Colour blind

27th June 2008 at 01:00
Racial segregation divides schools and communities, but that doesn't have to be the case. Nick Morrison meets the children and teachers who are working together

Racial segregation divides schools and communities, but that doesn't have to be the case. Nick Morrison meets the children and teachers who are working together

Alfie and Zeeshan are racing to the top of the climbing frame. They've had their lunch, now it's time to burn off some energy before getting stuck into the afternoon's activities. It looks like an ordinary school trip, but for these two eight-year-olds today is anything but typical.

Alfie doesn't normally get the chance to play with Asian boys. He goes to All Saints Church of England Primary in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Almost all the pupils there are white. Zeeshan does not come across many white boys: his school, Copthorne Primary School in Bradford, is 98 per cent Muslim, with most children of Pakistani origin.

Today, a Year 3 class from each school has come together for a visit to Cartwright Hall, an art gallery in leafy Lister Park in Bradford. Boys from the two schools have been paired up and they've spent the morning making their sculptures and this afternoon it's pond dipping.

Zeeshan doesn't remember if he was nervous before he met children from All Saints for the first time, but does know what he thinks of them now. "They're fantastic. They were really good and they didn't fight. It was really nice going to Cartwright Hall with them."

It's the fifth time the two classes have met. But there were a lot of nerves on their first encounter. "At the initial meeting they just sat quietly for five or six minutes," says Uzma Zaffar, Year 3 teacher at Copthorne. "They were all nervous, especially the girls, but then the boys just got on with it and soon everyone was talking to each other."

Uzma says the children now love meeting up with their buddies, particularly as they've overcome problems pronouncing each other's names. "It was just so different for them; they couldn't say names like James and Edward. I'm sure All Saints had the same problems."

The schools may be only 10 miles or so apart as the crow flies, but their catchment areas are very different. While one takes its pupils from a picturesque spa town with a predominantly white population, the other draws children from the former wool capital of the world, now with one of the largest Muslim populations in the UK.

They were brought together by the Schools Linking Network, an organisation set up by Bradford Council in the wake of race riots in the city in the summer of 2001. The need for communities to unite is crucial: the Ouseley report, commissioned by Bradford Council in conjunction with other local organisations and published shortly after the riots, concluded that white and ethnic communities were living parallel lives in the city.

The network aims to encourage schools with different ethnic compositions to work together, on the basis that they are often on the frontline of racial segregation.

From one pair in 2001, it is now working with more than 100 schools in Bradford, and this year launched a national programme, working in local authorities across the country. In the pipeline is a proposal to link pupils from different backgrounds during Year 10 work experience.

This week the network is organising a United Nations-style event, with 80 Years 8-12 pupils across the authority representing different countries in a debate.

"It's crucial to have a critical mass of activity if you're going to have an impact," says Angie Kotler, the network's co-ordinator. "It helps create a shared understanding of how important this is."

This importance is underpinned by the requirement on schools to promote community cohesion. This duty, also a product of the riots in 2001, was brought in at the beginning of this academic year, with Ofsted reporting on it from September.

In few places is the need to promote community cohesion as apparent as in Kirklees, a neighbouring authority to Bradford. Dewsbury, the home of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the oldest of the four suicide bombers who blew themselves up on London Tube trains and buses in July 2005, falls within the authority's boundaries.

Khan was a teaching assistant and learning mentor to immigrant children at Hillside Primary School in Leeds from 2001 to 2004.

Community relations in the former mill town came under intense scrutiny after the bombings and, in some respects, were found wanting. Khazir Iqbal, the authority's cabinet member for safer and stronger communities, believes the issue must be tackled.

"We do have segregated schools. It didn't happen overnight, and nobody deliberately did it, but it has happened," he says. "People have almost created exclusive areas. It's a free country and people can live where they want, but we must endeavour to ensure we're part of an integrated and inclusive society."

Kirklees has set up its own linking scheme, which involves about 20 schools. It has also turned to sport. At the end of last month, three primary schools, two with 95 per cent or more ethnic minority pupils and one largely white, took part in a mini-Olympics event in Huddersfield.

Bibi Laher, head of Spring Grove Primary in Huddersfield, signed up for the linking programme five years ago. About 92 per cent of her pupils are from ethnic minorities, with most of Pakistani heritage.

For six weeks, Spring Grove's Year 4 spends one day a week at Netherthong Primary in Holmfirth, a largely white community and the picturesque setting for Last of the Summer Wine. Netherthong's Year 4 makes the opposite trip for the following six weeks.

"Some of our children could live their lives without meeting someone from another culture until they go to high school, or even the workplace," says Bibi.

"They can grow up with such a lot of misconceptions and prejudices. If we don't tackle it at an early age, by the time they get to high school those ideas will be fully formed and difficult to shift."

