How to defuse a culture war: a group of London schools can teach us a lesson

·4-min read
 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

This is a story about the past. It’s also about the future. It’s about Robert Aske, a wealthy silk merchant in 17th-century London. Despite marrying twice, Aske died in 1689 without children and left most of his estate — £32,000 (£56 million in today’s money) — to the city livery company of which he was once master, the Haberdashers.

His request: the Haberdashers use it to build a school for the children of poor members of the company and set up a charitable foundation with what was leftover. That’s what they did and 330 years on, that one school has become 14: the five Haberdashers’ Aske’s private schools (whose luminaries include Sacha Baron Cohen and Vanessa Feltz), and nine academies and primary schools in south-east London.

All are still overseen by the Haberdashers today and are thriving. They currently educate 7,000 children and have taught hundreds and thousands over the centuries, many from very disadvantaged backgrounds. All started by Aske, above, he was revered by generations as the man who gave them their big chance in life. A statue of him was even erected. Then, in March this year, a disturbing discovery was made.

As well as his silk business, Aske also invested £500 in the Royal African Company, a trading business set up by the Stuart royal family (and ran by the then Duke of York, who became King James II). This company extracted gold and commodities from the west coast of Africa. It also extracted people, thousands of them, and made them slaves. By 1731, the company had transported 212,000 slaves. In fact, it shipped more African slaves to America than any other company in the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Aske’s investment in the company was small compared to others, making up just 1.3 per cent of the total value of his estate. But in a time of Black Lives Matter, the discovery was a bombshell to the Haberdashers, not least because its state schools draw their pupils from some of the most racially diverse boroughs in London — a third of its academy pupils are black African or Caribbean, many of who might have direct descendants enslaved by the company, with the help of Aske’s money.

The Haberdashers were devastated, and faced an existential threat to their continuing oversight of the schools. Faced with similar predicaments over the last year, some institutions have made knee-jerk decisions to either cancel their benefactors or defend them. Either course has more often than not proved even more divisive.

The Haberdashers did neither. Instead, they began an exhaustive six-month consultation. Robert Aske, the bad as well as the good, was debated in every school and classroom. Direct representations were received from more than 800 people, including students, parents, alumni and school staff.

The consultation’s findings have just been announced. Aske’s name is being taken out of all schools’ titles, as it may no longer make them “comfortable learning environments”, one of the governors tells me. “We’re dealing with children. That has been a guiding principle in all of this,” he adds. But Aske’s name is being retained in the formal legal name of the federation to recognise his founding contribution to it.

The schools’ old motto, Serve and Obey, is also being dropped, having now taken on some unfortunate connotations. But Aske’s statue is not being pulled down, instead being “re-purposed” as an educational tool to teach his history.

The Haberdasher governors sum it all up as “retain and explain”. Down-play and contextualise, but don’t eradicate. As a result, their decisions have received near-universal acceptance from parents, children and staff alike. The unstable 1,000-pound bomb has been defused.

So as I said, this is a story about the past and it seems to have a positive ending. But it could also be about the future. What the Haberdashers have found is a third way. Undoctrinal, built with intelligence and sensitivity. Peaceful resolution and consensus has been found to an extremely sensitive cultural divide by painstaking consultation and debate.

There is a lesson for Britain here, and a model for how our fractured nation should go forward through its woke wars. Our chequered history doesn’t need to divide us — as long we accept it exists, is both good and bad, and can only be resolved by compromise, and together.

Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and chief political commentator on Times Radio

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