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Diversity triumphs in the Dales

Schools in Britain's largest education authority are rising to the challenges posed by the Macpherson report, says Elaine Williams

North Yorkshire, geographically, is England's biggest education authority, with a large number of small schools, many in picturebook villages between dale and moor. The county's primary schools do well academically. They benefit, on the whole, from being among supportive, close-knit communities.

Walk into any of these schools and they come across as cosy and friendly.

But cosiness can veer dangerously close to complacency. As a governor of one of these schools, St Benedict's RC primary, Ampleforth, charged with the task of putting together the school's race-equality policy, I have had to think long and hard about the nature of our community. The compulsion for creating such policies arises from the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000, which stemmed from the Macpherson Report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It exposed institutional racism and highlighted the need for schools to promote equality.

It is easy when entering one of our schools with their warm, positive environments and open, chatty children to think that race problems do not arise here. We do not have starkly divided communities like those in Bradford, or Oldham. But that is more to do with the monocultural nature of the area than any virtue in managing diversity. North Yorkshire is largely white and mainly rural, and unless schools in areas like ours are prepared to make strenuous efforts to celebrate difference and raise race-equality awareness in a meaningful way we are failing in our duty to prepare our children for a multi-cultural future when they move from village to city for study or work.

We are also failing to support those ethnic-minority pupils who do attend our schools, often dispersed in ones or twos across the county. Macpherson stated that "unwitting thoughtlessness" in not providing an appropriate service or curriculum is racist practice. The challenge to eradicate racism in an area like this is therefore the greater, not less. Provision for ethnic-minority pupils was identified as a weakness in North Yorkshire's Ofsted report. Moreover, anecdotal evidence of racist abuse, particularly from parents, towards artists such as Indian dancers visiting primary schools has spurred the authority into action. The provision of multicultural education has been earmarked as a priority in the authority's educational development plan and the local authority is striving to throw off its "white highlands" image. It has appointed an equalities adviser, and schools have been asked to undertake a detailed audit to identify the nature of their multi-cultural curriculum.

Headteachers like Jos Huddleston, who helped compile the local authority's race-equality guidance, have been thinking about these issues for some time. As head of Richmond Methodist school, a primary of around 320 children, he views the promotion of diversity as part of his school's mission. He said: "I see children from this area moving away to go to university. Some of them will take up jobs in which they will make important decisions that affect other people's lives. Here we see it as our job to prepare them for life in a pluralist, diverse society."

The school has taken various initiatives such as holding an Indian cultural week last year where children looked at the country's life and food and were introduced to Indian dancers and artists. Through the Comenius project which fosters co-operation between European primary schools Mr Huddleston has received funding to bring in a German and Spanish teacher for six months at a time. He is seeking a partnership with a multicultural city school in this country and is also establishing links with a Zulu school.

Last month children made artwork based on how Christmas is celebrated in a range of countries and their end-of-term concert was based on carols from around the world. But above all Mr Huddleston said the school has been at pains to engender in pupils a feeling of self-worth and the value of others.

He said: "As a Methodist school we are open to all, we are non-denominational and we are carrying that mission through in celebrating diversity." Over the past year pupils have written and revised their own school charter which includes a section on "celebrating difference". A Year 3 pupil, for example, came up with the statement "We respect each other for what we are." That is now embedded in the charter by popular vote. Mr Huddleston said: "The children highlighted the issues most important to them in a series of statements and we took those statements back to classes for confirmation and review. If the issue of diversity and equality is to be embedded in school culture and not just bolted-on then pupils must believe that they have a voice." Catherine, aged 10, said: "When you are little you tend to think there is just Richmond, but through the charter we have learnt to realise the value of each other but also people from around the world who are different."

At my own school we too take teachers from Europe on Comenius funding. We take student teachers from the United States through links our head has established with Indiana University; last autumn 10 gum boot dancers from Zimbabwe, Black Umfolosi spent a day dancing with our 70 children and performed for parents. It was a triumph. Our families and school also played host to children from a Belgian school, one of whom happened to be one of Mother Teresa's orphans from India adopted by a Belgian family. All of these initiatives have succeeded in making our children appreciate and welcome people from different places with different cultural values. They enjoy and are open to difference. Putting together a race-equality policy only brings home how crucial it is to be vigilant in keeping things that way.

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