Here I want to make two points. First that bussing as a historical object of study does matter. Secondly that it does matter a lot today.

In a talk given at Huddersfield University in 2016, one of the participants in the debate, historian Paul Ward, remarked that the disturbing thing about bussing was its apparent normality. This view is important : many thousands of pupils have indeed been bussed up and down the country, in urban and rural areas, in the 1960s just as today. In the United States too, White anti-busing militants rallied around the “tradition” of “neighbourhood schools” but the truth suggested otherwise : there too there was a normality about busing, since by 1970 nearly half of all American public school students had to ride buses to school [1].

On top of all this, there is a “racial form of normality” involved. A 1988 Commission for Racial Equality report entitled Learning In Terror insists on how shockingly normal racial bullying, racist violence and name-calling was on British playgrounds. “British” is in order here rather than “English”, for a study of the Scottish situation in the mid-1980s revealed that “Asian children face a daily barrage of abuse and physical attacks in Glasgow’s multi-racial schools” [2]. Therefore, when reading these lines, some South-Asian people from Tower Hamlets, Manchester or Sheffield could logically cry out : “Well, I was never bussed, but I too was called a Paki and given a very rough time at school for years!”.

With all this background in mind, what is different -albeit seemingly “normal”- about bussing is that many thousands of Asian pupils were forcefully transported to faraway schools, especially in Ealing and Bradford, that their parents had little or no say in it, or did not know they could have a say, and that most of these children were of primary school age. In Ealing in particular, thousands were bussed from 2 to 7 miles away from the age of 4-5 to the age of 11. Bussing was an outright denial of “parental choice” as promoted by the Education Act of 1944 (section 76) [3]. Ironically, in order to become like others, in order to be integrated and learn some English, Asian pupils had to go through a long phase, in their crucially formative years, during which they were less equal than others, different, “the Pakis on the bus” as they were sometimes called.

That bussing does matter as a historical object also needs to be proved for demographic reasons. We already know that it was a minority practice targeting an ethnic minority deficient in English and “integration”, and that the suggestion to disperse cut no ice with the four LEAs having the largest number of immigrants in the 1960s. However, regardless of whether bussing was introduced in LEAs with a large intake of immigrant children, the concept of dispersal was passionately debated in many places and this sheds light on issues of integration, assimilation, ghettoisation and desegregation which were to shape multicultural politics in the decades that followed. Whether militants, academics or politicians, many of those who were pivotal race-relation actors in the 1960s and 1970s had something to say about bussing and often said it loud. To give a random list : E. J. B. Rose and Nicholas Deakin, sociologist John Rex, Labour party stalwarts Maurice Foley, Roy Hattersley, Denis Howell, race relation expert Anthony Lester, the co-founder of the Runnymede Trust, educationalist Maurice Kogan, but also West Indian militants like Bernard Coard and Jeff Crawford, and of course conservative headmaster Ray Honeyford, who was to become an English national martyr of the assimilationist right in the 1980s. Not to mention that it is also very likely that in his “Rivers of Blood” speech, when saying that his constituents “found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places” [4], Enoch Powell himself was actually referring to Birmingham and some of the major West-Midland towns where pressure had been mounting for a few years to introduce dispersal. Lastly, it was often the experience of being bussed that sharpened the political consciousness of some of the Asian youths in Southall and Bradford. And it is no coincidence that much of the 1970s-1980s Asian militantism, from the “Bradford-12” case to the Southall Youth Movement, actually originated from these two places [5].

Bussing’s long episode in the 1960s and 1970s also illuminates some highly topical debates on class, ethnic and religious segregation in British schools. In Bradford, thirty years after the last nail had been hammered into dispersal’s coffin, the city erupted into riots the like of which had not been seen since 1981 in London (Brixton). Just after the events, Muhamad Ajeeb, the former Lord Mayor of Bradford who had campaigned against bussing, travelled to London and consulted with Lord Falconer, then minister of local government. He suggested that locally a 70% limit to the number of Asians in schools should be set, and that a two-way process type of bussing ought to be ushered in because, he claims, “my argument has always been that we should make a mutual effort ; if we want to understand each other, we should make those sacrifices, even if it’s a very explosive issue. We should really think about the long-term consequences rather than the short-term benefits”[6]. The point developed here is given imprimatur by Elizabeth Anderson in The Imperative of Integration : “Students who attend more racially integrated schools lead more racially integrated lives after graduation : they have more racially diverse co-workers, neighbours, and friends than do students who attend less diverse schools” [7]. Against this belief in “integrationism”[8], Veit Bader states that “whether the effects of interaction are beneficial depends partly on the voluntariness of interaction and on contextual variables such as (the absence of) threats, (patterns of) discrimination, socio-economic inequalities and negative-sum games” [9]. This issue will be further developed in conclusion, but among the “sacrifices” evoked by Mr Ajeeb, there was the looming threat of white-bashing (or “gore-bashing”) by Asian youths in schools where they make up a huge majority, a kind of historical revenge of the Bradford bussing years.

Muhamad Ajeeb was aware he was probably fighting a losing battle : on the English education market, “parental choice” was by 2001 an unshakable guiding principle, and is now even more so as this book goes to press. In addition, the events of 9/11 and then 7/7 did generate a massive, knee-jerk type of Islamophobia, especially in West Yorkshire. More importantly, which white middle-class parents from the outskirts of Bradford would want their children to be educated in ailing schools of run-down Manningham ? In an English school system which has been more and more compartmentalized, based on a fierce competition reliant on table leagues (introduced under John Major in 1993), and with the even fiercer job competition in the offing, being sent to “ghetto schools” in Bradford or elsewhere would unleash a deterring storm of litigation.

Afficher l'image d'origineA view of Tong High school (Bradford)

Today, in the Holme Wood and Bierley estates around Bradford, five double-decker buses drive daily to Tong High School. Most of those who ride these buses are Asian students who do not live in the vicinity of these predominantly white housing estates. On the face of it, the situation is extraordinarily alike that of the 1960s-1970s, but in the present case those who take the bus do it on a voluntary basis, which changes just about everything. What this (and, to be sure, analogous situations around the country) highlights is that the provision of unequal education facilities will inevitably get the bus going for many years, the only difference being that, as opposed to fifty years ago, carbon emission is now an element of the debate.

Afficher l'image d'origineSir Peter Lampl, philanthropist

In June 2016, the chairman of the Sutton Trust charity, Sir Peter Lampl, came up with the suggestion that children in run-down areas ought to be bussed out to “good” schools in an effort to improve their education [10]. Beyond the fact that this further confirms, for England, Jefferson Cowie’s American point on moving people rather than money and resources, it is fairly obvious that the indefatigable philanthropist is not cognizant of the shady side of bussing’s history in England. This book, then, is also for him.

[1] Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty : The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, New York, Random House, 2010, p. 483.

[2] Quoted in Commission for Racial Equality, Learning in Terror, a Survey of Racial Harassment in Schools and Colleges in England, Scotland and Wales, London, 1988, p. 9.

[3] This says : “So far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents”.

[4] The full script of the speech is available at : (accessed 13.06.2016).

[5] See Anandi Ramamurthy, Black Star : Britain’s Asian Youth Movements, London, Pluto Press, 2013.

[6] Interview, 20. 10. 2015.

[7] Quoted in Michael Merry, Equality, Citizenship and Segregation : A Defence of Separation, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 32.

[8] Ibid., p. 6-7.

[9] Ibid., p. 32.

[10] Schools Week, n°26, June 2016.