Will education lead society out of racism?;Another Voice;Opinion

18th June 1999 at 01:00
A NUMBER of lazy offerings are commonly presented as "solutions" to the many intractable problems in our society. Talk about drugs, racism or teenage pregnancies and you get two stock responses: blame the media for all we know and do; and the way out of the mess is education.

Poor old education. It's asked to bear all the burdens of society while still trying to teach the 3Rs, and now also to make moral small citizens of all our little darlings in six working hours a day.

It is right, of course, to have idealistic expectations of education. One reason many of us have children is that we are investing in a hope (perhaps a foolish one) that they will regain that paradise we seem to have lost. But if we seriously do want education to deal with these growing problems, we will need more than simplistic mantras.

Take race, for example. In my book, Who Do We Think We Are?, to be published by Penguin early next year, I consider how our leaders failed to grasp the opportunities provided by the irreversible demographic changes in this country not only after 1948 but long before then. In the chapter on education, I look at the details of this dereliction of duty. It makes a miserable subject. Pioneers such as Professor Eggleston at Warwick University and A Sivanandan of the Institute of Race Relations spoke decades ago of the need for an education which could serve a post-imperial nation. But their ideas were not properly supported by the establishment.

Then in 1985 we had the almost impeccable Swann Report, which should have become the bedrock of a national education strategy with the aim of educating black and white young people for a new society. Instead, anti-racist and multicultural education was killed and buried by Thatcherism.

Some of this does not deserve mourning. There were undoubtedly examples of insane, sometimes Stalinist practices. But the reason why Margaret Thatcher and her New Right went on the attack against the Inner London Education Authority, and against other LEAs and the Swann report team, was that they understood all too well how such an education would transform our landscape.

New Labour, terrified of being linked to a past "loony" era, has remained silent on this issue. We may speak of school exclusions and raising standards for black and Asian pupils, but not of a multicultural curriculum. But now, at long last, the subject is being revived.

The Macpherson report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence stresses the need for effective anti-racist education. Legitimacy has been handed back to the cause. This explains why some LEAs are grasping the challenge with so much enthusiasm.

Leeds is foremost among these. It may be taking the place of the ILEA as an authority that shows many others how important it is to put multiculturalism and anti-racism at the heart of education. The city is also unusual in having a number of highly skilled black and Asian educators in positions of influence and responsibility.

I met some at a conference in Verona this month where educators, local politicians, business people and others from European Union cities had gathered to discuss equality in education. I heard how Italy kept alive the home languages of pupils and how teachers in Denmark created real relationships between schools and non-Danish families. I even found United States Professor Kete Asante's critique of Afro-centrist teaching persuasive - although I still find such ideas unacceptable.

Some of the papers were turgid and too academic to be any good to anyone outside the ivory towers. But when teachers and teacher-trainers spoke you got a sense that anti-racist education was far from dead and that, ironically, this country is seen to be the leader across the European Union because this is where some of the best ideas were developed before they were banished underground.

Some people feel we need to create a "new" inoffensive kind of anti-racist education which can be located in the citizenship framework. The excellent Crick Report has stated that equality and diversity ought to be essential concepts that must be imparted to pupils as part of their citizenship education.

Other concepts, such as co-operation and conflict; fairness and justice, are also listed. Together they could indeed weave a behavioural model for anti-racism, but this would still leave other substantive areas untouched.

The content of history and art offers an example. Perhaps the real changes will come when middle-class parents decide that such an education is essential for their children.

At this point perhaps I should inform Tony Blair and Cherie Booth that at the deservedly reputable Oratory school , where I was invited to speak to students, I met a teacher who displayed the most breathtaking ignorance of racism. Perhaps they can bring this up at the next parents' evening.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research, and a writer and broadcaster

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