Bring on the rainbow

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Peter Newsam says the latest report on how best to embrace Britain's multicultural society offers educationists a vision of a future where everyone belongs, no matter where they are from

THE report of a commission, established by the Runnymede Trust in 1998, was published this week. The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain brings up-to-date material produced in reports since Colour and Citizenship in 1969. But it does much more.

As its title suggests, the report's central message relates to the future. That message is directly relevant to schools and it is this: every nation reflects how those within it see themselves so that vision, to be worth sharing, must be a true one. Here problems arise. For one way of seeing Britain is still dominant in some quarters. According to that view, Britain used to be a homogenous nation, with England as its centre and Scotland and Wales on its fringes. In the post-war years that homogeneity has been disturbed by the arrival of waves of "minorities", with different languages, religions, habits and, in many cases, skin colour. Hence the notion of a 95 per cent majority, seen as uniform, having to come to terms with a 5 per cent minority, increasing in size and threatening the uniformity of that majority.

As a way forward, such an analysis is historically too inaccurate. The new vision this report encourages us to adopt and educate the young to understand is more accurate and more complex. It requires us to see Britain in three ways:

First, Britain as a community consisting of individual citizens, each with rights and duties both reinforced by the Human Rights Act.

Second, within that community of individuals, a Britain which includes a multitude of other communities, each with its own forms of membership and separate loyalties. Such communities include those that are national, as in Scotland, regional, religious, linguistic or, however defined, ethnic.

Third, to recognise that individuals are, now as in the past, nearly always at the same time members of several different communities.

It is acknowledging this last way of seeing Britain as a community of communities that proves more difficult than the simple majorityminority way of thinking. Yet we have to get that right or face a disruptive future. What is needed is easier to express visually than in words. When Cathy Freeman won her gold medal at the Olympics the world saw those two flags, Aborigine and Australian, draped round her shoulders. Who was she then? Australian or Aborigine? Symbolically she declared herself to be both: no less a loyal member of one community for being a loyal member of the other.

As a country we have been panfully slow in learning such a lesson. It is 25 years since a reforming Home Secretary put through the Race Relations Act and began to articulate a vision of what Britain might become. That Act dealt with the worst consequences of majorityminority thinking and the hostility that still accompanies it. That the present Home Secretary has throughout shown an interest in the Commission's work is encouraging; but commitment needs to be reflected in purposeful action

The report's chapter on education reiterates and brings up to date a number of concerns raised in the Rampton and Swann reports of 20 years ago. It is a call for action to deal with the most pressing and persistent examples of the way some communities are still disadvantaged educationally. Meanwhile, there are positive possibilities to pursue.

Schools are rightly concerned with individual difference and achievement. But a sensitive exploration of what children have in common is also necessary. It is here that the expressive arts are so important. Hence the wide-ranging recommendation in the report on the inter-connections between the arts, media and sport in the development of Britain as a multi-ethnic society,

So far as schools are concerned, the effort to sustain expressive work has been largely left to individual teachers, schools, voluntary organisations and much-criticised local education authorities. In that connection, I recall an evening organised by Camden education authority at the Albert Hall. The hall was filled with hundreds of young people from Camden schools, singing and making music. It was a vibrant occasion. It would have been possible to classify those present into languages, religions, and so on, but what came through was a sense of a community to which, for that evening at least, all felt themselves to belong.

Professor Bhikhu Parekh, who chaired the commission which produced the report, ended his preface: "every generation owes its successors a duty to bequeath them a better country than it inherited. This report suggests one way to discharge that great historical obligation." That way leads to a Britain where individuals are at ease in belonging to more than one community; where citizens are happy because the state respects their right to do so.

That is the central message of this report: to all of us, but particularly to teachers as the next generations move through them into the new millennium.

Sir Peter Newsam chaired the Commission for Racial Equality, 1982-7, and was director of London University's Institute of Education, 1989-94. "The future of Multi-ethnic Britain" is published by the Runnymede Trust and Profile Books, pound;10.99.

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