War on terror comes home

15th October 2004 at 01:00
David Henderson reports from the educational psychologists' conference at Heriot-Watt University

A "bin Laden" factor is evident in playgrounds with a mix of different races, a study in a Renfrewshire primary has revealed. White pupils taunt Asian pupils with ditties about Osama bin Laden, while some Muslims hit back by calling them "white chocolate".

The unnamed flagship primary, which is apparently doing everything it can to promote diversity and multiculturalism, was riven with racism, pupils aged 8-11 told researchers. The school had no recorded incidents of racism at the time, according to Richard Woolfson and Michael Harker, depute principal psychologists with Renfrewshire Council.

The study discovered that children from ethnic minority backgrounds are particularly hurt by name-calling. Ten per cent were from ethnic families.

One boy said: "I get called a lot of names like Paki and stuff like that."

Another commented: "It's getting worse and there's more of it since that bin Laden thing and they've made songs about it."

One girl said: "I just smile, like it doesn't matter to me."

Two focus groups of pupils, one non-ethnic and the other ethnic, produced remarkably similar views about the excellent work the school was doing on respect for others and religious tolerance. But the ethnic pupils said they were reluctant to tell staff if they had been racially abused.

Dr Woolfson said it was a model school that was carrying out all its legal duties to tackle racism and promote equality. It arranged opt-outs for assemblies, provided separate worship areas, brought in parents to teach about differences and organised support for English as an additional language across classes.

Staff and parents maintained there was no discrimination based on ethnic background or religion. But Dr Woolfson concludes: "There is the existence of the 'no problem here' syndrome and it shows that the elimination of discrimination is difficult. Schools cannot be complacent. Our study shows it is important to listen to pupils and that schools still have a key role in tackling racism."

The study involved questionnaires to 77 parents, 19 teachers and nine support staff. Face to face interviews were conducted with seven teachers and two parents.

The researchers also talked to pupils from the school council who were all non-ethnic. A second group was drawn from pupils whose parents had identified them as part of an ethnic minority group. The same questions were asked of each group.

Since the findings were disclosed, the school has responded by sharpening procedures to encourage children to speak out.

The researchers say that they met a strong reaction from some parents who feared making things worse. One Asian parent said: "I brought my kids up to keep their heads down; that is what I did when I was young."

The study defines racism as: physical or verbal assault, graffiti, badges or insignia, written materials, incitement of others, comments in discussion, ridicule, or written derogatory remarks. "The presence of the person being abused is not necessary," Dr Woolfson said.

Research south of the border has suggested that school-based programmes alone are ineffective and that it is not enough to have policies in place.

Dr Woolfson said all Scottish schools were liable to inspection on their practice in promoting race equality and were under a duty from the Race Relations Act 2000 to tackle racism.

Racism in Schools - No Room for Complacency, by Richard Woolfson, Michael Harker and Dorothy Lowe, will be published in the December issue of the journal Educational and Child Psychology.

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