Skip to main content

Knitting a new social fabric

It may take a long time to bring unity to riot-shaken Oldham and Bradford - but schools are leading the way. Report by Reva Klein

Two summers ago, before the cataclysmic events of September 11, before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before our preoccupation with terror, the world was a different place.

But was Britain? Two years ago, race riots in Oldham and Bradford shook the nation. The Asian and white communities of those northern towns - and Burnley - are still shocked today by the ferocity of those events. The underlying causes, identified by a number of reports, are as familiar now as they were then: poverty, social segregation, poor housing and provocation by the British National Party.

Lord Ouseley's evaluation of Bradford, written months before the July 2001 riots, presciently described the city as "the ultimate challenge in race relations in Britain". The former director of the Commission for Racial Equality found a growing divide between racial groups and intolerance between white and Asian communities. Young people interviewed spoke of a "virtual apartheid" education system.

The Oldham Independent Review, chaired by Lord Ritchie, was undertaken after the disturbances. It expressed "shock" at "almost casually racist language" used by many white Oldhamers.

The recommendations of both reports, and internal audits, have led to both councils developing initiatives to build social cohesion that are impressively wide in scope. You could call them models for the rest of the country.

But Mark Pattison, managing director of Education Bradford, the private company brought in by the council to replace the failing education authority, warns against unrealistic expectations. "There are a lot of deep-seated issues that won't be resolved in the short term. We're starting to make a contribution, but the big-picture issues haven't shifted yet."

One of the "big picture issues" for Oldham and Bradford is segregation. In large part, this is because Asians tend to live in particular parts of the town centres, while whites live on the periphery. Even where the two communities live close to each other, schools are not usually mixed. Says Andrew Samson, Oldham's assistant director of education: "There are no easy fixes to communities like this. People tend to go to schools where they live."

A vital focus is on school improvement across Oldham and Bradford to break down the widespread belief that white schools are better. A laudable aim, but school improvement takes time and may not eradicate segregation.

Enter social engineering, or, as it's more politely called, school linking, to bring together white and Asian children who ordinarily would not mix.

The idea is that when conflicting communities are brought together for specific purposes, they acquire understanding, empathy and goodwill toward each other. In Bradford and Oldham, school linking (which pre-dated the riots but has grown since then) involves primary school classes joining together for particular activities. Some of these are curricular, some extra-curricular; some take place in each other's schools, others on neutral territory such as art galleries and sports centres.

St Andrews C of E primary in Keighley, a Bradford suburb, has mainly Asian, economically disadvantaged pupils. It links every half-term with Burley Woodhead C of E primary, a white, middle-class school in the suburbs. The pupils go to each other's schools for sports, maths, art, playtime and, just as important, lunch, where it's strictly halal at St Andrews. The initiative not only engenders friendships, but reveals worlds to the children about which they would ordinarily have no inkling. Chris Clarke, headteacher at St Andrews, recalls: "One of the girls said to me, 'You know, we look different but we're all just the same, aren't we?'"

In Oldham, school linking project co-ordinator Catherine Rhodes has worked to embed the links into school life. Take the collaborative work between Mather Street, a predominantly white, working-class primary, and Freehold, a mainly Punjabi-speaking ethnic-minority school. Among the initiatives bringing the two together are joint meetings of their student councils todiscuss common concerns.

At one meeting, pupils were reporting on the findings of surveys taken at both schools on the link project's impact. To the question of whether meeting children from Freehold had changed Mather Street pupils' attitudes, a student councillor reported: "They thought they (Freehold pupils) wouldn't be friendly but they were friendly. They thought they'd speak different but they spoke the same as we do. They saw that we were all equal, that it's just their skin that looks different."

Most of the linked curricular work is in PSHE, citizenship and religious education, including a joint scheme of work on Christianity and Islam. In addition, Oldham has trained teachers to run sessions on philosophical inquiry; this is feeding into a pilot project with linked groups. One session looked at race through the Stephen Lawrence case. Teachers were visibly moved at the acuity and empathy that both schools' pupils showed in their structured debate. "It's this kind of work," says Catherine Rhodes, "that will bring about attitudinal change."

Bradford has devised an enhanced citizenship curriculum. Joyce Miller, the citizenship co-ordinator, explains: "We looked at the statutory attainment targets and saw there was no mention of living in a multicultural society at key stages 3 and 4. So we created our own materials. With the BNP so active in this area, children need to know what repatriation means, what is apartheid, what are the alternatives. We're asking children to explore these issues."

David Ward, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Bradford who has been instrumental in developing the community cohesion approach, says schools are only one element in the process. The work has to include the youth service, improved housing, job creation and learning opportunities. "You have to live and breathe social cohesion," he says. "Citizenship in the curriculum is fine, but if it goes no further than celebrating diversity it won't work. What works is sharing crisps with someone different. That's the starting point in what is a painfully slow process."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you