Reva Klein reports on a Hertfordshire infants school which has taken multicultural learning to its heart. Equal opportunities policies come in two forms: those that sit on shelves collecting dust, ignored, forgotten, dragged out only when there is a problem or an inspection; and there are those that from their inception take on an almost organic quality. They are worked on by a group of people until they are perfected, becoming part of the living culture of the institution, regularly reappraised and amended.
At Fleetville Infants School in St Albans, Hertfordshire, the equal opportunities policy is of the second type. It is almost a model. Three groups - the school, the governors and Hertfordshire's Minority Ethnic Curriculum Services (MECS) - worked on the policy for a year. One of its strengths is that it was not dictated by government directives. Instead, it came from within. Dorothy Dale, Fleetville's headteacher, says: "We started looking at the needs of all children in the school. We saw it as a priority."
St Albans has the second biggest Bangladeshi community in the country, after Tower Hamlets. Unemployment among them is rife - around 80 per cent - since a local rubber factory shut down several years ago. While the majority of children at Fleetville Infants come from professional backgrounds, 15 per cent are Bangla and Urdu speakers and seven per cent are economically disadvantaged.
With a catchment of such economic and cultural diversity, Dorothy Dale and her team faced a challenging task. The resulting policy has been rewarding for them and successful - according to Office for Standards in Education inspectors last year. As MECS manager Jan Hardy puts it: "Equal opportunities can often look like the pastoral, soft side of schools. But Dorothy sees it as the hard edge of raising ethnic minority achievement. There is no contradiction between the two."
After the head approached MECS, an advisory teacher was allocated to the school for a year of weekly in-service training sessions with teaching and non-teaching staff. Governors were not invited to attend but Dorothy Dale says, "with hindsight, I'd have actively involved them in developing the policy. " As it was, governors were presented with a draft.
Margaret Seelig, a local education authority-appointed governor with an equal opportunities background says: "I'd have liked to have been involved at an early stage. But since we were presented with the policy for adoption in January 1993, we have seen it in action and appreciated it and become much more attuned to it - after the initial shock."
That shock was due to its format and content. Jan Hardy explains: "It's more like an action plan, with dates, priorities and performance indicators. "
Action is the operative concept for Dorothy Dale. "We looked at what we wanted children to know and experiences we wanted them to have. We decided on lists of knowledge and experience for teachers' short, medium and long term planning. We looked at information we wanted children to have that supports the curriculum.
"We wanted to devise a dynamic, practical document which was clear about objectives, about who would take responsibility for those objectives and about timescales."
So instead of a policy just talking about preparing children for life in a multicultural society, Fleetville has descriptions of what that means and how it will be implemented. Two parallel categories reflect the policy: Knowledge (what should be taught) and Experiences (how it should be taught). They appear in teachers' plans and pupils' records. This approach permeates teachers' plans, pupil profiles, curriculum, behaviour policy, class codes developed by pupils, the school ethos, and parent and community links.
However, the incentive for other schools thinking of ploughing time and resources into such work is not clear. From September 1996, there will be no specific OFSTED framework for equal opportunities. It will be schools' responsibility to set their own standards. Where previously inspectors focused on equal opportunities as a discrete category, they will now appraise its "permeation" throughout the school.
While some support this more generalised approach, Jan Hardy is pessimistic. "My worry is that all of this kind of work will disappear in September. If all inspection teams had someone with sufficient background and expertise in equal opportunities, I'd be feeling positive about the new system," she says. "But there is no insistence on the inspection of equal opportunities from OFSTED any more."
EXCERPTS FROM FLEETVILLE'S EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES POLICY
* To recognise, value and respond to bilingualism.
* To increase language awareness for all children.
1 Conduct a language survey within the school to ascertain the diversity of languages.
2 Build a pool of human resources from the information gathered and possible links with junior and secondary schools.
3 A whole-school meeting to establish effective ways of working with bilingual assistants.
4 With the help of bilingual staff, create learning activities that encourage development of the first language.
5 Use other language and dialect speakers alongside the class teacher for story telling.
6 Use first-language and dual text books in the classroom to raise language awareness for all pupils and give status to the languages of minority ethnic pupils.
7 Continue to display other written languages, alphabets and numbers.
8 Staff to learn and use a few words in children's first languages.
9 Build a library of stories taped in first language.