It's not about black versus white
Racism is not a black-and-white issue for schools. Instead, says a leading researcher, it is a nuanced interplay of prejudice and culture.
Gill Crozier, professor of education at Roehampton University, points out that notions of race are not fixed: they have changed repeatedly over time. Equally, racism is not the only disadvantage faced by schoolchildren: they can also experience discrimination based on class or sex.
Professor Crozier has examined the changing nature of racism in Britain. Her conclusions form a chapter in the book The Politics of Education: challenging multiculturalism, published this term.
Under the Labour government, various policies were introduced to tackle race-related problems in schools. However, children from black Caribbean, black African and Pakistani backgrounds continued to perform poorly in English and maths GCSEs.
"These policy initiatives have apparently failed to address fundamental inequalities of educational opportunity and achievement," Professor Crozier says.
A recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that a quarter of British prisoners are from an ethnic minority. The proportion of Afro-Caribbean prisoners is almost seven times greater than the proportion of Afro-Caribbeans in the general population.
In order to address such endemic racism effectively, Professor Crozier believes, it is vital to take a broader view. The concept of race is not a fixed one: it has changed repeatedly across different historical periods. For example, Irish immigrants to England and the US were historically seen as non-white: they had to lose their Irishness in order to become accepted as white.
Today, white working classes are often demonised as "chavs", while east Asian pupils who adopt middle-class values are seen as a buffer between the chavs and the white middle classes.
"So, while whiteness might be the dominant force, whiteness is not absolute, and in turn is complex," says Professor Crozier. "Social class adds to the murkiness of racial dynamics."
Schools teach current cultural norms: the values of the dominant group. At the moment, this dominant group is white and middle class. "Education is not value-free, and all who are engaged in it, whether they realise this or not, are engaged in a political act," she says.
"Schooling, therefore, is a means through which dominant ideology is perpetrated and interpolated by the students."
An assumption of white, middle-class superiority therefore infuses all discussions about diversity and difference. This is then reinforced by popular perceptions of Muslims as terrorists and black people as gangsters and drug dealers.
"There is an ongoing debate about the merits and de-merits of immigration," Professor Crozier says. "Bogus links are made to the destabilisation of the economy, and the threat to social harmony. The multicultural project has been blamed for reinforcing separation, rather than bringing communities together."
After the 77 London bombings, the media blamed multiculturalism for leading young British Muslims to turn to terrorism. As a result, new emphasis was given to nation-building through citizenship education.
However, Professor Crozier argues that the resulting citizenship lessons about diversity and disadvantage were convenient token gestures, which neatly sidestepped discussion of difficult, controversial issues, such as institutional racism.
"Under the guise of multiculturalism, there has been more of a focus on culture and values, rather than equality of opportunity and challenging discrimination," she says. "In fact, multicultural education has been extensively and consistently criticised for its ineffectuality and tokenistic, diversionary gestures.
"Policy discourse ... has gone little farther than promoting tolerance - in itself a patronising notion."
Professor Crozier concludes that, while it is vital to acknowledge the pervasiveness of white, middle-class values, this cannot form part of a black-versus-white understanding of race. Too often, she says, disadvantage is described in neat polar pairs: black and white; boys and girls; rich and poor. This only emphasises divisions between the different oppressed groups.
Instead, teachers should attempt to be aware of the ways in which their own thinking is dominated by middle-class cultural norms, and question the pervasiveness of institutional racism.
"Polarisations are not useful," she says. "They mask the problem and the complexity of the issues, and undermine collective struggle to challenge this discrimination. What we need to work towards is collective action against an oppressive, discriminatory education system."
The Politics of Education: Challenging Multiculturalism, edited by M Vryonides and C Kassimeris, Routledge. www.routledge.combooksdetails9780415885140
Multiculturalism and Education, by Richard Race, Continuum. www.continuumbooks.com
Teaching about other religions would allow pupils at faith schools to have a stronger sense of their own religious identity, an academic claims.
In his book Multiculturalism and Education, Richard Race of Roehampton University argues that an understanding of others is required for a strong understanding of oneself.
Dr Race interviewed several teachers and university teacher-training staff for his book. Many felt that faith schools needed to recognise and teach about religions other than their own.
One university lecturer said: "A school can promote a particular faith, but we also have to respect other people's faith, their ideological predilections, how they understand god, and how they are involved in these religious activities."
This, Dr Race points out, would require all schools to employ a diverse range of multifaith, multi-ethnic staff.
If schools are hoping to inculcate community cohesion, they must increase understanding between - as well as within - religious communities.
Another interviewee pointed out that faith-school teachers need to recognise that pupils from different religious backgrounds may interpret the curriculum differently: "Even if they follow the same curriculum, there are so many ways in which people can interpret it."
And, another added, this would allow pupils to understand their own identities: "If education is about reflecting on yourself, or drawing upon yourself, it seems a multicultural approach gives that."
Dr Race concludes: "Cultural identities are shaped by how we perceive ourselves, but, significantly, also how others perceive us.
Possessing a clear and coherent identity does not come about without the aid of exterior influences. An identity is always relational and comparative to others."