Teaching packs that aim to build cultural cohesion can help pupils challenge racist propaganda. David Bocking reports on a project developed in Oldham
"I've got four cows," says nine-year-old Idris Ali. The boy sitting next to him looks impressed. "I'd like to have some cows," he says. "You'd get free milk." Year 4 pupils at the Parish Church Junior School in Oldham are carefully examining a set of photos depicting the lives of three families in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh. Two generations ago, young men from the area were recruited by Oldham's mill owners to work the unpopular night shift. Now, the children and grandchildren of Oldham's Bangladeshi millworkers are helping their classmates with their knowledge of life in and around Sylhet.
"Sometimes they can be pretty poor, but some people in the city are rich," explains Idris. He adds that his cows are currently looked after by a cousin.
Oldham's School Development Service has produced a range of materials for primary and secondary schools, based on the city's history and cultural diversity, following the "Ritchie Report" of 2002, which recommended that the local education authority and Oldham's schools should produce teaching materials to develop cultural cohesion. The report was a response to the inner-city disturbances of 2001, linked by many local people to the continuing presence of the National Front and the British National Party in the area.
"The packs are designed to help young people develop skills of enquiry, understanding and empathy in making social judgments," says Richard Gore of Oldham's Minority Ethnic Achievement team, who worked with Oldham teachers in developing The Bangladesh Photo Activity Pack: Studying Communities in Sylhet and Oldham for key stage 2 and the Citizenship: Culture and Diversity - Jan Oldham Focus teaching pack for KS34.
Although Oldham has never elected a BNP councillor, the party came second in several wards in the most recent elections, and Richard Gore says it is still active in Oldham and will probably field candidates in the upcoming European parliamentary election. The photo pack was first planned long before the 2001 disturbances, following a visit to Sylhet in 1997. Based around 26 A4 snapshots, it depicts the daily life of three families - the wealthy family of a development manager, the family of an illiterate rickshaw driver aiming to improve his circumstances by setting up his own printing business, and a widow and her daughters in a small village. "When children use the materials they have a sense of commonality, of difference and similarity at the same time, which is an important message for children to come to," says Richard Gore.
The pack includes a developing sequence of lesson plans, looking at jobs, income and daily life. Additional material considers migration and the nature of communities. "The photo pack challenges the stereotypes, and shows that not all people in Bangladesh are poor - there's a whole spectrum of wealth and poverty," says Will Jackson from the Freehold Community School.
"The photos have been very positive for Bangladeshi heritage children, because they've enabled those children to talk about Bangladesh, which is something they don't usually do," says Parish Church School Year 4 teacher Jo Jordan. "It gives them a chance to be experts," adds Richard Gore.
Citizenship: Culture and Diversity - an Oldham Focus is based on teacher training materials set up after the Ritchie Report. The materials were adapted for secondary pupils and trialled in Oldham schools before the pack's launch last year. One aim of the materials, says Richard Gore, is to explode a few myths about immigration. There's the rapidly expanding, soon-to-be-majority Asian population story, for example - one exercise charts the population of Oldham and reveals that 13 per cent of the town's people are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
And then there's the "coming over here to take our jobs" myth, which is "busted", as Richard Gore puts it, by the fact that immigration was usually by invitation for economic reasons. He believes the Oldham experience is mirrored around the UK, and that the packs should therefore be helpful for citizenship work throughout the country.
With the news that Simon Smith, a maths teacher at St Peter's Roman Catholic School in Solihull, is planning to stand as a BNP candidate for the European election, and the suggestion from the NASUWT that more than 20 other British teachers may also be BNP candidates, there is a fear that the influence of the far right stretches further than teenagers handing out leaflets by the school gates. Such leafleting is said to be on the increase in many areas, and Calderdale NUT believes that BNP members in the area are seeking election as parent governors.
In Oldham, it is hoped the "cultural cohesion" strategy may go some way to providing a more positive multicultural message for local children. The citizenship pack includes historical, geographical and statistical information, and more populist materials, including a quiz detailing the ethnicity of famous footballers (including Ryan Giggs, whose father is black, and David Beckham, who has one Jewish grandparent). Year 11 materials include work on the Stephen Lawrence enquiry and the Columbine High School massacre.
Angela Turner of Hathershaw Technology College is one of the teachers who helped develop the citizenship pack. She believes that outside influences, including political parties and the media, were seen by Oldham's schoolchildren as major factors in the disturbances of 2001. The biggest obstacle to cultural cohesion is ignorance, she says.
One Oldham primary school teacher recalls a pupil who didn't want to take part in the work on the Bangladesh photo pack. "He was a bit racist, really. He didn't get involved with the Bangladeshi community at all. But he really got into the photos, and now he's interested, he's involved, and he's got Asian friends. It's all about giving them the knowledge."
* The Bangladesh Photo Activity Pack, pound;25; Citizenship: Culture and Diversity - an Oldham Focus, pound;10 from Oldham's minority ethnic achievement team
Tel: 0161 9113668
Email: ecs.margaret.sutherland@ oldham.gov.uk