John Eggleston finds grounds for cautious optimism over multi-ethnic schooling.
The spate of books on multi-ethnic schooling seems unending, much of it flowing from the production line headed by Gajendra Verma at Manchester University. This latest volume provokes the immediate question - can he and his team have anything new and unpublished yet to say?
The answer is a very guarded yes. The book reports a research project in nine multi-ethnic secondary schools - five in Manchester and four in London - on personal relationships "studied in terms of their organisation, structure and interactive processes". It examined prevailing attitudes and behaviour in and out of the classroom and how "inter-ethnic relationships are influenced by the policies and practices of individual schools". Evidence was gathered by interviews, questionnaires and ethnographic case studies.
In understanding this task the authors displayed uncommon bravery; this area is a research minefield in which many studies have perished or escaped with only rhetoric and platitude. The present volume is somewhat more successful - the authors have been assiduous and determined and there are some modest, but useful, findings to report - once one has found a path through the obligatory historical chapter recounting yet again the path from Swann to Burnage.
While the low key reporting will disappoint traditional activists looking for ammunition it will reassure teachers that it represents the real world of the school. A typical sentence reads: "To summarise: questionnaires and interview evidence, which were on the whole well-aligned, suggested that ethnic minority students had a less positive view of inter-ethnic relationships than others; that this was particularly true of Bangladeshi students (and, not surprisingly, of others from newly - or recently-arrived families such as refugees); that Afro-Caribbean students felt if anything more positively than students in general (though the feeling was not always reciprocated), and that membership of a religious minority as such did not materially affect the picture."
Much of the evidence is from the teachers who, despite some impressive initiatives to enhance inter-ethnic relationships are, on the whole, sharply aware of the problems. One teacher puts it simply: "We can give them a sense of equal value but translating it into the playground is another matter. Children suffer prejudice everywhere in society. It's a slow process to change the school so much".
However this "stand off" by teachers may have been because they were stood off. As the authors report: "Teachers were asked if they were aware of any particular requests made by minority communities. In almost all schools, the only teachers who felt able to comment on whether or not such requests had been made were senior management.
Yet despite the uncertainties there was evidence, again modest, of inter-as well as intra-ethnic relationships.
The authors note that "although on the whole evidence of intra-ethnic preference in terms of reported close friendships outweighed the inter-ethnic kind, the picture we gained from interviews was balanced by many clear examples of cross-ethnic friendship".
Yet despite a plethora of such positive examples and some useful insights on the significance of religion, the practice of name-calling and the pervasive nature of social class, the authors are unable to answer the implicit questions which underlie their study. Simply expressed they are: Do schools make a difference? And does the quality of race relations influence achievement?
On the first the authors are ambivalent. On page 92 they "agree in principle" with the teacher's comment that "they do tend to stay in groups but it doesn't matter. We all find our own friends. Why should we force things?", but on the next line they "cannot agree" with teachers who appeared to advocate a general laissez-faire response.
On the second question the authors concede almost total defeat. They conclude that: "No attempt has been made in this study to demonstrate causal connections between the state of relationships and, for example, student attainment; it is not at all clear how that could be done".
Once again we seem to have a familiar script. The cast are teachers who know and understand the need for an active multicultural and anti-racist education but who find it difficult or inappropriate to incorporate it into their teaching, and children who generally prefer intra- rather than inter-ethnic relationships but are fairly well disposed to those of other races.
Can we go forward here - or would a more interventionist approach destroy what modest progress has already come from a largely serendipitous approach? Alas the authors don't get around to asking that question. Instead they offer a conclusion that epitomises the contagious nature of the blandness they report.
What has been demonstrated, it is hoped, is the centrality of inter-ethnic relationships to all aspects of the life of a multi-ethnic school and, conversely, the relevance of all the main elements of the institutional life of school to its inter-ethnic relationships.
Yes indeed. But didn't we all realise this a long time ago?
John Eggleston is Visiting Research Professor, University of Central England.