White English teenagers are less racist than they were in the Eighties, but about a quarter of them are still prejudiced towards the country's ethnic minorities, new research suggests.
A survey involving three secondary schools in Tyne and Wear revealed that the majority of 13 and 14-year-olds questioned held positive views on ethnic minorities. However, a third of the 62 white children who took part made at least one statement that could be construed as racist.
Educational psychologist Lara Bath and Manchester University senior lecturer Peter Farrell, set out to discover whether children's attitudes had changed since the mid-1980s, when the Swann report and several research studies highlighted the prevalence of racism in British schools.
They decided to replicate the pupil attitude surveys carried out by Winifred Mould (1986) and Chris Gaine (1987). Mould asked 300 Tyne and Wear children to write about "black people" and found that 75 per cent expressed negative attitudes. In a similar study involving 13 year-olds, Gaine discovered the majority had racist attitudes.
Bath and Farrell, who have published their findings in the current issue of Educational and Child Psychology, tested children's opinions by inviting them to write a short essay on black and coloured people in Britain. They also asked them to rate their level of support for three statements:
* there are too many black and coloured people in Britain;
* having people from different cultures makes the country more interesting;
* black and coloured people cause violence and trouble in Britain.
The 29 girls and 33 boys did not know that race was the focus of the investigation because they were also asked to write short essays about drugs, the environment and animal rights, and were questioned about these topics.
In an attempt to elicit the pupils' true attitudes, the researchers stressed there were no right or wrong answers and that responses would remain confidential.
Almost a third of the essays were classified as prejudiced because they contained at least one negative comment about ethnic minorities, even if their general tone was positive. But only 23 per cent of the pupils gave prejudiced responses to the questions.
Bath and Farrell speculate that the greater prominence given to multi-cultural issues in schools may help account for the improvement in inter-racial understanding. "Of course, changes in society may have also meant that the pupils of today are simply more aware than their peers of 10 years ago that it is not generally considered acceptable to hold racist views," they say. "It is also true that expressing non-racist attitudes does not automatically mean that the pupils would behave in a non-racist way."
The researchers add that, although the education system can undoubtedly take some credit for the positive changes that have occurred in the past 10 years, schools still have some way to go in fully challenging pupils' prejudices.
Young people are still too ready to believe that Britain is massively over-populated by ethnic-minority people and that this fact is largely to blame for unemployment, Bath and Farrell say. Furthermore, Britain is still viewed as essentially a "white" country, where ethnic minorities have to change their customs and practices to "fit in".
"There is clearly still a significant need for education that challenges the negative stereotypes held by some young people and helps them replace their prejudices with a more accurate and positive world view," they conclude.
Further information about this study can be obtained from Lara Bath, Chapel Lane Education Centre, Chapel Lane, Whitley Bay, Northumbria