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Ready for a racial policy?

All schools are now required to have a formal code relating to race and conduct. Ben Rooney reports

The election of three British National Party councillors in Burnley, the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and the success of murdered anti-immigration campaigner Pim Fortuyn's party in Holland may seem a world apart from the work of most governing bodies. But from today, schools will be on the front line in tackling the scourge of racism.

Provisions in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, a direct result of the Macpherson inquiry into the 1993 death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, come into force today. Every governing body must have in place a racial discrimination policy that promotes multiculturalism and ensures that the school monitors, reports and acts on racist incidents.

The definition of a racist incident is pretty broad. Under the terms of the Macpherson report, it is "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person". Examples of racist incidents include: refusal to co-operate with others on the grounds of their race, colour, ethnicity or that of their family; racist remarks or jokes; assault; promotion of racist material; racist graffiti; name-calling.

Many schools will have failed to have their policy ready by today's deadline, or are waiting for their education authorities to produce model policies. But even LEAs are dragging their feet. Essex, for example, said its model policy would only be ready a few days before the deadline, leaving governors no time to debate the model or to consult staff.

According to John Lace, senior adviser in East Sussex's school improvement service, schools should at least "have an action plan in place to show how they intend to implement the policy".

While governors broadly welcome the Act's provisions for promoting multiculturalism, there is less consensus on the monitoring and reporting requirements. Race is a sensitive issue, and such is the climate that no governor interviewed was prepared to speak on the record.

Some feel the Government's "one-size-fits-all approach" - requiring a mono-ethnic rural primary to take broadly the same actions as an ethnically-mixed inner-city comprehensive - is creating a lot of work for little return.

One governor of a 400-pupil primary in Devon said: "This does not feature high on our list of priorities and it has not arisen in any correspondence or meetings that we have been involved in. We shall be adopting and adapting whatever model our education authorities comes up with."

However, governors from ethnically-diverse areas support the Act, although most feel it is nothing more than they were already doing. "At our school (a Burnley comprehensive) we are already doing most of what it asks us to do. But I can understand, if not agree with, why other schools might think it not all that relevant," said one.

And not all mono-cultural schools are critical. According to one Cheshire-based governor: "We have to make multiculturalism relevant. Our children need to understand what is going on across the whole country, or even county."

A spokesman for the Commission for Racial Equality said schools should adapt policies proportionate and relevant to their own needs. Even in single-race schools, racism needs to be tackled.

"If one white child calls another white child a 'Paki', isn't that a racist incident?" said Chris Gaine, a reader in sociology of education at University College Chichester, and author of Still No Problem Here, which deals with racial attitudes in white schools. Mr Gaine questions schools that argue they already have equal opportunities policies in place so do not need a separate race policy. "I am highly sceptical of this. Policies are launching pads, not targets. Schools often have the policies but they are not used."

Making racism relevant for all-white schools, which Mr Gaine says are in the majority - an assertion the Department for Education and Skills had no data to corroborate - is a challenge. He is advising several predominantly white authorities.

"The single biggest motivator is to get a grasp of what it's like to be a minority child. To borrow an American phrase, I call it 'walking in someone else's moccasins'."

As one governor of a school in Burnley said: "Maybe if people had taken these issues more seriously in the past, things would have been different here."

Ben Rooney is vice-chair of governors in an Essex primary

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