A Blighty built on 50 years of diversity

Schools should celebrate the immigrants who helped shape the nation, says Karamat Iqbal

For the first few years of my life, all I knew about abba-ji (father) were the stories. I was told he had gone to a place called Vilayat (a linguistic relative of Blighty). I appreciated the occasional gift from him, such as my first fountain pen, which I destroyed in the process of finding out how it worked. Ours was the first pukka brick house, which was built with the money he sent. Later, we were to have the first toilet and later still running water, hot and cold; all thanks to English money.

Soon after I had started primary school, my father returned and stayed, for good. Apparently, it had been made much harder for people like him to come to England. A new law, the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, had been brought in. It had removed many of the rights people from the old British Empire previously had. They could no longer come and go as they pleased.

However, many were still able to find a way to satisfy the new immigration rules and make their home in places such as Birmingham and Bradford, alongside people from other countries and continents. Thanks to them, the factories and foundries had cheap and willing labour. No job was too hard for them. They were not afraid of working overtime, sometimes double shifts. The newcomers were able to breathe life into decaying neighbourhoods.

So why talk about it now? The mathematicians among you will have worked out that it is 50 years since that law was passed. So given our love for anniversaries, how are we going to mark this one? Will there be national celebrations, speeches from politicians and features in newspapers to acknowledge the contribution of people from Pakistan, as well as of many others from what has come to be known as the Commonwealth? Will our communities be thanked for the difference they have made to the host nation? Will we as a society express our gratitude to my father's generation for their pioneering efforts?

The MP and historian Tristram Hunt has written that if we are to have a meaningful future we must have a full sense of our past. No community needs this more than the Pakistanis, especially our young. There is so much rubbish written about the community that it has become the accepted truth. If you are told something often enough, you end up believing it. But now, we have a chance to change the script.

Perhaps schools can educate young people as part of their ongoing work on diversity and community. Although community cohesion has gone off the Ofsted agenda, schools are expected to attend to the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of their pupils. What better way of doing this than for pupils to learn how our society has been shaped, especially during the past 50 years? And then, there is the rest of the curriculum, which surely should aim to prepare the young for an interdependent and multicultural world. Or has that been sacrificed to the greater gods of targets and league tables?

Finally, to quote Bernard Coard, that well-known education campaigner from the 1970s: "Our children need to have a sense of identity, pride and belonging as well as mental stimulation so that they do not end up hating themselves and their race."

Sadly, thanks to the poor education they have received in this respect, most young people going through our schools lack any appreciation of the development of our multicultural society, and the particular struggles of communities such as the Pakistanis and others from the Commonwealth countries affected by the legislation enacted 50 years ago.

Karamat Iqbal is an independent education adviser who specialises in underachievement, diversity and identity. He is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Warwick. karamat@forwardpartnership.org.uk.

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