Peter Moors, went to another school. An experienced headteacher, Derek Blackwell from Ducie High School in Moss Side, was seconded into the school from September 1988, with the support of the remaining deputy, Jack Hewitt, who was thought to be less ‘tarnished’ than the others. However, Derek Blackwell soon left to go to another LEA.

Although the report wasn’t officially published, the governing body went through it systematically, meeting a total of 27 times as it did so. Ben Glaizner was Chair of Governors by this time, Diana Kealey having left the governing body, and Andrew Cant from the LEA (referred to in chapter 9) was present at most of these meetings. The governing body became polarised over what action to take, which is why it took so long to draw up an action plan from the recommendations.

At the City Party Executive Committee meeting on 23rd September it was noted that:

“Macdonald has promised to indemnify the Council (against libel action) but there appears to be no money to back up this promise. The Labour Group officers feel less urgency to publish, but still intend to do so when the means can be found”.

The Council never did publish the report, but, in 1989, Ian Macdonald did so himself under the title ‘Murder in the playground’.

Looking back now on this failure to publish the report, a number of questions spring to mind – Were the councillors really so worried about the threat of legal action or were there political disagreements with Macdonald’s doctrinaire ‘hard left’ analysis of the problems? If either of these were the case, why didn’t the Council publish a summary of the findings? If this had been done, perhaps there wouldn’t have been the same media criticism about anti-racism policies.

What is also striking is the lack of any reference at meetings of the City Party or the Labour Group to the major attacks being made by the press on a fundamental policy area such as anti-racism. At the time of course there were major problems with the Council budget and huge rows and splits within the Left about the strategy to be pursued under a third Tory government (see chapters 11 and 12), but nonetheless, this was a significant political issue, with the tragic murder of a school pupil and severe consequences for the education of many other pupils, at its heart.

The death of any child is a tragedy and in the case of a murder, there will always be agonising questions about what could have been done differently to avoid it. Could the LEA have done more as a result of the governors’ report in 1985? This was prior to the LMS (Local Management of Schools) legislation and LEA’s had much more power then to intervene in schools.

After the murder itself, there was clearly a failure to deal with the emotions of the pupils and staff and the subsequent polarisation of the pupils. Again, could the LEA have intervened more strongly than putting in two youth workers without ensuring adequate management support for them?

Richard Leese was a new Chair of the Education Committee and Diana Kealey was a new Chair of Governors. They never met to discuss a joint strategy although the CEO (Gordon Hainsworth) met with the governors a number of times.

Obviously none of these questions can be satisfactorily answered today, but a different approach introduced by the new Headteacher (Derek Blackwell) succeeded in turning the school around. A revised anti-racist policy statement was drawn up by the LEA, together with heads and teachers across the city, which gave clear guidance on implementation at school and college level and emphasised the need for consultation involving the whole school or college community. Also, a revised policy statement on pupil discipline was produced which reflected the Council’s commitment to tackling violence and provided a framework for schools to develop their own policies in consultation with staff, pupils and parents.

The Legacy in Ahmed Iqbal Ullah’s Memory
A very positive development arising from the tragedy was the establishment of a Memorial Trust in Ahmed’s name. This began as an idea from Ahmed’s family and, together with a group of supporters, the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Memorial Trust was officially established in 1988 (registered with the Charity commission in June 1992) [12].

The aims of the Trust were – “the advancement of education in Bongaon Bangladesh [the region from which Ahmed’s family came] by providing and running a school, and to award a prize for the promotion of good race relations by a team, class or educational establishment [of children up to the age of 19] in the Greater Manchester area”.

Funds were raised, mostly by the children and families of Levenshulme and Whalley Range High schools, and donations sought from individuals. It was reported in the Manchester Evening News that Manchester City Council was to give a £10,000 donation to the charity – but this never materialised. Possibly because it is illegal for a Council to spend local taxpayers money on anything that isn’t for the benefit of its own citizens. The lack of this donation caused much bitterness in the family.

