Volume 12 Number 2
Britain's Multicultural Schools: Good but Could Do Better
01 April 1999

In the last 50 years pupils from many different ethnic minorities have entered the British education system. How well are secondary schools handling the situation, asks Kenneth Noble.

Fiona says that her fellow sixth-form college students don't say anything 'but they have a grudge against other races'. Jyoti, a Sikh, says there is friction between her group and the Muslims. Their views, given privately, are somewhat at odds with that of the semi-retired, former Assistant Principal of the college who says that it is 'very free of tension between the races'.

My quest to report on how schools are coping with Britain's ever changing ethnic demography has brought me to a sixth-form college in Greater London.

The former Assistant Principal remembers when, 32 years ago, the institution had only one black pupil. 'I can still remember his name.' Now only half the pupils are white.

In England as a whole, minority ethnic groups make up 11.3 per cent of the population of schools that are funded through the local education authorities. But there are enormous variations. One school in east London has a sixth form of 125 pupils of whom only one is white; while less than one in 500 pupils is black in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Perhaps the divergence of perceptions outlined above is explained by the words of Hilary Belden, the Head of a largely white London school: 'At my school there is little overt racism... but it's difficult to avoid a sense of some racist undercurrents. When pupils see someone as "different" they do not automatically respect them.' In her school 'you've got to make your way as someone from an ethnic minority, whether student or teacher'.

Britain's multicultural schools face many challenges. 'Some of the recent arrivals, Muslim refugees from Slovakia, for example, have no English,' says Hilary-Anne Buckhurst, who teaches English at a girls' school in Bromley, Kent. Yet they attend some classes from the outset, accompanied by a support teacher. 'After a couple of weeks we try and get them to understand the rudiments of what we're studying.' If it's Romeo and Juliet, for example, a new arrival might start looking at some of the ideas in the play -- such as relationships with parents -- in her own language.

'It's surprising how quickly a lot of them pick up English,' says Buckhurst's colleague, Mandy Marlow, who is Head of Religious Education (RE). 'In the humanities faculty our policy is to put them into groups where they'll be able to hear English and practise it.'

Not all minority students make such rapid progress. Croydon Councillor and former Headteacher Clarence McKenzie is concerned that a disproportionate number of black children is being 'excluded' (expelled) from schools. In some cases this may be partly due to racist attitudes among teachers, he says, but there are many causes, such as family problems, which can affect children of any ethnic background.

Originally from Guyana, McKenzie feels that today schools are making a big effort to adjust to 'a mixed clientele' but this has not always been so. He cites Bernard Coard's book, How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal, written in the 1960s. It highlighted how a failure to understand West Indian children led to many of them being sent to special needs schools unnecessarily. 'The book was noticed and different education authorities set up programmes to help West Indian children,' he says.

In Croydon, as elsewhere, Saturday schools were started to help West Indian pupils who had fallen behind. Later these broadened their scope -- the West Indian Open School, for example, became the Saturday Tuition Centre. Chidi Okeke runs it for between 30 and 80 pupils aged from four to 18. They come from many ethnic groups, she says, though most are non-white. Teachers get only nominal payment and 'move around from one pupil to another, giving individual help'.

Croydon now has a system whereby children who have difficulties at school -- and not just for reasons of ethnicity -- can have a 'mentor'. 'It's a chance for the child to be advised, encouraged, appreciated, and learn to modify his behaviour,' says McKenzie.

Religious education has particular sensitivities in multicultural schools. It has to be given by law, but parents have the right to withdraw children from lessons. Mandy Marlow says that the aim is two-fold: to learn about different religions 'because it leads to better understanding of other people in this multi-religious country' and, secondly, 'to enable pupils to explore their own spirituality'.

'I wouldn't be happy just teaching Christianity to a multifaith audience,' she says. The syllabus in her borough lays down that six major world religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism) must be taught.

The Head of another ethnically mixed London school, Anne Short, tells me: 'I have no problem standing up and saying: "I am a Christian and I believe this." I don't expect them necessarily to believe it, but I expect them to listen respectfully to the teachings of the major faiths.'

Andrew Palfreyman takes some RE lessons at a Church of England school which is attended by children of different faith backgrounds. He says that there are two extremes to avoid: 'We need to take a middle line between a conservative approach to education which would be in danger of being called indoctrination and a liberal approach which often has some sort of modernist agenda that is antagonistic towards religious belief, whether Christian or otherwise.'

Most, but not all, educators I talk to feel the need to be aware of cultural diversity. 'In every aspect of education I consider the makeup of the class that I will be teaching,' says Short. 'Clearly any good teacher looks at the previous knowledge of the youngsters he is teaching, and that does have a direct bearing on how you approach the topic.' But, she adds, 'I don't think we do that any more or less than if this was a 100 per cent white school -- you just take into account where they are coming from.'

Nighat Mirza, who teaches RE in a state secondary school in Bradford, gets 'extremely annoyed' when people say, 'I don't see colour' because 'in effect, they are denying my existence. I do look different -- but accept me for my differences.'

