Checking the racists

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Progress has been made, but there is still a lot of work to be done in the fight against racist language and attitudes in Scottish primary schools, reports Tariq Tahir

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Or so the saying goes. The truth, though, is that words do hurt, particularly insults based on skin colour. And while most adults learn to rise above them, children are more vulnerable.

Linda Jarvie is taking Highland council to court for failing to act after her 10-year-old daughter Katie, who is half-black, was subjected to an 18-month campaign of abuse that involved making ape gestures and singing songs from The Jungle Book. But Katie's problems are not uncommon.

In Dundee, a young mixed-race boy, whose family have moved on a number of occasions following attacks on their homes, was subjected to racist bullying at school and on the way to school. He has been referred by his GP to a clinical psychologist after destroying his room, and is now being treated for stress. In the former Grampian region, a Chinese boy of 11 was racially abused and ignored by his classmates for two years, a fact that he concealed from his mother until he was excluded from school.

The fear generated by these incidents is often such that young people and their parents are unwilling to be publicly identified in case they become targets or are labelled as trouble-makers by the authorities.

A report on racist incidents in schools, published last month by Edinburgh council, found that 76 per cent of them occurred at primary level. The report's author, Laura Mitchell, says: "The one thing that we can learn from this is that we need to be doing more preventative work at an early age. With things like circle time, primary schools are an ideal place to discuss these attitudes."

But one of the difficulties is that school staff often fail to recognise the problem. When researchers from Stirling University published a report for the former Central Region in 1994, called No Problem Here, which highlighted the sense of isolation that ethnic minority children feel in rural communities, they found that all the families interviewed had suffered some form of verbal or physical harassment; the children themselves pointed to the use of phrases like "black bastard'' for Asian pupils.

Yet teaching staff believed there were good relations and positive attitudes to race, and ancillary staff said either that Asian children were over-reacting or that there was no problem.

David McKenzie, co-author of No Problem Here, argues that there has been a lot of progress since 1994, and that teachers are now more aware of the issues. But he says the problem has not gone away. He believes a multi-agency approach is required to tackle issues such as harassment on the journey to and from home, and to give ancillary staff race-awareness training.

"One of the things we talked about during in-service training was how racism fitted into tackling bullying in general, and we found that some of the strategies were the same," he says.

So what are education authorities doing to combat racism in primary classrooms? Racism has always had a high profile in Glasgow, which has the biggest concentration of non-white people in Scotland. In 1990 the former Strathclyde Region produced a document entitled Tackling Racism in Education, which used the legal backing of the Race Relations Act to oblige schools to monitor and take action on instances of racial harassment.

Ruby Pillay is one of two multicultural, anti-racist development officers with Glasgow council. She investigates incidents on behalf of the education department and is responsible for producing material for teachers, along with in-service training.

She says: "If something happens once, then that could be unintentional. We make sure there is counselling for both the victim and the perpetrator. If it happens a second time, then that's not unintentional and the parents are then involved. The principle is not whether a comment was meant, it's how the child feels about it."

She remains mystified why schools still return monitoring forms saying that there have been no instances of racial abuse, when she knows there have been.

Parental attitudes towards race is another area that she says needs to be tackled: "If you keep punishing the children at school, that's wrong as they are themselves victims of their parents' ignorance. It can be quite confusing for a child. Who do they listen to?''

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