The aim of presenting a race relations prize was eventually dropped (after being awarded only once or twice) as other organisations were doing a similar thing and it was a lot of work for a small committee. The main focus of the committee’s work then became to build a secondary school in Sylhet (Mrs Ullah’s home town in Bangladesh).

£7,000 was raised to build the school (Mrs Ullah’s father donated the land) and the Bangla government built a primary school in a neighbouring village. Building of the school (including supervising all the delivery of, and payments for, materials to ensure there was no misappropriation or bribery) was personally overseen by Mrs Ullah. She spent an extended holiday in Sylhet supervising the workers and the building and set up a committee to appoint the headteacher. She explained to him that he would be paid only half the salary (since the local practice was for people to pay half their salaries in bribes for getting the job) as there would be no bribes involved, and he had to appoint all the teachers on the same basis. Eventually, in 1996, the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Memorial School opened at a cost in the region of £10,000.

Local efforts and continuing support from the Ullah family have extended the school, which now has a library, science room, electricity, running water and toilet block, with over 300 children attending.

A delegation of Manchester teachers and community-based workers visited Sylhet in 1998 and went to see the school. They produced a report and took photos. In 2005 the school gained the status of an ‘accredited exam centre’ and is now run by a local committee and still going strong.

The Trust is now dormant, but just holds the deeds for the school which are to be passed over to the Sylhetti community. A second trust (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust) has been set up to hold anti-racist archives and at the time of writing is run by Lou Kushnik and Paul Okojie.


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Editor’s Comments

The editing has involved adding sub-headings, minor typographical and layout amendments. The chapter summary was added by the editor. In August 2018 the chapter title was changed from ‘Burnage: Race Related Murder of a School Boy’ to ‘Burnage: Repercussions of the Murder of a School Boy’.


[1] Ian Macdonald was the QC appointed by the Council to conduct an inquiry into the events leading up to the murder. His book Murder in the Playground: the Burnage Report was published in 1989.

[2] The previous chair (Val Dunn) had only served two years of a four-year term of office, but the Labour Group leadership had recognised that she found the job difficult (and the Poundswick experience had taken its toll), so an additional Deputy Leader position was created for her, which was more of a political and PR role.

[3] Aged 15-16 years old.

[4] Throughout this chapter ‘the LEA’ is referred to. This is Manchester City Council in its role as Local Education Authority.

[5] Section 11 was the short-hand term for teachers employed under the provisions of the 1966 Local Government Act, which provided additional funding for schools with substantial numbers of pupils from the Commonwealth. But, there was no transparency in how the money was allocated. In Manchester it provided 75% of the salaries of highly paid officers. By 1985, actual staff working with ethnic minority pupils were identified and had job descriptions, although they were still employed by the schools rather than the LEA. Burnage had had 5 or 6 Section 11 staff – one of the biggest teams in the city. In 1990, a centrally managed service was created which employed the staff paid with Section 11 money and this ensured that schools used the Section 11 money properly.

[6] The lower school building accommodated pupils aged 11 to 13, with the upper school building for pupils aged 14 to 18.

[7] National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and National Union of Teachers

[8] The five were – A Johnson (chair of governors and former pupil at the school), Ben Glaizner (deputy chair), Diana Kealey (a new governor who was later to be chair), Audrey Jones (Liberal councillor) and J Marshall.

[9] Ray Honeyford had been a headmaster in Bradford and attacked what he saw as the misplaced use of multiculturalism in schools and ‘political correctness’ in the form of scrutiny of textbook material.

[10] The courts did later rule that all were at fault in not waiting for the verdict of the trial before setting up the inquiry. According to John Nicholson, the Bangladeshi community opposed the appointment of Ian Macdonald, perhaps because of his known left-wing views.

[11] Marilyn was one of the nine Labour councillors to lose their seats in the local elections in May 1987 (see chapter 11).

