OVER THE past couple of years I have addressed two very interesting conferences. One was organised by black teachers in the National Union of Teachers and the other was for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. The subjects were similar - equality and change.
I argued that the British education system failed to respond to the massive social transformations which took place in the second half of the last century (mainly because of bad political leadership) and that there needed to be a major re-think.
Old-fashioned multiculturalanti-racist teaching would no longer work in this kaleidoscopic new world and probably hadn't worked all that well in the past because it had never been part of a committed national strategy.
Both groups found this message uncomfortable. Maybe it is because teachers today are just too exhausted to think beyond their jobs. But do any of us really believe that we have the education we need? Even Nick Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and rock-hard defender of traditions, seems troubled that: "We don't really debate education and its fundamental purpose in this country....How we educate young people relates to our social vision, how we see the world and ourselves...we cannot make educational decisions unless we debate these issues."
In 1999 BBC correspondent
Fergal Keane wrote that although races seemed to mix together in this country, he himself had little real contact with black and Asian people. He was responding to the arrest of five young British Muslims accused of terrorist activities in the Yemen. Profoundly honest, Keane went on to say that these men did not evoke in most indigenous Britons a sense of national brotherhood because they were called Shahid, Malek, Ghulam, Mohsin and Sirmad.
What is also disturbingly true is that many such young Muslims are distancing themselves from the idea of Britishness too. Young black and Asian Britons, born here, who expected so much more, are not yet seen as part of the national identity and until they are, a large number will remain in the ghetto with little interest in knowing the "other".
The poisonous racism of many white people continues to manifest itself. Stephen Lawrence was killed by young white men for daring to wear his skin at a bus-stop. Racism then interfered to prevent justice. These killers grew up in an area which has long had multicultural education, festivals, neighbourhoods, municipal equal opportunities policies.
What has happened to these men over the years that they felt such blood lust? It cannot possibly be that old chestnut "ignorance". Yet, today, as recent seminal research by Roger Hewitt of Goldsmiths College showed, this area harbours extreme racist and fascist young people who feel hard done by, without value.
One such 15-year-old told me: "I hate niggers, Jews, Pakis and those bastard half-castes - they are the worst. They are dirty like. No pure blood. Sure I beat them up. This is a white country. We ruled these monkeys before they came here with their horrible smells. The whole school smells with them."
While researching my book, Who do we think we are? Imagining the New Britain, I talked to children, their parents and friends and teachers. I found that although there were many friendships across race and ethnic barriers, these relationships faltered as puberty set in. In some situations parents actively encouraged this process and in other cases tribal allegiances were promoted through peer-group pressures.
Ayisha and Lizzie, for example, are best friends but they have never visited each other's homes. Lizzie's mother is nervous that she might offend the Muslim
family by doing the wrong thing. Ayisha's parents worry that their daughter will learn bad habits from her English friends.
Last year, at a seminar I organised at the Institute for Public Policy Research, youth workers and teachers described how ethnic and racial divisions were becoming dangerously common. At the beginning of the 21st century we are entitled to ask why we are where we are and to question the responses of the educational establishment to post-war Britain.
We had the assimilationist phase when, in the words of Professor John Eggleston of Warwick University, teachers treated the children of immigrants as backward and trainee whites. As the academic Ali Rattansi writes: "Just as in a previous era, an official 'gentling of the masses' by way of induction into a culture of civilisation had accompanied the educational and political entry of the working classes into citizenship within the nation, so now assimilation into an imagined British national culture and way of life became the preoccupation of the educational establishment."
Then came multicultural education. The best model for this, advocated by the Swann Report, was buried by the Thatcher government because it recommended the re-education of all young people living in a post-imperial nation. The ad hoc multicultural teaching which prevailed in the Eighties was deeply flawed. In redressing the injustices of the past, it made too many white children feel culpable and too many black and Asian children feel they could do no wrong.
Demeaned people can become very precious about their own cultures and we saw the beginning of depressing culture battles (worse, of course, in the United States) where pointless theories of competition and purity were put into practice in certain authorities. Some fought for a return to old England; others for black history to replace everything else. Neither side could see that the world had developed through the contributions of different societies over thousands of years.
The centralised, homogenised and skills-based education which has taken hold over the past seven years has resulted in new problems. It feels drained of dynamism and content seems hopelessly inadequate in the face of the complex reality of our times.
Everyone, including the English, is feeling a rush of ethnicity. The Scots are busy re-writing their own history to make the English responsible for all "oppression", forgetting their own involvement in colonialism. Separate schools are being actively promoted by the state.
Mixed race communities are growing, as are the numbers of those seeking asylum. Some white pupils interviewed by me in London think that Britain has more than 20 million black and Asian citizens and 1m refugees a year. They don't know that the number of American citizens living in this country is the same as the number of people whose origins are Jamaican, or that the largest group of immigrants to this country is Irish.
With such a landscape, does it make any sense to talk of "ethnic minorities" and white majorities? We need an education which can honour the truth and the diversity of black and white people and most importantly bind people through a set of common values based on mutual respect and human rights.
Citizenship education, to start in schools in 2002, is a welcome step in that direction. We need to replace narrow multiculturalism with modern cosmopolitanism, where our children feel easy with Europe and with an international world. Unfortunately, those who can inspire such progress - the teachers of Britain - are either too tired or too terrified to take up this challenge.
'Who do we think we are? Imagining the New Britain', by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, is published by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, price pound;18.99 WHO LIVES HERE?
Ever since Enoch Powell's notorious "rivers of blood" speech 30 years ago, there have been periodic claims that the UK is being "flooded" with immigrants. Such views seem a response more to skin colour than to country of origin as a breakdown of immigration figures shows. There are more Irish-born people living in Britain than Caribbean-born people.
Multi-racial Britain: population groups and sizes 1991
Black Caribbean 500,000
Black African 212,000
Other Asian 198,000
Country of birth and size of community in Britain
Irish Republic 592,000
N Ireland 245,000
Hong Kong 73,000
Middle East 57,000
Source: Commission for Racial Equality