We don't get many round here

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Predominantly white communities can be the most racist. Tim Brighouse reads a study of how policy and practice can be informed by recent history

We're all White, Thanks: the persisting myth about "white" schools By Chris Gaine

Trentham Books pound;16.99

The almost inevitable price of growing old is that you reflect on your career experiences, especially when present policies and issues are treated as though they are new with no history. It's dangerous to look back too much because you run the risk of appearing a grumpy old person. But this book made me recall something astonishing.

In the 1970s, the first bold local education authority to put its head over the parapet and lead on vigorous anti-racist work was the now defunct Tory-controlled Berkshire County Council. If it seems improbable now, it was then. I remember the LEAs that were looking the race issue in the face - London and other major cities - being forced to ask for details of Berkshire's documents and programmes and learn from them. Meanwhile, colleagues in Tory-controlled shires, such as neighbouring Oxfordshire where I had just become education officer, looked on - gaped, even - in disbelief mixed with breathless admiration.

Robin Richardson, later to lead the Runnymede Trust, was the architect of the unambiguous Berkshire policy and practice which tackled racism head on.

Moreover, Berkshire made it clear even then that race was as much of an issue, perhaps more, where the population was completely or predominantly white than where it was truly multiracial. Chris Gaine's book, sadly, makes me realise that while there might have been progress in the inner cities since those days, the impact of Berkshire's pioneering work has been slight to the point of invisibility in mainly white areas. Lest you think that a matter of opinion, We're All White, Thanks is full of shocking examples of recent racism.

As for opinion itself, Gaine cites a Mori poll of 2004 which reveals that most people think 25 per cent of the population is black immigrant (when the most recent census shows that the population is 2 per cent black, 4 per cent Asian, 92 per cent white, with the balance being mixed race). Second, they believe that immigration is damaging. Yet given a declining birth rate and an ageing population, we could not survive without immigration. Third, the Mori poll showed that a majority believe Britain is a racist society.

At least public opinion is right on one front.

Chris Gaine has worked in mainly white areas, first as a teacher in Wiltshire, and more recently at Chichester University. Like me, he believes the problem lies not so much in the heart of unequivocally multiracial, multifaith, multilingual inner cities, but in what he defines as three types of white communities. His first category consists of areas "adjacent"

to the inner city (Northfield in Birmingham, where black teenagers from the inner city still venture on a Saturday night at their peril, comes to mind). The second he calls "peripheral": commuter belts close to multi-ethnic inner cities. In Birmingham it would be Sutton Coldfield. The third type of white area Gaine calls "isolated"; he is clearly thinking of parts of the shire counties. He reveals that more than two-thirds of secondary schools in England and Wales have fewer than 5 per cent black children, while more than 5,000 primary schools are entirely white.

The book is about these white communities and their schools, where Gaine shows (with plenty of evidence) how racism lurks just below the surface or in stark and dangerous ugliness above. He backs this up with examples. "In the last two weeks of the 2005 election campaigns when 'immigration' as an issue was receiving maximum publicity, a black woman I know was awoken from a snooze in a park by 13-year-olds throwing stones at her. She wasn't the only person taking advantage of the warm weather, but she was the only black one, and it had never happened to her before... It is as if there is a series of buttons that can easily be pressed, a series of responses readily involved with the right collection of symbolic prompts: Britishness, scroungers, bogus, foreign ways, inexplicit threats."

Chris Gaine has now written three books on this issue, at 10-yearly intervals. So it's not surprising that he starts this one by looking at history and progress, or lack of it. He provides comparative facts and traces the various stages of the development of educational ideas, policy and practice. So we follow the successive guiding themes - "assimilation", "multiculturalism", "anti-racism" - and more recently the reassertion of assimilist values on the back of the furore over asylum seekers and the politically inspired debates about what it means to be British or a fully fledged citizen.

Those who work in white schools in white areas will shudder as they read the all too familiar examples of racist incidents. On the evidence of this book, some schools are in denial; others, which genuinely try to involve parents when they record incidents, will relate to the head who declares:

"On 50 per cent of occasions when we've sent home (letters about) instances of inappropriate behaviour towards ethnic minorities, we've had notes back saying, 'I don't think he's done anything wrong'."

It will be the exceptional white school that doesn't find itself looking in the mirror at reflections of ignored racial innuendo, of inappropriate jokes, of curriculum example and above all of the loose use of language. So it's good that there's a chapter on "Words, Concepts, Definitions and Terminology". Better still, the book provides helpful examples of how schools should best go about making policies with practices to match.

Extensive and practical suggestions for professional development will help any school determined to make progress.

Chris Gaine is right to end on an optimistic note. In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry came first the Race Relations Amendment Act, which no school can ignore; then, at long last, some focused reporting from Ofsted when inspecting schools and local education authorities. It's unlikely, for example, that any authority (even a shire county) will ever again have the gall to tell Ofsted that it rejected the services of Asian trainers from the local race equality council because teachers were "just not ready for it", as Chris Gaine reports in the book. In future the issue will be addressed.

I fear, however, that until the present generations of pupils grow up, little significant progress will be made. While I was writing this review, for example, my stepson reported challenging a racist joke in a social gathering only to receive the response, "Well, I come from Stevenage and there aren't many of them there."

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser to the London Schools Challenge and has just been appointed chair of the Teaching Awards national judging panel

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