It hasn't always gone smoothly. When they were twinned with another school, pupils at Spring Grove returned complaining they had been called Pakis in the playground. But on the whole the experiences proved an eye- opener in more constructive ways. "The children come back saying they might be different colours but they like the same things," says Bibi. "Our pupils think it's amazing that they like pizza too.

"If we can plant a seed in young children's minds that, irrespective of where people come from, you can still get on with them, then when they grow into adults some of those seeds will grow too."

Linking schemes have largely involved primary pupils but, perhaps propelled by the community cohesion requirement, secondaries are now getting in on the act.

Earlier this month, Year 7 pupils at Salt Grammar, a school on the outskirts of Bradford with a 94 per cent white intake, took part in a joint project at the city's National Media Museum with pupils from Grange Technology College, where 94 per cent of pupils are of Pakistani heritage.

Ian Morrel, deputy head at Salt, says that the partnership may help fulfil a new duty but its benefits go further than that. "The pupils have no idea what we mean by community cohesion - they just know they have met someone from another school. To them it is just a new friend," he says.

Jack, 12, says he was nervous beforehand but was reassured to find his partner for the day was also into football and cricket. "We didn't know what they were going to be like, but they were just normal kids," he says.

Freya, 12, also found plenty to talk about - shopping and Tracy Beaker - with her partner. "It's my favourite TV programme, so we had quite a lot in common," she says.

Elsewhere, the Tower Hamlets Schools Linking Network, an offshoot of its Bradford-based parent, has been working with 10 primary schools in east London for the past 18 months. From September, it is aiming to work with 10 secondaries, says Sophie Mackay, the project co-ordinator.

Back at the art gallery in Cartwright Hall, Sam, a nine-year-old pupil from All Saints, is enthusiastically - too enthusiastically for some - pushing two Copthorne children on the swing. He was apprehensive about meeting Taiyab, his partner, but they were drawn together by their mutual love of sport, dodgeball in particular.

"I like him, he is my sort of person," Sam says. Taiyab, 7, answers "not really" when asked if he knew any white children, but he's too eager to play to tolerate more questions.

Karen Balmer, deputy head at All Saints, says the school welcomes the opportunity for its pupils to meet children with a different culture. She is optimistic that it will help them see past the barrier of a person's skin, but realistic about its potential to change the world. "We meet five times a year, so we're not going to see huge changes," she says. "But hopefully it will set the ball rolling once we're back in school."

Why we work together

It's entirely appropriate that Copthorne and All Saints schools came together at Cartwright Hall, an art gallery on the edge of the Manningham district of Bradford. Appropriate, because it was Manningham that erupted in rioting in July 2001. Simmering racial tension culminated in about 1,000 Asian youths targeting businesses and cars over several nights of destruction, followed by attacks on Asian businesses by white youths.

Along with similar disturbances that summer in Burnley and Oldham, the Bradford riots brought to the fore concerns over racial segregation in towns and cities. Nowhere is this more apparent than schools.

Researchers at Bristol University compared figures on ethnic minority pupils from the annual school census in England with data from the census of the general population, and the results showed that school make-up is not just a function of the community it serves.

"Segregation in schools is higher than segregation in the surrounding areas," says Simon Burgess, director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at Bristol, and a lead researcher on a series of reports into the issue. "There is something going on that is concentrating segregation rather than diluting it."

Segregation is acute among Pakistani children: two in five Pakistani primary pupils and one in five secondary go to a school with a Pakistani majority.

A key question remaining is whether children do better if their school has a majority of their own or a different ethnic group. A study led by Professor Burgess is expected to report on this issue in the autumn.

School links

Four years ago, about 65 per cent of pupils at Cawley Lane Junior, Infant and Nursery School in Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, had English as an additional language; now it's 85 per cent. Within the next year, Richard Evenden, the headteacher, expects that to rise to the high 90s, with the vast majority being of Pakistani heritage.

The school lies in a ward that became the first in Kirklees to elect a BNP councillor and Richard is keen to promote links across ethnic divisions.

This summer, Cawley Lane launched a link with Moorend Church of England First School in nearby Cleckheaton, a school where almost 99 per cent of pupils are white British.

Year 4 pupils from both schools took part in a joint sports day and a museum visit, and are in the process of swapping schools: half of Year 4 going to the other school one morning a week.

Richard says that parents back the partnership: "Our community wants to show there is another side to Islam. Parents want their children to have the opportunities they didn't have. It's something our children need as preparation for high school."

Michelle Bouabida, head at Moorend, recognises that it is easy for their efforts to be seen as tokenistic, but says children learn best through experience.

"You can bring things into school and put things on the wall but until you get to know other children it doesn't have that much meaning."

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