Are education chiefs pandering to middle-class parents and allowing schools to become racial ghettos? Fran Abrams reports from Oldham
From the window of her eighth-floor office, Oldham's director of education, Chris Berry, can survey a huge swathe of her estate. Down the hill, to the left, she can see the flat roofs of Grange School nestling in a jumble of terraced streets. Up the hill, to the right, sits the imposing form of The Oldham Blue Coat school, surrounded by playing fields.
The schools - just a few minutes' walk apart in the constituency where the British National party has just won 11,500 votes in the General Election - provide a chilling illustration of how two cultures can live in the same town yet in separate worlds. For, while 97 per cent of the pupils at Grange are of Asian origin, all but a handful at Blue Coat are white.
Although Blue Coat school is on the doorstep of much of the town's ethnic-minority population, its doors are closed to them. Along with Oldham's other Church of England secondary school, Crompton House, it demands regular church attendance - so Asian parents, most of them Muslim, know there is no point in applying.
The Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, Phil Willis, warned the schools against "pandering to middle-class parents" and said they were at risk of creating deep divisions in their communities. "If we drive pupils into racial ghettos we may see in England what has already happened in Northern Ireland. Education could become a breeding ground for faith division, religious division and also social and economic division."
The racial segregation in Oldham's schools is not confined to the religious sector. Of 16 primaries to the south-east of the town centre, an area two miles long and about half a mile wide, four have no white pupils at all. Two-thirds of the area's pupils are from ethnic minorities, but five of its primary schools are more than 80 per cent white.
Mrs Berry does not seem concerned about this, though she is anxious to stress that all is now calm after the recent race riots. There is a fear that businesses may withdraw their investment in Oldham, she says. "The issue isn't that the schools are polarised in terms of Asian and white. I think that is an acceptable way for life to be. If children go to their local school and, if it turns out it is all white or all Asian that is acceptable. The issue is how we interface with people from other communities," she says.
"Primarily, Asian schools are now formally linked with primarily-white schools. We use technology, children become pen-pals, they have video-conferencing."
It is very bad for children to have to travel long distances to school, she says, though she defends the admissions policies of the town's two Church of England secondary schools, which bus their pupils from all over Greater Manchester.
"There are not enough places for all the pupils from a Church of England background, and that causes frustration among the Church of England community."
But David Bowes, headteacher of Crompton House, is happy to admit that many "Church of England" parents actually attend services with the express purpose of winning a place at his school. Applicants need a reference from their vicar, and only a handful are from ethnic minorities.
Even so, Mr Bowes has two applications per place. More than 70 per cent of his pupils gained at least five high-grade GCSEs last year, as did those at the Blue Coat school, where the head was dealing with an emergency last week and was unable to talk to The TES.
Mr Bowes said: "Many parents, if they were completely honest, would say that they think this is a great school and they think going to church for five years to ensure they get a place is the right thing to do. The junior churches here are huge, incredibly well-supported, and Blue Coat school has exactly the same effect."
His school is "twinned" with Hathershaw, a local comprehensive where 30 per cent of pupils are from Asian backgrounds. Crompton House has also adopted a school in Kenya.
Elsewhere in Oldham, less well-subscribed church schools are happy to take Muslim pupils. Among them is St Thomas's Church of England primary school in Werneth, where there are no white pupils at all. Its head, Jenny Mitchell, worries that many of her pupils never meet a white child until they go to secondary school at 11, and has recently begun organising joint events with pupils from a primary school in Fitton Hill - an all-white estate.
Sometimes she comes to school to find local teenagers have lit fires on her doorstep. They aren't trying to burn the place down, she says, but trying to keep warm during the long evenings they spend hanging around outside to escape their overcrowded homes. She would like to form a youth club in her school as part of a forthcoming refurbishment, but who will pay? Department for Education and Skills capital grants to primary schools do not cover youth facilities.
She seems floored when asked if she would prefer her school's ethnic mix to be closer to that of the racial mix of pupils in the town as a whole - around 25 per cent Asian and 75 per cent white.
"Would you ask a head on a white estate if he or she would like to take more poor pupils?" she asks, before adding that her pupils, despite their deprived backgrounds, are probably much better behaved than those in all-white or mixed schools.
Other heads were edgy and defensive when asked about the race issue, and several said they feared anything they said might inflame racial tensions. None was prepared to talk openly about those tensions, and the town's only Asian secondary head decided he would rather not be interviewed.
So, are white parents in Oldham choosing schools on racial - even racist - criteria? It is hard to find a headteacher or education department official who believes they are. But Abdul Jabbar, a Labour councillor and vice-chair of governors at Grange School, says there is frustration among Asian parents who cannot get their children into successful secondary schools which cater mainly for white pupils.
He recently saw a father in tears after being told his fourth child would have no place at a successful school in a largely-white area, despite having three children there already. The school was in an expensive part of town and the family could not afford to move closer to the school.
He believes better, more mixed housing is the key to bringing the town's divided communities together. Asian families rarely ask the council for accommodation on its mainly-white estates, he says, even though some of their owner-occupied homes are so overcrowded that their children must share beds. They believe that to do so would make them the target of racist attacks.
"If you had a choice between putting up with very poor housing or getting decent housing but putting your personal safety at risk, which one would you choose?" he asks. "There is no choice."
New housing association schemes can help by offering accommodation to all racial groups on condition that they live peacefully together, he says. But he would also like to see more flexibility over school admissions at the most popular schools - both church and local authority - with a small proportion of places being opened to pupils from outside the faith or outside the catchment area. No figures are kept on how church schools outside Oldham cater for ethnic minorities, but Jan Ainsworth, director of education for the Manchester diocese which covers Oldham, says only a handful of its schools exclude non-Christian children.
Last week, a report from Lord Dearing on church schools called for greater inclusiveness, and JanAinsworth agrees with its stance.
"This isn't what we want, and that is why Dearing is saying we have to open up the church sector so that what we have can be shared more. But how do you change people's minds? You can't do it by rapping them over the knuckles. It's a simple issue but a complex process. It's about changing hearts and minds," she says.
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"Many parents would say this is a great school ... they think going to church for five years to ensure they get a place is the right thing to do"