In fact 'celebrating diversity' is one of the current buzz-words in education. Short's school, for instance, holds 'international evenings where the students do music and dancing from their own cultures'.

'People should be allowed to maintain their individual cultural identity while being mutually respectful and tolerant,' says John Rowlands who teaches at John Ruskin College in Selsdon, Greater London. They, too, have 'multicultural evenings'.

No-one I meet questions this approach, which is in line with the ethos of 'equal opportunities' that is being stressed to today's student teachers.

Yet there has been concern that schools may carry multiculturalism too far. Lord Tebbit, who was a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, has called multiculturalism 'a divisive force'. And in the Daily Telegraph, Graham Turner quotes a (presumably white) senior school inspector as saying, 'We've become so anxious to promote and show equal interest in other cultures that we've gone a long way down the road towards losing our own.'

I put this point to Belden, who says, 'I think that some of the students that I work with feel that they would recognize that and feel a need to assert their English identity. But whether that's to do with Britain as a multi-ethnic society or more to do with a sense of general social disadvantage I wouldn't know.' She feels that some white students have low expectations -- 'and not all my students can be sure that they will find employment when they leave school. Where you get a big ethnic minority group there's generally more expectation of being upwardly mobile. Some white students lack this.'

But Nighat Mirza, who was Head of a Muslim girls' school, says that the majority of the young people she teaches from the minority communities give up easily when they face difficulties. They need the determination to keep going. This means first finding their own identity, what they are and where they belong. 'Once you understand that, you have the confidence and the ability to make informed decisions.' Her message to her Muslim pupils was: 'At the end of the day you are British and this is your community and this is where you are going to be. You have not only to integrate but also to participate fully with the qualities that you have.'

Mirza feels there need to be more role models of teachers from the ethnic minorities. Those who have made it have done so 'more because they have found ways to fight the system than because the system gave them opportunities'. She recognizes that white people have given her support. 'But it's the minority rather than the majority.'

Given that the aim of education is to produce citizens who can contribute to society as well as pursue their own careers, the teaching of moral values is clearly vital. Many schools give strong guidance on what is right and wrong. But as former maths teacher Howard Grace points out: 'Children don't do something just because you want them to.'

He took early retirement to start a venture now known as the MRA Schools Service. He and his team have visited around 350 schools, offering sessions on a variety of themes which aim to get pupils thinking more deeply about their own priorities and values. 'My approach is to help pupils work out for themselves what is right,' he says. 'We reckon to make the sessions interactive.'

This term's theme is: Approaching 2000, a chance to rethink. 'We want to use the Millennium to focus what needs to change in society and also in our own lives, and how they relate.' They have addressed sixth-form groups varying in size from 10 to 200, in ethnically mixed and nearly all-white schools. He or another 'facilitator' go into the school with three young people (currently a black Brazilian, an Indian from Manchester and a white American) who share something of their own life experiences.

'We don't think in terms of the children being multicultural,' he says. 'We talk in terms of human experience that is valid for any culture.' He cites the example of an American young woman who spoke about being forced to leave Liberia, and how she had come to terms with her feeling of rejection. Afterwards, despite the fact that she had used Christian language, a Muslim pupil had a deep discussion with her about her own experience of being victimized.

'In a school in Bethnal Green many of the students said that racism was a major problem,' says Grace. When he asked where it came from, they said, 'Our parents'.

'Will you pass on the same values to your children?' Grace asked them.


Grace then told them how he had felt when someone shouted 'Hey, Baldy!' at him: 'I don't mind being bald, any more than a child minds being Asian. But it's irritating when someone calls out like that.' He then asked them whether they had ever done anything like that. There was laughter -- of recognition, he says.

The aim is always to get children to look at the root of a problem, he tells me. Afterwards, a boy who was keen to tackle drugs, a serious problem in his youth club, told Grace and his colleagues that the lesson had given him many new ideas.

The visitors usually end by asking the class to be quiet and 'search within ourselves where our lives are heading, whether anything needs to change'.

After one session, which came under the umbrella of general studies, a girl commented, 'We usually talk about something interesting. This week we've also had to think about our own lives.'

So what is my end-of-term report? My overall impression is that most schools are making great efforts to prepare tomorrow's citizens for life in an ethnically diverse society. But Anne Short warns, 'One school where I taught, where there were few of other races, made little effort to look beyond their immediate surroundings.' Fiona, with whom the article started, suffered unfair treatment beacause of ethnic stereotyping at her previous school. So, it seems, some schools 'must try harder'.

Schools are a microcosm of the wider society. If many of us who are parents or educators even covertly resent the ethnic diversity of our society we will inevitably cloud the judgement of our children -- passing on our prejudices to them, and so making them less well equipped to live in the Britain of the future.

At their best, schools can present a picture of a multicultural society that works, harmonious, happy, purposeful and inclusive, where the riches of every culture -- including indigenous culture -- are valued. Perhaps more needs to be done to hold up a vision of how Britain's many cultural groups can enrich her future. Schools undoubtedly have an important role in this.

Fiona, Jyoti and Anne Short are pseudonyms.
Kenneth Noble