Ms Goody's bigotry has put vital policy issues under the spotlight

26th January 2007 at 00:00
The row over racism and bullying on Channel 4's Big Brother dramatised some big challenges for future education policy.

As politicians called for the plug to be pulled, the show delivered a national tutorial in the dynamics of prejudice, and how to distinguish ignorance from racism. Initially, the argument that these were clashes of class seemed plausible, but the racial undercurrent came to the fore as Jade Goody admitted to calling Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty "Shilpa Poppadom" (and worse). Her insistence that there was "nothing racial about it" could even become a teaching tool. Jade later said she had learnt that "things I say might be racist even though I think they are not".

This bullying was used as evidence that schools must do more to deal with diversity. One could argue that Jade had a complex upbringing and that playing a primary caring role from a young age disrupted her education. But if education cannot solve larger social issues on its own, it has a vital role to play. So Education Secretary Alan Johnson took the opportunity to preview Sir Keith Ajegbo's report on citizenship, arguing that BB showed why we need to "make sure our schools focus on the core British values of justice and tolerance".

But teaching "shared values" will not be enough. The notion of Britishness remains too fuzzily defined, and contested. If we all agreed on what the shared values were, the exercise would be redundant. (While the tabloids congratulated Britain on the clear message sent by a "national referendum on racism", 18 per cent of viewers voted to keep Jade in the BB house.) Giving citizenship enough time on an already crowded timetable has been hard for many schools. Rooting the subject in an understanding of British history is important, and this must be a "warts and all" account. The fear in past decades that discussing the rise and fall of Empire would be too divisive in multi-ethnic classrooms has given way to a recognition that this is the only way to explain how Britain became what it is today.

Thorny issues will arise from the increasing salience of integration in government policy, and the social and ethnic mix of schools will again rise up the agenda. Government may struggle to reconcile its commitment to parental choice with a preference for mixed intakes and interaction across communities. Faith schools can expect, at the least, to be encouraged to twin and co-operate with each other.

But issues of ethnic segregation affect community schools. "White flight"

can mean that non-white parents who want to choose integration find their children in ethnically segregated schools. Politicians' instincts will be cautious, preferring to avoid a segregation "tipping point" rather than to reverse this after the event, thus risking the spectre of "bussing".

Yet in some places it is already too late. Oldham is replacing several schools to move away from mono-ethnic schools in a multi-ethnic town.

Influential voices such as that of Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, are advocating that a more radical approach be extended, with Sir Cyril proposing new multi-faith academies.

The Chancellor Gordon Brown was also drawn into the BB row on his trip to India, and having to find something to say about reality TV was seen as part of his transition to Prime Minister. The episode may lead Mr Brown to reflect on the scale of the task he faces in education. On the eve of his trip to India, he told the Fabian new year conference that a "national mission" to create a world-class education system will be his number one domestic priority.

Mr Brown is convinced that Britain can no longer afford to tolerate an education system which, while it has long delivered excellence at the top, is relatively indifferent to the lower achievers. He believes that competing with India and China requires a step-change in skills and a nation at ease with diversity. Reality TV may be a distorting mirror but it captured one truth: there is a long way to go.


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