Lessons for all in local tales of fair play

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Equality Stories: recognition, respect and raising achievement

By Robin Richardson and Berenice Miles

Trentham Books pound;13.99.

This is the story of how schools and teachers in one local authority are tackling the destructive viruses of racism, hostility and underachievement. The authority is the London borough of Ealing, but here, sensibly, it is anonymised as "Oakwell". That is important, for these are not Ealing nor even London issues. Every school in the UK needs to address them.

Ealing is a good exemplar, though. Richly multicultural, it chose to use the Government's ethnic minority achievement grant to support school-based initiatives to improve inclusivity at school and classroom level and to raise - specifically but not exclusively - Afro-Caribbean achievement.

Altogether, about a third of the borough's schools were involved. The only condition was that they had to share the stories of their experiences.

Equality Stories is the outcome. The title is appropriate, for underpinning it is the theme that our "stories" - personal, communal, cultural - shape the way we see ourselves and our environment. That's as true for adults as it is for children. "Stories," Ben Okri has said, "are the secret reservoirs of our values."

Hence the insistence in these pages that inclusivity starts with listening, not just to the stories pupils have to tell, but to teachers' stories too - the good things they remember of their childhood as much as the bad.

Listening too, with the ears of children, to the strident tabloid voices that surround them.

The experience of Ealing is that teachers need time and space in which to do this. Equality Stories shows how staff development workshops can make this happen, and outlines the case studies and stories that help teachers reflect on their practice.

Much of this material is photocopiable - "frequently offered excuses" for example ("It's political correctness gone mad"; "We should stick to the school development plan") or role-cards for a contentious parents' meeting.

Subsequent sections focus on the nuts and bolts of inclusion: how to set up an induction programme, how to involve and welcome parents, how to focus specific funding on raising pupil achievement rather than just supporting classroom teachers. Indeed, rethinking the raising of achievement is very much the subtext of this handbook, and there is an excellent central chapter on how schools have challenged their own systems and preconceptions and started to raise their expectations of all their pupils.There is a strong endorsement, too, of accelerated learning.

The central issue, though, is the recognition of racism itself, and for my money the most striking chapter of this valuable and persuasive text is the one that gently challenges our own concepts of what it is to be English or British - our nation's story, so to speak. It's a demonstration that stories are sometimes myths. They are no less powerful for that. And what about our attitudes to "the other" - the stranger in our midst? There is an ingenious exercise here that invites us to substitute "Ofsted inspectors" for any of the categories that history or the present might otherwise suggest. We find ourselves answering, "hostility entirely natural and normal", and begin to wonder.

Most persuasive, however, are the children's comments and stories. One resource in particular runs explicitly through these pages: the story of the life and death of Stephen Lawrence and Verna Wilkins's retelling of the story in A Life of StephenLawrence (Tamarind Books). As a pupil says here, it will always be an unfinished story, "but I don't think the people that stabbed him should take all the blame".

This is very much the message of this realistic and, above all, optimistic guide.

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