Let history teach us to be tolerant

26th January 2007 at 00:00
Few countries in the world have higher expectations of their teachers than Britain. Elsewhere, they are primarily educators. Here, we expect them to be social workers, club secretaries and guardians of morals.

Few teachers in this country would disagree with Sir Keith Ajegbo's message in this week's TES that they should be at the forefront of the fight against racism, although a government report due to be published shortly will suggest that they do not always live up to their good intentions.

Sarah Pearce, a primary teacher, speaks this week of her "dawning realisation that I was part of an institutionally racist education system"

(page 20).

Yet the route to a society in which Jade Goody's attitudes have become a thing of the past is clearly about more than changing teachers' attitudes.

Pupils' culture and background play a big part in determining their behaviour and progress in school.

Why, if schools are racist, are the permanent exclusion figures for black Africans the same as for white pupils while Afro-Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be excluded than their peers? Training teachers such as Sarah Pearce to recognise their own prejudices may help, but society cannot expect the profession to shoulder the responsibility for yet another social ill.

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, has recommended citizenship lessons centred on "British" values as a vehicle to promote tolerance. Maybe he should amend this to English, Scottish and Welsh, given the latest British Social Attitudes survey showing that more people in England now think of themselves as English rather than British. The less fashionable and older discipline of history would serve Mr Johnson's purpose just as well.

Government advisers' proposals on what 11 to 14-year-olds should be taught in history are also published this week amid more complaints about overdoses of Hitler and Stalin.

"British" values have evolved as different races and cultures have come together on this island: Vikings, Romans, Normans, Jews, immigrants from Asia, the West Indies and Africa. A bit less Hitler and a bit more about this remarkable story might do more to tackle racism than a hopeless quest to decide what being "British" means and an attempt to teach it in citizenship lessons.

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