Not a time to turn a blind eye

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Working in multiethnic schools in the Nineties, Sarah Pearce got a nasty case of white teacher's guilt complex. How could she possibly understand or challenge the complex social undercurrents? Kenny Frederick would like to see less sackcloth and more action

You Wouldn't Understand: white teachers in multiethnic classrooms

By Sarah Pearce

Trentham Books pound;15.99

This book started life as a PhD thesis based on a diary kept over five years of teaching in an inner London primary. It looks at education and ethnic minority groups by focusing, unusually, on the race of the majority group; on white people. Sarah Pearce is also unusual in looking at the experience of the teacher, not the pupils. She points out that in the UK (and most European countries), the vast majority of teachers are white. The book asks: what impact does this have on the way teachers behave in the classroom, their relationship with children, and the way they see their role as teachers? And what consequences does it have for the children they teach?

Dr Pearce started primary teaching in the early 1990s in her mid-twenties, with little experience of living or working in ethnically diverse communities. She did her training in a large, ethnically different city precisely in order to prepare herself to teach in a diverse environment.

The school is described as having 90 per cent of pupils from homes where the main language spoken was not English. Over 80 per cent of the school's intake was Muslim, the vast majority being of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. There were also several from African or African-Caribbean background, and the remainder came from white, Indian or Vietnamese families.

She realised early in her first year in the classroom that there was "something wrong with my teaching". At first she was content to blame the children, but later she came to see that the narrowness of the curriculum, and the subtle aspects of the school's organisation, gave children messages about what was not permitted. Her diary describes a variety of situations in which the children denied, or at least did not acknowledge, their differences. Dr Pearce comments: "They appear to be living in two parallel worlds."

For example, she noticed that pupils only used westernised names for characters in their stories. Some staff discussed this informally; although they thought the children's behaviour was strange, they could not come up with any positive way of challenging it. Teachers noticed that most of the children did not seem comfortable discussing race directly with their teachers. Dr Pearce's initial interpretation of the children's attitude to skin colour was that they were attempting to be "colour blind", in the belief that ignoring, or pretending to ignore, the colour of a person's skin, or the fact that inequalities existed between races, was the same as being non-racist. The children were often heard to say: "We are all the same really."

Over her five years at the school, Dr Pearce was distressed to find children uncomfortable about speaking in their home language at school and embarrassed when "caught" speaking anything other than English. She was also distressed by incidents of overt racism among the children themselves and moved smoothly from blaming the children to blaming herself: "I didn't know what to say. Should I have challenged him? How?"

On one occasion she records a Bangladeshi child making racist remarks about "black" people (referring to a photograph being used in the lesson). Again, she struggles with her conscience, trying to understand why she could not challenge his attitudes. Her colleagues' comments show their own confusion:

"The difficulty is, do you make something of a racist incident - does that make it worse? Or, if not, are you brushing it under the carpet?"

Dr Pearce believes that she was colluding with racism through her failure to tackle it effectively in the classroom. She asserts that the attitude that racism will go away if ignored is common among white people, as they are less aware of the pervasiveness of racism. This view seems to me rather drastic: such an attitude certainly should not be common among staff in schools and other publicly funded institutions. But I agree that many white people and others ignore racist incidents because they are frightened of the outcome of challenging them. My view is that these incidents must always be challenged and discussed with children at the time. A culture of openness in the school will encourage children to be forthcoming.

The national curriculum is seen as the reason for schools not being better equipped to deal with institutional racism. ("The school was required to treat the children as if they were white, monolingual English speakers.") The headteacher's excuse for not addressing the inadequate curriculum was that he was determined to keep Ofsted and the LEA at bay with reasonable test results. Also, he was not convinced that multiculturalism and antiracist education was necessary at his school. He felt that the introduction of "inclusion week" (after Sats) was enough to satisfy parents. Dr Pearce perceives that the week was clearly not intended to change anything, and it didn't; no review of the curriculum or the CPD programme was planned.

What is missing for me is consideration of the importance of leadership (or lack of it), which is only hinted at. What were the school governors doing? The LEA? The unions and professional associations? What saddens me is that Dr Pearce herself felt so powerless to take action (how does she think the pupils felt?). She could have dealt with her guilt by asking questions, pointing out legislation. She could have asked for permission to set up a working group to develop an equal opportunities policy and good practice, involving parents, governors, teachers and other school staff.

Dr Pearce (by her own admission) writes from a very personal perspective, and this account of her journey of discovery may well be a useful discussion point for individuals or groups of school staff. But her tendency to beat herself up repeatedly is not helpful to the children or her colleagues, and I would have liked more positive advice to emerge from her heart-searching. Her conclusions seem to me to be stating the obvious; at least, obvious to me and other white teachers who have spent their careers in multiethnic schools.

My advice to teachers with similar concerns is: talk openly to the headteacher; start a working group to develop the school's equal opportunitiesinclusion policy; involve children in writing the policy; start with a questionnaire of pupils, parents, staff and governors and move forward. Become a teacher governor; use your union if you have to. Don't accept the situation. Stand up and be counted.

Thankfully, things have moved on since Dr Pearce started teaching more than a decade ago, because teachers and other staff working in education and elsewhere have done just that. Legislation and the inspection framework is now in place and can be used as a way of forcing unwilling headteachers to take action. If all else fails, become a headteacher and lead the sort of school you want to lead. Take off the hair shirt and put on the mantle of leadership.

Kenny Frederick is head of George Green community school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets

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