Schools that still can't cross the ethnic divide

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Twenty years ago a band of pupils were taught in a pub in protest over largely Asian classes. Wendy Jones returns to find little has changed

TWENTY YEARS ago this month, 26 families in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, launched a very public protest over the choice of primary school for their children.

The families were white. So too were most of the pupils at the school they had chosen. The intake at the school where their children had been allotted places was nearly 90 per cent Asian.

So began one of the most controversial education race rows of recent decades one that uncovered issues that remain unresolved today.

Both the parents and local education authority were convinced that they had right on their side. Each accused the other of racial discrimination. Neither was prepared to give in.

For the best part of a year, the 26 children involved had their lessons in a "schoolroom" set up by their parents in a pub. They were taught by two sympathetic retired teachers, while the parents, the local authority and their respective supporters slogged it out, initially through the media and later through the courts when the parents sought a judicial review.

The background to the row lay in the annual round of school admissions. That year, the local authority, Kirklees, was reorganising primary education in the Dewsbury area and managing falling school rolls. Some suspected it was also trying to manipulate admissions to lessen the growing racial imbalance between its schools. The council denied it. Either way, a larger than usual number of parents found themselves thwarted in their choice of schools in 1987.

The row counterpoised two big themes of the 1980s: multiculturalism and parental choice.

In 1985, the Swann report recommended that education should reflect the growing range of cultures and races in Britain. But in 1987, the Conservative government promised parents more choice. Reforms to do this were about to go through Parliament, raising expectations. However, the changes were not yet law and Kenneth Baker, the then education secretary, was powerless to intervene.

Visiting Dewsbury 20 years on, it is striking how much and how little has changed. The pub that housed the protesters' schoolroom is now a madrassa, where Muslim children come each afternoon after school to study Islam. It is one of 50 in Kirklees, hugely popular with Muslim parents and, it seems, their children.

The two communities still live largely separate lives in some ways more separate than ever. Kirklees' largely Muslim minority ethnic population has increased, but school integration has not.

Two-thirds of Kirklees primary schools have very little ethnic mix that is, they are more than 90 per cent white or, in some cases, 90 per cent Asian. This only partly reflects where families live, and is also a result of parental choice. To anyone familiar with the cosmopolitan make-up of cities such as London or Birmingham, the separatism may seem shocking.

Yet there is greater awareness now of the potential disadvantages of this pattern of schooling and more willingness among the main political parties and community groups to find practical solutions.

Community sensitivities in Dewsbury were heightened by the revelation of the town's links to one of the July 7 bombers. But well before that, the local authority had embarked on a school twinning programme, where white and Asian schools arrange regular exchange visits. The children share lessons, play together, learn about the others' customs and religions.

The Dewsbury parents have always maintained that their argument was about choice, not racism, and indeed they shunned offers of support from far-right political parties.

The parents finally won their case in the High Court, not on the disputed matters of race and religion on which they had challenged the council, but on a legal technicality relating to the admissions procedure.

Two of those on different sides of the fence in 1987 still believe the issue was fudged. Howard Roberts, secretary of the National Union of Teachers' Kirklees branch, said the largely unchallenged laws of parental choice had contributed to increasing "white flight".

"Parents come out with all sorts of reasons why they don't want a particular school with a large Asian intake," he said. "They may say they don't want a single-sex secondary school. Very few people will overtly state their real reasons."

Roger Peach, of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education and solicitor to the parents, said that in 1987 the white parents had the support of many in the Asian community who sympathised with their stand on cultural identity.

"No one wants hostility between communities," he said. "But a state can only go so far in getting citizens to abandon their idea of culture above all where the education of their children is concerned."

Defiance in Dewsbury will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on Monday, September 17

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