Thirty years ago Babette Brown was struggling against South African apartheid. Then she came to Britain and found a different kind of racism - in early years education. Reva Klein reports
Veteran early years campaigner Babette Brown may have just celebrated her 66th birthday, but there's nothing vaguely retiring about her. As well as holding the Guardian Jerwood Award, which honours individuals involved in innovative social welfare charities, she has just written a book, Unlearning Discrimination in the Early Years, the title of which sums up not only the reason she received the award but also the driving force behind her work.
Eleven years ago Babette established EYTARN, the Early Years Teachers Anti-Racist Network, to do nothing less than challenge the National Nursery Examination Board (NNEB) course. "I used to teach on the course and it was so racist, sexist, classist - it was terrible. I felt there must be other tutors who thought the same way."
There were. Together with Jane Lane, then education officer at the Commission for Racial Equality, she set up a meeting in 1986 to establish the network that was to become EYTARN.
With a one-off grant from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to get it up and running, it is now a national organisation with an international membership of around 400 individuals and institutions. It runs on a shoestring. And all these years, Babette has worked on, for and with EYTARN without pay.
But the work itself has paid off. For Babette, the most important thing is that the organisation has achieved its principal aim. "With our influence, as well as others, the NNEB changed. Now, equal opportunities are included in all the modules right through the course and the board is committed to anti-racist policies." The board merged with the Council for Early Years Awards in April 1994 to form the Council for Awards in Children's Care and Education.
Anti-racism is more than a theoretical interest for Babette. A Jewish South African by birth, she lived through some of the tumultuous events that paved the way for the end of the apartheid regime. In 1953, the home she shared with her former husband was the venue for the initial meetings of the Congress of Democrats, the white section of the movement of which the African National Congress was a part. They both became heavily involved in the struggle against the regime and the price, as for so many, was high. For the next 10 years, her husband was in and out of prison for his political activities, and raids on the house were commonplace.
The crunch came in 1963, when her husband helped spring four members of the ANC leadership out of prison in the boot of Babette's car. The car was identified by a witness and her husband had to go underground.
"It was at that point that we decided to leave," says Babette. Her husband escaped via one route and she and her four children, including eight-month-old twins, left by another. They met up in London.
What she didn't know then was that she was leaving just in the nick of time. On a business trip to South Africa last month, her now ex-husband looked up their police files and discovered that Babette was due to be "listed" two days after she escaped. If she had wavered or if her plane had been delayed more than it had already been, she would have been prohibited from leaving the country.
All that seems long ago now, but it has informed Babette's outlook and shaped her life since. "Coming from South Africa and living with the knowledge of the Holocaust gave me an understanding of where racism leads." When she came to Britain, she found a different kind of racism. "It was much more subtle, not entrenched by law, but very deeply-rooted."
Which brings us to the rationale behind EYTARN. She describes it as two-sided: to offer support to black and ethnic minority children; and "to ensure that white children unlearn racism and discrimination". It's the word "unlearn" that's important. She cites research showing that children as young as 18 months can recognise different skin colour; between the ages of three and five, they begin to express discriminatory attitudes. If left unchecked, children can hold on to these attitudes for the rest of their lives.
While anti-racism has become sidelined in the past 10 or 15 years and while Babette and her EYTARN colleagues have faced comments like "it's you who make children see things they otherwise wouldn't notice", she is not deterred. She remains committed to education against discrimination through, among other things, training early years teachers to examine their attitudes and their practice.
As she puts it in the introduction to her book: "The first step I is to take a long hard look to see whether our interactions with children and parents are unconsciously influenced by stereotypical thinking. Do we tend to expect Asian girls to be quiet and submissive, for instance? The next step is to observe children carefully. Do we know whether the children who are perceived as being different are enduring name-calling or physical abuse? Do we actively intervene by comforting and supporting them? Do we help the perpetrators to appreciate the consequences of their words andor actions by taking a firm, supportive approach? The third step involves examining the definition and content of the curriculum and how it is presented to the children."
It's this commonsensical approach, suffused with warmth and understanding, and developed over years of experience in the classroom as well as her observations as a mother and now a grandmother of eight, that informs Babette's work. The work - and the struggle - go on. EYTARN runs conferences and seminars but desperately needs money to employ trainers to go out and work with teachers. She hopes that money will come from the Department for Education and Employment.
Many people in education have been learning from her for years and, with any luck, will continue to do so for many years to come.
As Louise Derman-Sparks, the American author of the influential early years book Anti Bias Curriculum, says, "Babette has devoted her many gifts to the awesome tasks of eradicating the societal and individual barriers that prevent too many young children from experiencing nurturing, quality care and education programmes. She is a role model and inspiration to many, including me."
'Unlearning Discrimination in the Early Years', published by Trentham Books, is available from bookshops or from EYTARN on 0181 446 7056