Even three-year-olds can attach value to skin colour and hurt others with their prejudices. Reva Klein reports on how to combat racism. Seven years ago the Daily Mail ran the headline "Checks on racist toddlers" in an inflammatory article about Hertfordshire education department's anti-racist policy. It was followed the next day by "The idiocy that turns children into racists". The Sun and other tabloids joined in the derision of "loony Left" inner-London councils that reportedly forced innocent children to sing "Baa Baa Green Sheep".
Today, however, anti-racist policies are considered part and parcel of nursery education; the work that was being done by the people vilified for propagandising the "nappy brigade" a few years ago has filtered through into the fabric of early-years practice and race relations legislation.
The Children Act and its accompanying guidance are informed by the understanding, supported by a substantial body of research, that children from the age of three are capable of attaching value to colour, physical appearance, gender and disability and can express prejudice in ways that are hurtful to others.
In view of this, the Act says: "Children should have the right to be cared for as part of a community which values the religious, racial, cultural and linguistic identity of the child." The Act sets standards for both the private and voluntary sectors, acknowledging the responsibility of educators of even the smallest children to help develop positive attitudes to people of different races and cultures.
But while there have been enormous strides in the understanding of racial awareness in children, while there have been laws and guidance designed to eradicate inequalities and while there are more and more resources which reflect positive images of different races and cultures, there is still cause for concern.
Jane Lane, formerly of the education section at the Commission for Racial Equality and now an independent consultant, tells the story of the four-year-old daughter of a headteacher in the north of Scotland who encounters a visiting Nigerian boy. "Are you a boxer?" she asks him. "No," he replies. "Then," she concludes, "you must've been in prison." Nobody had a clue that this little girl had those kinds of ideas in her head, nor could they fathom where they had come from.
That anecdote illustrates the ubiquity of racial stereotyping, whether from the media or from blatant or subliminal messages conveyed by family or friends. Iram Siraj-Blatchford, in her recent book The Early Years: Laying the foundations for racial equality, quotes research carried out by Cecile Wright in 1992, which looked at the experience of black children aged three to eight in nursery and primary schools.
Wright's observations of the four schools containing a total of 970 children and 57 staff make uncomfortable reading. She found that "racist name-calling and attacks from white peers were a regular, almost daily experience for Asian children that teachers were reluctant to formally address". Even worse, she found that teachers singled out African-Caribbean children, particularly boys, more than other children, for criticism and displayed "negative stereotypes of South Asian children as lacking in cognitive ability and having poor linguistic and social skills."
Cecile Wright concludes that: "While it is generally accepted that the foundations of emotional, intellectual and social development are laid in the early years of formal education from the evidence gathered it could be argued that some black children are relatively disadvantaged at this stage of their education."
Several organisations and individuals have been working to combat the realities that Cecile Wright and Iram Siraj-Blatchford document. The Early Years Trainers Anti-Racist Network, co-ordinated by Babette Brown, has been producing training materials and running seminars and conferences for the past 10 years and has been an influential voice in this area. So, too, has the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children's Bureau, the Working Group Against Racism in Children's Resources and, since last year, the Equality Learning Centre, funded by Save the Children.
All agree that good anti-racist practice is patchy. Says Peter Elfer of the NCB's Early Childhood Unit: "In some inner-city areas it is very good. But in predominately white areas, you'll find local authorities that do not require policies. And where they do exist, there is nothing much to help them implement it. The problem is that equal opportunities are not required by law, but are only in the guidance. And it is my worry and others' that when local authorities inspect provision and see services that don't value and promote equal opportunities, they won't do anything about it. They feel that guidance doesn't have the force of the law behind it."
For those concerned about good anti-racist child care, there are, according to Jane Lane, three essential elements. First, eliminate discriminatory employment practices by ensuring equal opportunities in the recruitment of staff. Second, ensure every child in the nursery or classroom is treated equally. "This isn't the same as treating everyone the same - which means treating everyone as if they were white - or simply saying 'we're an equal opportunities nursery'. It means valuing and respecting every individual."
Last, there must be a policy of countering the learning of racist attitudes. This is the hardest thing of all, requiring a close relationship with parents. "If children reflect their environment," says Jane Lane, "it's important that everyone involved with children has a strategy to intervene in the learning process. This requires pre-empting racism, not dealing with things as they arise in an ad hoc way."
"If there is a policy and an ethos in the nursery of valuing and respecting everyone and parents have helped to develop that policy, everyone owns the philosophy," says Jane Lane. "So when something crops up, like negative name calling or an event from the outside, like the Manningham riots, there's a framework from which to work."
That this process is crucial to the intellectual, emotional and social development of children from the earliest age is evident to professionals and to parents engaged with the issues. As Nandini Mane of the Working Group Against Racism in Children's Resources puts it: "You can have all the right toys and books and posters, but if the staff don't respect all the children for who they are, you can't call it good practice."
Useful organisations: * Early Years Trainers Anti-Racist Network, PO Box 1870, London N12 8JQ (0181 446 7056). n Black Childcare Network, 17 Brownhill Road, London SE6 2EG. n Early Childhood Unit, National Children's Bureau, 8 Wakley St, London EC1V 7QE (0171 843 6000). n Equality Learning Centre, 356 Holloway Road, London N7 6PA (0171 700 8127). n Anti-Racist Teacher Education Network, co Ian Menter, Department of Education, Bristol Polytechnic, Redland Hill, Bristol. n Working Group Against Racism in Children's Resources, 460 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 3LX (0171 627 4594). n Trentham Books (01782 745567) publishes many books for teachers, nursery practitioners and trainers on anti-racism.