Don't stay cocooned

7th April 2006 at 01:00
Children in white neighbourhoods need to learn about other cultures and communities, write Liz Thomas and Mark Alaszewski

A minor controversy in formal education in Wales has been created by Iwan Guy, who recently criticised inspection agency Estyn's plans to enforce race equality and diversity education across all schools in Wales (TES Cymru, February 17).

The acting director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru had argued that, outside of the major cities, Wales has an overwhelmingly white population.

Within this context, race equality is a politically correct irrelevance that will cause a drain on scarce teaching resources and create, in Mr Guy's words, "another layer of bureaucracy on hard-pressed schools".

It is possible to have some sympathy with him. Schools in Wales are already creaking under the accumulated weight of countless Assembly government targets and initiatives.

The prospect of yet another delegation of Cardiff commissars firing off enforcement orders to schools in Abergele or Abertillery is singularly unappealing and could indeed be a big waste of everyone's time and money.

But a more thoughtful and considered approach could pay dividends for the various agencies charged with putting the new initiative into practice.

Our experience at Cyfanfyd indicates there is at least an equal value in promoting race-equality issues in schools in the predominantly white, mono-cultural communities of rural Wales and the Valleys as there is in the multi-cultural cities.

The background to this relates to the changing world that today's young people inhabit. While previous generations could happily exist cocooned within the comforting womb of their localities without much regard for the outside world, the hard facts of economic globalisation and the communications revolution mean that the outside world has a big impact on the lives of our children, whether we like it or not.

This influence can be both empowering and threatening. For those able to develop the skills needed, the new landscape presents almost limitless opportunities. Having a cosmopolitan outlook, and being able to understand and communicate with people from different communities and cultures, are key skills for thriving in the charged world of multi-national commerce, and in the public sector.

It will therefore be invaluable for our young people, whether they choose to stay in Wales, migrate to other parts of the UK, or live abroad.

However, rapid economic and technological change also creates feelings of rootlessness and anxiety, especially for those left behind.

The media obsession with race all too often focuses on the negative issues such as refugees ("flooding into the country"), foreign workers ("stealing our jobs") and Islamic terrorists. Without direct experience of other cultures, it then becomes all too easy to buy into these stereotypes.

This is highly damaging for our young people, leaving them with a restricted world view which is likely to limit their own opportunities for development. It is also damaging for Wales, creating a mutually reinforcing image of the country as parochial and inward-looking.

Teaching about race, and other new disciplines such as global citizenship and sustainable development, can be a tool for equipping our young people for the digital age. All of these areas are value systems which should be integrated into the mainstream curriculum and engendered with real meaning - and divested of the hollow tokenism which has plagued areas like personal and social education in the past.

We need to present these new disciplines in a coherent, integrated way.

Linking programmes with schools in the developing world should not be limited to penpal-style communications but used to teach children about the full economic, political and environmental consequences of globalisation.

Similarly, a discussion of racism can be given greater relevance in a mono-cultural school within a broader discussion of universal human rights and the rights of the child.

This approach has benefits for all schoolchildren. Already, via the efforts of teachers, many Welsh pupils are experiencing the benefits of an education which broadens their horizons as well as teaching them the three Rs.

What is now needed is a concerted effort to reinforce education for sustainable development, global citizenship and race equality as complementary themes within the curriculum.

These themes need to be reflected in the ethos of schools and the attitudes of students who, in their future roles as citizens of Wales and the world, will be educated and equipped to face a globalised, multi-cultural future with enthusiasm and confidence.

Liz Thomas and Mark Alaszewski work for Cyfanfyd, the umbrella body which represents organisations working in education for sustainable development and global citizenship. See www.cyfanfyd.org.uk for more information and teaching resources

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