Beyond the barriers

15th November 2002 at 00:00
A system of non-selective education is the most effective means of promoting equality, says Ronnie Smith.

THERE has been a fundamental change in attitudes towards equality over the past 50 years. There is a far greater understanding of diversity and difference, of meeting particular needs, of the causes of inequalities. We are now challenging the structures which create and perpetuate disadvantage, prejudice and discrimination. It is an issue of social justice.

Both UK and European legislation provide us with civil and employment rights to protect against discrimination on the grounds of colour, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability. The Scotland Act embodies the principles of the European Convention of Human Rights - described at the time of its adoption in the 1950s as too woolly to be of any use to anyone. In every local authority, college and university there are equal opportunities policies.

However, equality is about much more than legislation and finely written words. Anyone with any experience of courts or tribunals knows these proceedings are costly, stressful and time consuming. Anyone with any experience of developing policy knows that the process is as important as the words in the final written document.

We should not, however, underestimate the value of legislation. As a trade union, we use it as a base to negotiate with employers, to develop policy and to campaign effectively for better educational provision for young people.

It is a sad reflection of society that prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination continue to blight the lives of so many people. However, it is heartening to hear from teachers and pupils about the experiences of asylum-seekers. It has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. We hear of young people with tremendous knowledge, commitment and talents who can only enhance our communities.

However, it is difficult for us as educators to get across a message of social justice and rights if it is negated by actions and comments which play on the lowest common denominator in society. To hear phrases such as "swamping" our schools bears no resemblance to the experience of teachers or the reality in schools. It merely serves to fuel racism against a vulnerable group of people. The EIS has consistently supported social inclusion. It is rightly the aim of all involved in education to eliminate prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination and other practices which deny people their rights to develop fully and participate in society as equal citizens.

Education is a right for all, a right to access opportunities to learn, to learning and teaching methods that meet the needs of the student, to assessment methods that are fair. A well resourced system, staffed with well qualified people working in an environment free from discrimination.

Many teachers have worked hard over many years to ensure comprehensive education is a reality in Scotland. We have done so because of our commitment to equality and our conviction that the most effective means of promoting equality and sound learning is a system of non-selective, inclusive, comprehensive education.

The initial findings from the national debate on education show an overwhelming endorsement of this view from parents, teachers and pupils. Comprehensive schools and a broad curriculum are seen as key strengths. Above all, it is a system that has been proved to be successful - higher levels of attainment and a narrowing gap between young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. We should be proud of the quality of Scotland's teachers and of their contribution to this. But we are not, nor ever will be, complacent. We are aware of difficulties and areas for improvement.

The EIS has long supported mainstreaming but we have also listened to our members who tell us there are certain tensions and difficulties which must be addressed - the pressure of misbehaviour and indiscipline, the number of young people who reject education and who later go on to regret it. So a reduction in class sizes is the most important action that will deliver social inclusion. There is plenty of research to prove this is the case.

Unfortunately, social class is still the main determinant of access to education. The burden of social exclusion is carried by the most vulnerable and the most fragile communities. Education on its own cannot counter or compensate for inequalities.

ur mainstreaming policy determines that equality issues have to be taken into account in all activities related to students and staff in all sectors of education: recruitment, induction, curriculum, course choices, assessment, procedures for selection and promotion, training opportunities and placements. No area of education remains unaccountable for inequalities.

One of the most exciting innovations in the EIS in recent years is our involvement in developing, along with Paisley University, postgraduate modules in communication and equality in education and educational employment. The successful EIS bids to the Scottish Union Learning Fund have been a learning experience for all involved. The initial modules have now expanded to become a masters degree.

But social inclusion is not an easy concept - and it is not a cheap one to deliver. Wide consultation with our members, based on the personal experiences of those who have encountered prejudice and discrimination, who have experienced and worked with the effects of poverty, has shown that their view is that "breaking down the barriers" is everybody's business.

Ronnie Smith is general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland. This is an extract from his address to the union's equality conference this month.

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