Social justice campaigner and academic Phil Scraton speaks to Donal O’Keeffe about Hillsborough,and why he thinks the Leaving Cert are unfair.
“The Leaving Cert nightmare” is a shibboleth among Irish people, a stress-related bad dream many of us suffer, sometimes several decades after we sit the exam itself. As almost 60,000 students await Leaving Certificate results today, Phil Scraton, Professor Emeritus at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, says he’s no fan of the system.
“I’ve long opposed a process that generates such emotional and physical stress exacerbated by examinations. Intense pressures experienced by school graduates are fuelled by an overwhelming fear of failure should they not achieve the grades necessary to progress,” he says.
Scraton favours a system based on ongoing assessment, offering a fairer and more relevant method of appraising students’ knowledge, and a more accurate guide to their potential. He says students who do not achieve anticipated results should not see it as failure: “Providing they have the means and support from their teachers, repeating a year is not the end of the world.”
In addition to his long and illustrious career as an educator, Phil Scraton is perhaps best known for his investigative work on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. It remains the worst tragedy in British sporting history — 96 people died and 766 were injured as a result of an avoidable crush at an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield.
At the original 1991 inquests, the verdict was accidental death. In response, Scraton wrote Hillsborough: The Truth, considered to be the definitive work on the disaster. He headed the research on the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and his work was fundamental to the recent BAFTA-winning documentary Hillsborough.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report led to the quashing of the initial verdicts and to new inquests, which ruled in 2016 that those who died had been unlawfully killed, and holding the authorities, especially the police, responsible for the deaths. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, police gave false stories to media, claiming that hooliganism and drunkenness by Liverpool supporters caused the disaster.
“The Sun editor wanted to run a headline ‘YOU SCUM’,” Scraton recalls. “Influenced by his political editor, he decided on ‘THE TRUTH’, accusing fans of pick-pocketing the dead, assaulting and urinating on police officers while giving the kiss of life, and sexually abusing a dying woman.”
“Bereaved families and survivors were outraged and wrote to the editor. At the time that many families were burying loved ones, the managing editor, William Newman, replied that it was ‘The Sun’s duty to publish information, however hurtful and unpalatable’.
“He refused to ‘apologise for facts’ as this would constitute ‘an abdication of our responsibility’, concluding that if ‘the price of a free press is a boycott of our newspaper, then it is a price we will have to pay’.
“Following publication of the panel’s report in 2012, its front-page apology cut no ice on Merseyside and the price paid to this day is the remarkable ‘Boycott The Sun’ campaign.” Across Merseyside, the newspaper’s sales remain poor.
Phil Scraton was born into a working-class Merseyside family in 1949. Raised a Catholic, from 1962 to 1968 he was a seminarian at Ushaw College, Durham. Now an atheist, he reflects on his religious past.
Scraton is a strong advocate of increasing access to education, especially for people from “non-traditional” backgrounds.
“No-one in my family went to university, it wasn’t on their radar. After I left the seminary, where any desire I had for learning had been dimmed, I was supported by further education tutors who instilled self-belief.”
Without a full grant covering subsistence and fees, Scraton says his family could not have afforded university. Earlier this year, he was keynote speaker at UCD’s Access and Lifelong Learning Symposium.
Since UCD began its Cothrom na Féinne scholarship in 2012, over 450 students from such “non-traditional” backgrounds have been awarded scholarships worth over €2m. They are from low-income backgrounds, or lone parents, people with a disability, refugees, or Travellers. UCD has the largest access programme in the country, but is not the only Irish college offering support to people from “non-traditional” backgrounds.
Scraton says tuition fees should be government-funded alongside accommodation grants. While he fully supports scholarship schemes (“UCD is exemplary”), he believes their costs should be publicly subsidised.
Most excluded are Irish Traveller children, with only 1% progressing to third-level education. The Council of Europe reports that Travellers still experience “significant levels” of prejudice in Ireland. Scraton’s postgraduate research focused on institutionalised State racism directed towards Irish Travellers in the UK.
Scraton says the Irish State’s 2017 recognition of Traveller ethnicity was long overdue, as is an acceptance of the legitimacy of the Travelling way of life and provision of sites appropriate to Travelling.
He is scathing of new British prime minister Boris Johnson, seeing his internal party election as the consequence of a shift to the hard right in Tory politics, originating with Margaret Thatcher.
“In a now-infamous comment, she placed ‘football hooliganism’ on the same spectrum as mass-picketing, ‘terrorism’, and street violence, together constituting an ‘enemy within’.
"That elision has persisted and underpins a still further shift to the right exemplified by Brexit and the twin dynamics of race and class, exploited by Johnson and his allies.
“They have nothing but disdain for working-class people, their communities, their schools, their health and the food-banks that keep families above the breadline.”
In 2016, Phil Scraton turned down an OBE. He did so in protest at successive UK governments, Conservative and Labour, which he says persistently denied justice to Hillsborough families: “I could not accept an honour tied in name to the British Empire, as I remain a strong critic of the historical, cultural, and political contexts of imperialism and their international legacy.”
That same year, he received what was, he says, a far more important award — the Freedom of the City of Liverpool, in recognition his three decades of work supporting Hillsborough families’ campaign for justice.
“Receiving the freedom of my home city alongside Kenny and Marina Dalglish, the Hillsborough bereaved and the posthumous award to the 96 who died at Hillsborough, was a profound honour.
“The wonderful reception I received from the bereaved families was overwhelming.”
Soon after, he was castaway on BBC’s Desert Island Discs, and his eight music choices concluded with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.