Although there are tight controls to stop racism entering classrooms via books and CD-Roms, the Net escapes such policing. Sally McKeown examines the problems that this raises
Racism is as widespread and deep seated in education as it is in other public institutions," says Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality. In the wake of the Lawrence inquiry, Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, the former High Court judge and inquiry chairman, has called for a review of the national curriculum to emphasise cultural diversity. Meanwhile, the rising exclusion rates for ethnic minority pupils has forced teachers to take a hard look at what is happening in their classrooms.
Many schools and colleges have policies which cover behaviour and discipline. Some also take a stringent line on classroom materials, such as books and CD-Roms, but the Web could be undermining their best efforts.
The Internet is an anarchic medium and no one owns or controls it. Much of the controversy surrounding the Web focuses on pornography, yet racism is insidious and is often targeted at children, getting its message across via their interests in football and music. Some of the so-called patriotic football fans recruit via chat groups and bulletin boards.
The Government is aware of the problem. In 1998 the National Criminal Intelligence Service submitted a report on illegal uses of the Internet, saying: "We have identified racism as a potential problem and made recommendations for a strategy for law enforcement on the Internet."
There are numerous white supremacy, Holocaust denial, skinhead and patriotic websites. A Hammerskins site boasts: "Just like the SS, we have divisions all over the white world and through our racial strength we have a bond that joins us all together".
Some of the sites are easy to dismiss, being crude, offensive and violent. Others have sophisticated arguments. For example, Stormfront proposes equal opportunities for racists, saying that the media revels in stereotypes: "a talented homosexual, or a poor but honest and hardworking illegal alien from Mexico. On the other hand, a white racist - that is, any racially conscious white person who looks askance at miscegenation or at the rapidly darkening racial situation in America - is portrayed, at best, as a despicable bigot who is reviled by the other characters or, at worst, as a dangerous psychopath who is fascinated by firearms and is a menace to all law-abiding citizens."
Budehaven Community School in Bude, Cornwall, is part of a project run by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) on educational Internet service providers. It has had Internet access for more than three years and for two years every one of the 1,000 pupils in the comprehensive school has had an email address. Jon Proudfoot, the school's information and communications co-ordinator, believes that violence and racism on the Web may be more of an issue for pupils than pornography. "In Cornwall we have no experience of a multiracial society and some of the material on the Web can foster prejudice."
This view is echoed by the British Computer Society in its pamphlet Preventing the Misuse of Computers in Schools. It says: "Where extreme political groups are concerned, some are using access to the Internet as a method of disseminating their ideas. This broad exposure, potentially attracting a readership wider than traditional magazine publication, could reach young or susceptible pupils, leading them to believe that certain views are usual, normal and even acceptable if this reading is in private or in an isolated, like-minded group."
Some education centres put their trust in filtering software, but this is not always successful. David King, of Dudley College of Technology, in the West Midlands, says that it uses CyberPatrol, although many valid sites are blocked too. Students from abroad use the Internet facilities to keep in touch with home, and two of the top 10 hits in the college are Chinese newspapers. Coincidentally it has discovered that the software filter only vets English rude words and Chinese porn can slip through.
At one college in London the full-time students sign a contract about Web usage and staff say there are rarely problems. They feel that this is because the students learn what is acceptable and are influenced by the ethos of the college. However, in the cybercafe ,which can be used by any member of the public who pays to use the service, they have come across people downloading all sorts of material, including Ku Klux Klan sites.
So should such sites be banned? Ranjit Samra, head of history at Alderman Callow school in Coventry thinks banning is not the answer. "There is a tension between freedom of speech and protecting young people. I am concerned that 14-year-olds will be attracted by material that preaches bigotry and intolerance but censorship just pushes the problem underground. As responsible educators, we should be helping pupils to work through their ideas and values, to understand their prejudices."
By and large classroom staff are wary of adopting a technological solution to a problem that lies at the heart of society. For better or worse, the Internet is a reflection of the people who use it as a medium for their message. Training for staff and students is vital. Students need to learn to be discriminating users.
Daniel Atwere, of the Further Education Development Agency, says: "Although the Internet has revolutionalised communications, the lack of policing to eliminate racist materials has become a major concern. This problem will not disappear overnight." To begin addressing it, FEDA will be running an awareness training day later this month.
Jon Proudfoot feels that it is important not to overreact to all the negative publicity about the Web. "At first it seems that most of the usage is recreational, but when you dig deeper you find some good practice. With the Web we can break down barriers as well."
Sally McKeown is education officer for special needs and inclusion at BECTA For details of the FEDA course ILT and Cultural Awareness at Aston University on May 24 contact: Admissions Office, FEDA, Citadel Place, Tinworth Street, London SE11 5EH. Tel 0171 840 5382
* 10 tips for teachers to keep racism at bay
1 Keep computers in public places where everyone can see what is on screen 2 Warn pupils that there are many racist sites on the Internet 3 Set up a reporting system so they know what to do when they find upsetting material 4 Make all learners sign a code of conduct. If they are under 18, send copies to their parents to sign 5 Make clear what the penalties are for misuse of the Net. These should be in line with the school's policy for dealing with other forms of racism 6 Take an interest in the Internet and regularly discuss what young people see 7 Make pupils critical users of the Web. Get them to ask: Is this information true? How do you know?
8 Are the name and contact details on the site?
9 Make students aware they must not respond to abusive messages 10 Check, check and keep on checking. If you find a racist site report it via email to a group such as Hatewatch www.hatewatch.orgor the Anti Defamation League www.adl.org
* Useful sources of anti-racist materials
The Kick It campaign backed by the Commission for Racial Equality features football clubs such as Derby County with its Rams against Racism policy www.britkid.org A game format with lots of serious information, it has the backing of many celebrities, including comedian Lenny Henry, chef Ainsley Harriot, footballer Sol Campbell and former Radio 1 DJ Lisa I'Anson http:aar.vrx.net
The Artists Against Racism site covers general issues on race and has messages of support from author Margaret Atwood and singers Celine Dion and Leonard Cohen among others www.carf.demon.co.uk
Campaign Against Racism and Fascism is also a resource and information site for community-based campaigns www.cre.gov.uk
The Commission for Racial Equality's website covers areas such as law, publications and a self-help guide www.fight-racism.org
The Fight Racism! site includes information about languages, literature, music, food, cultural and linguistic minorities. It counteracts hoary old racist myths www.thechronicle.demon.co.uk
The Chronicle is an online magazine aimed at a black readership with articles about the media, history and current affairs, with links to universities in the UK and black American web sites www.magenta.nlcrosspoint
The Crosspoint is an large collection of links focusing on human rights, anti-racism, refugees, women's rights, anti-fascism and other issues www.adl.org
The Anti Defamation League counteracts the anti-Semitism of many racist web sites. Includes helpful information sheets, like 'What to tell your child about prejudice and discrimination' Home Beats CD-Rom for PCs and Macs, pound;35
A wonderful CD-Rom, produced by the British Institute of Race Relations, about the black British experience from the Middle Ages to the present day www.homebeats.co.uk Encarta Africana, 2-disc PC CD-Rom pound;49.95
Excellent CD on Black history and experience. Created by US academics but with good coverage of UK and the Caribbean www.africana.com