Urban problems move to the suburbs

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Recently, we were visited by the new head and deputy of a school in the "leafy suburbs". They came to look at some of the work we were doing on improving behaviour and tackling racism. Their school is a high-achieving one with a largely middle-class intake. However, they are enrolling increasing numbers of youngsters who travel across the borders, to where the grass is thought to be greener. Coupled with this is the recent shift in the political stability of the area. Extreme right-wing parties made significant gains in the last election on the back of hysterical anti-asylum-seeker rhetoric. The school concerned now has pupils who feel it is OK to express racist views. Managing extreme behaviour is becoming an issue as pupils increasingly refer to their rights, but not their responsibilities, and parents can no longer be counted on to support the school.

This school and many like it are facing problems that inner-city schools have grappled with for years. The difference is that these schools do not have the skills or experience to tackle them. Schools in the inner city do have the experience and expertise. They are in the spotlight and good at finding solutions. Change and new initiatives are second nature to us. We are aware of the need to plan for the future and anticipate problems.

Some suburban schools have not felt the need to adopt new ideas and concepts. There was no need to change. Things are different now. Social inclusion is a major responsibility for schools and educators. If we ignore what is happening, it will fester. Communities will become more divided.

Young people will grow up to be intolerant, blinkered adults who blame others for their own misfortune. But inclusion has to be planned.

Tolerance and respect must be part of the core curriculum in every school.

Everything we do and say should be about modelling and living these principles. Schools need to concentrate on meeting pupils' individual needs. We need to value pupils no matter what their ability or disability.

They are the parents and carers of tomorrow. We must not let the gutter press and television take responsibility for the social and moral education of our young people. Many parents and carers are unable to provide the guidance and stability needed to steer vulnerable teenagers. Schools must lead the way. We need to challenge racism. People who are racist are usually sexist, homophobic and xenophobic. Schools can and must intervene and make a difference. Some "all white" or middle-class schools have not felt the need to tackle such difficult issues. They tend to see it as somebody else's problem. They got on with teaching and learning and getting to the top of the league tables.

Anti-social behaviour and violence in the classroom were seen as inner-city problems. This is no longer the case. We need to prepare our youngsters for a changing world. It is important to ensure that pupils are emotionally intelligent, humane, and able to participate in and contribute to their community. We need to ensure they value diversity and are not threatened by it. They need to become citizens not tourists.

The suburban colleagues who came to visit us are aware of the changing local population and are doing what they can to address the situation and plan for the future. I wonder how many others will ignore the signals and stick their head in the sand? The time bomb is ticking.

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

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