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Multiculturalism just isn't enough

Race has returned to the centre of politics in Britain, and that has big implications for everyone involved in education.

Until recently, many schools spoke with pride about their multicultural policies. I know my own school has always prided itself that, with an almost entirely white intake, we celebrate Britain's diversity across the curriculum.

We understood that it was in a mainly white environment that racism was most likely to flourish, if only through ignorance, and had to be addressed energetically. So difference became something which could be celebrated in our schools.

Black and Asian faces were visible in displays. Surely, we were all equal now. If anything, the MacPherson report which followed the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence convinced people that a watershed had been reached. That kind of confidence now looks sadly misplaced.

In the summer of 2001, riots erupted in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. Sharpened by the events of September 11, there has been greatly increased hostility towards British Asians, particularly Muslims.

The British National party has been quick to capitalise on the wave of Islamophobia. It has won council seats in Burnley and Blackburn, and recorded high votes in parliamentary elections in Oldham. Hostility to asylum-seekers has fanned the flames.

Multiculturalism recognises that there isn't just one "culture" into which recent immigrants must assimilate. This was confirmed by a MORI poll last May which found that 86 per cent of people disagreed with the proposition that "to be truly British you have to be white". But the multicultural policies that exist in many schools can be boiled down to a fuzzy interest in different cultures.

At worst, they can be little more than patronising "exoticism". Weak multicultural policies are likely to wither before the new wind of aggressive racism. At one school I visited the headteacher ran his eyes over one of my anti-racist novels and commented: "We don't have any racism here". When I told some of the students of Pakistani heritage what he had said, they laughed scornfully.

Anti-racism has to go way beyond acceptance or tolerance. It should recognise that white people also suffer from the divisions that racism creates. It has a duty to confront the mythology of racism, particularly the new wave of demonisation of Muslims.

There are many myths. One, which has come not only from the far right, is that Muslim communities have chosen to segregate themselves. In my experience, most Muslim parents want their children educated in mixed schools. The main reason behind some de facto segregation is discrimination in jobs and housing, not self-isolation.

Nor is language the issue. Most British Muslim children are bilingual. In a better world, that would be seen as a boon, not a problem. Even the Office for Standards in Education has confirmed that language is not a determinant of educational success.

A genuine anti-racist education, cross-curricular in its range and rigorous in implementation, would mean confronting the history of racism, through its roots in slavery and its perpetuation through hostility to immigration. It would show the destructive effects of division and firmly state that retreat from a multicultural society is simply not on the agenda.

The key tool in such an approach, it seems to me, is literature. What people under the influence of racist ideas most lack is empathy. My latest novel, Caught in the Crossfire, features the relationship between a Muslim girl and a white boy against the background of riots in a Lancashire town. I wanted to explore head on the conditions in which racism is re-emerging. We should be fiercely proud of our diversity and eager to confront the stresses that still exist.

Lancashire is being given a quite unjustified reputation by events in some of the former mill towns. But, on visits, I have met white and Asian boys and girls who have built good relationships. This we must celebrate and defend through sharply focused, combative and consistent anti-racist policies.

Alan Gibbons is author-in-residence at Prescot primary, Simonswood primary and Knowsley LEA. Caught in the Crossfire is published in Dolphin paperback on January 16 at pound;4.99

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