Don't look now ...;Subject of the week;Personal, social, and health education

16th April 1999 at 01:00
... but educationists agree the time is ripe for a fresh onslaught on racism to challenge xenophobic attitudes before they begin. Nadene Ghouri reports

In the six years since black teenager Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death in a racist attack, awareness of the destructive power of racism has risen to unprecedented levels. And following last month's publication of the official report into the killing, which says efforts to curb racism should be enshrined in the national curriculum, educationists have united in their insistence that racial prejudice must be tackled in the classroom - and the earlier the better.

According to Dr David Gillborn, reader at London's Institute of Education, teachers must grasp the nettle of racism now "or lose the chance". And while the task is a daunting one, Dr Gillborn says: "We have to start young. Children begin to work these things out at a very young age. Relying on a few citizenship lessons at secondary school is crazy because prejudices are formed and ingrained before they leave primary school."

Phil Barnet, principal education officer at the Commission for Racial Equality agrees the time to take up arms against racist attitudes is now. He believes that in the wake of Sir William Macpherson's report on the Lawrence murder, which recommends that "consideration be given to amending the national curriculum, aimed at valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism", the country is ready for change. He says if now is not the time to challenge racism, "I don't know when is".

Jane Lane, chair of the Early Years Trainers Anti-Racist Network, says primary teachers often see younger children as colour-blind, and can't understand why they need to know about racism. "Young children can recognise the difference between a blue or a red ball, so they will recognise different skin colours. They may not evaluate what it means in a sophisticated way, but they aren't stupid. As a child I thought having black skin must be awful. But no one ever said that to me, so where did the thought come from?" When racism is tackled early on, it is often done under the catch-all term of multiculturalism. But as Dr Gillborn points out, "eating food from another country or celebrating the odd festival doesn't prevent racism. If you don't really know what you are doing it can reinforce stereotypes and be patronising."

Jane Lane is also concerned that there is no pedagogic rigour behind what the late race education researcher Barry Troyna called the three Ss of multiculturalism - saris, samosas and steel bands. "Celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, has little to do with understanding Indian culture. Think about how a white British child would want to be represented in China. By Morris dancers and bowler hats? Of course not."

A traditional problem for primary staff has been a lack of resources.

A pack from the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE) could help. Designed for use in Jewish schools, the pack can be adapted for wider use. Co-author and JCORE director Dr Edie Friedman believes too many Jewish people grow up in an environment that fails to encourage connections between Judaism and social issues. "Jewish children need to realise racism doesn't begin and end with anti-semitism, and that victims can be perpetrators too," she says. "But it is possible to teach children about racism so it becomes a natural part of their development."

The pack, with activities for key stages 1 and 2, encourages children to explore their identity. Worksheets entitled "All about Me", "The Story of My Name" and "Where are My Roots?" sit alongside the histories of migration, the Holocaust and slavery.

A very different kind of resource is the Britkid Comic Relief website. Aimed at key stage 2 and above, the site is particularly useful for pupils who live outside areas of ethnic diversity. Britkid features characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who all live in the fictional town of Britchester. Users become the "new kid on the block" and find out how the others deal with identity and race.

Also new is Zaynab's Story, a book and teaching pack about a Somali girl who becomes the victim of racial bullying, and Before I Go to School, a photo story for use at key stage 1 as part of the literacy strategy. Lenfield White, of Liverpool Education Race Equality Management team - which produced both texts - says, "When we started to look at what issue-based texts were available, all we found was one about dolphins in tuna nets and another on rain forests. There was nothing on social issues."

The baggage teachers bring into schools needs addressing, too. One approach is that of Dr Harkitan Singh-Raud, at Liverpool John Moores University. He runs teacher workshops on the dangers of "creedism", the assumption that all ethnic minority children are the same. "Just knowing a Mohammed is usually a Muslim and a Singh is usually a Sikh would help. Above all, teachers should relax."

Relaxing isn't easy, though, when the Macpherson report has thrown down the gauntlet to teachers who feel ill-equipped to cope with the complexities of race.

But Dr Singh-Raud is confident that, with the right thinking and resources, it's an issue that can be tackled. "It's crucial we teach anti-racism, but it doesn't have to be onerous. People get on their high horse about anti-racism but that helps no one. People who jump on bandwagons do much less in the long term than those who do small amounts, but do them genuinely."

Artbeat, page 22

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