[12] The committee members were Mrs Fatima Ullah (Ahmed’s mother), Selina Ullah (his sister), Pushpa Jhingan, Rob Raikes, Cllr Chris Morris, and Joe Flynn.

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Further Reading

6 Responses

  1. Garry Lavin says:

    It’s all inaccurate. It was not a racial attack it was a discipline issue. The murderer was part of a multi racial gang at the school whose behaviour was questionable.
    The behaviour of the perpetrator of the murder was an example of how the standards of discipline deteriorated in the school around that time.
    The new art and design block at the lower school had been maintained to the highest standards prior to that time and the pupils respected that.
    After a number of staff moved on, the murderer was found to be guilty of burning down the block.

    To the dismay of many staff, he was allowed back in to school by the management. In effect, his wrong doing had no consequence……but many staff had identified him as a possible source of friction.

    The headmaster had been warned about the deterioration of behaviour around the school and possible catastrophic consequence, many months before the murder.

    The death of the pupil was a result of the rise of general aggressive behaviour around the school.

    • karencropper says:

      Thanks for your input, Garry. It sounds like you were present at the time. A member of staff maybe? Or were you a pupil? You may have realised that this is my mum’s account and she is no longer around to ask about it or defend it, so I welcome other people’s input. She wrote it from the point of view of the City Council and the Education Committee and the effect this incident had on them and their policies. She also reports on the findings of the Inquiry. As is often the case when serious things happen, the actual facts and causes can be lost and the situation hijacked by different factions for their own agendas or interpretted through different filters. My reading of this chapter is that the person who committed the murder was a boy who was out of control and involved in other incidents prior to this murder. After the event, because it was an Asian boy murdered by a white boy, that fanned the flames of any racial tensions that were aleady present. So there are two issues. First, whether the murder could have been prevented if the behaviour deterioration you describe could have been turned around or the boy who committed the murder had been disciplined more appropriately. And second, if things had been handled better after the murder, whether the subsequent incidents could have been avoided. We can’t undo the past, but hopefully by recording it, we can learn and not repeat the same mistakes.

  2. Anthony says:

    I was at Burnage when this happened; I was in the 5th year. Extortion, racism and bullying were daily occurrences at Burnage, it was a horrible place. For the rest of the year after the stabbing we had police patrolling the school, at break times all the Asian kids would be down 1 end of the school field with all the whites down the other end. The black kids would be in the middle trying to stir up trouble. The teachers were woefully educated about how to deal with racism, in class kids of color would wind up the teachers, then when the teacher had a go at the pupil, the kid cried RACISM, when confronted with an accusation of racism the teachers would fold. Lessons became pointless as teachers tried and failed to deal with the situation. I hated that place and couldn’t wait to leave.

    • karencropper says:

      Thanks for your comment, Anthony. It sounds awful. I’ve always believed that idea that school days are the happiest of your life is a myth. I hope that the atmosphere in schools is no longer like this, but I fear, like across the country, there are still a mass of complex tensions. How has that experience at school shaped your adult life?

  3. mark k says:

    Cannot believe the rubbish on here about the murder was over racism, i walked to school with the person named darren who stabbed ahmed that morning, I witnessed it and went to court. It started the night before over a game of football and darren was threatened that evening by ahmed that he would get him in the morning, As darren and myseld walked into school we were surrounded by a group of asian pupils including ahmed and darren then stabbed ahmed. I was totally shocked and frightened at this time and stayed with ahmed as darren ran off. the ambulance took 45 mins as they thought it was burnley high instead of burnage high (lower school). This then caused the racism as fights between asians and whites took place segregating everyone.

    • karencropper says:

      Thanks for your input, Mark. For a child to witness the death of another in this way must have been very traumatic. This chapter of a longer book primarily aims to focus on the impact of the events on Manchester City Council and its implementation of new policies. It quotes from the report of the Macdonald Inquiry.

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