Melting pot is not enough;Opinion

12th March 1999 at 00:00
Everyone should challenge racist behaviour - but how can schools best spread the equality message? asks Mary Marsh

When I came into London from Hertfordshire to take up my post as head, many people questioned my reasons. My spontaneous response was "The capital's a melting pot and I love it."

I still think this, but the painful reflections we have shared since the report into the Stephen Lawrence inquiry have forced us all to recognise anew that the delights of living and working in a cosmopolitan society are far from equally shared. We cannot escape the fact of racism. So what more can we do about it in schools?

For many inner-city schools valuing cultural diversity is fundamental to our existence as we have the privilege of living with it every day. The recommendations of the Lawrence inquiry include a request for this to be recognised in the national curriculum. This is right. The issue is how.

I do not believe any extra course on "racism awareness" will be sufficient. The whole curriculum needs to sustain a global perspective. Gestures towards ethnic minorities within the UK, to Europe and to the Commonwealth are not enough.

And beyond the principles of equality, it makes sense to educate young people for employability in the global economic environment of the 21st century. It fits with a wholehearted response to the need to include education for citizenship, sustainable development and morality. Cultural awareness can be richly encouraged through sharing and celebrating differences in art, literature, music, drama and dance. I have always believed that the arts are the essential core curriculum, effectively developing self-awareness and sensitivity to others.

It is not simply a case of changing the curriculum. We need to consider the whole way in which we work. Do we live up to the ideals that we present? Young people rapidly see through any hypocrisy. Do they really feel they have a voice that is heard?

Statements of principle are not enough. There must be a process of affirmation, education and leading by example to prevent the thoughtlessness and ignorance the Lawrence report highlights. In such a context any prejudice would be deliberate and not unwitting.

The stated values of schools need to be reflected in their behaviour policies and, most importantly, in their implementation. They should be linked to home-school agreements. This all gives a focus for emphasising the principle of equal opportunities. We must challenge the disproportionately high levels of African-Caribbean and black African students being permanently excluded. Underachievement of some ethnic-minority groups remains a concern. What can be done to change this?

Recording and publishing the pattern of racist incidents is likely to be counter-productive. We need a culture of openness and active questioning within schools, not defensiveness and denial. I welcome the Government's shift towards policies for inclusion, together with recognising the need for multi-agency working and the resources to make this happen.

At Holland Park school, the background, experiences and home communities of our internationally and ethnically-diverse students offer us an important resource.

This also applies to our staff, but to a lesser extent. (The very low number of students entering the teaching profession from the ethnic minorities is as serious for schools as it is for the police.) Since the school first opened it has held tolerance, mutual respect and cultural diversity at its heart. Tensions between groups of students have been rare, in spite of the pressures that exist outside. Our relations with the local police are now totally different from the hostilities of the past. The officers I work with give clear evidence of how the Metropolitan Police as a whole can change.

For schools with no diversity in their own community, any cultural celebration is more difficult - but all the more essential. Young people who happen to grow up in such areas will live as adults in a multi-cultural society and many will work in a global marketplace. Maybe we should have more exchanges between schools in the UK, as well as abroad.

In areas with communities where there are distinct groups who present open and active prejudice, as described in the Lawrence report, the task for schools is the most demanding. The thoughtlessness and ignorance to be countered can be deeply ingrained, and they are likely to be shared at home.

In fact schools may often be the only places where such attitudes are challenged and not tolerated. This is the fundamental message of the Lawrence report. Everyone should challenge racist attitudes and behaviour everywhere. We cannot do it in schools on our own.

Perhaps the best resource we have is the young people themselves. They can have a powerful voice and the vast majority of them believe passionately in fairness and justice.

The school council at Holland Park agreed earlier this year their own charter declaration for the school's 40th anniversary. Their words have given a profound resonance to our collective reflections over recent weeks: "Our school community will strive to provide a place free from prejudice and discrimination of any kind where every individual is respected and valued for who they are.

"We value equality, cultural tolerance, and an education which will prepare us for the real world and will enable us to make it a better place."

We are very fortunate that our part of the melting pot in Kensington and Chelsea is so positive.

Mary Marsh is head of Holland Park comprehensive in west London

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