World of difference

16th January 2015 at 00:00

"We celebrate diversity." This phrase is displayed in schools up and down the country. It appears in countless mission statements and is prominent in school brochures. At its best, it can herald a school community brimming with harmony and peace. At its worst, it's something you can tick off because you asked a couple of parents to bring in some samosas for International Week.

As an educational mantra, I've always classified this statement in the mental file marked "stating the bloody obvious". If you want to celebrate diversity in the classroom, just let more than one child through the door. Maybe this is why I'm not very good at celebrating diversity among my pupils.

When you've taught for a number of years, you realise that kids are kids: in a school setting, similarity overwhelmingly outweighs difference. Regardless of their backgrounds, primary-aged children persist in writing "a lot" as one word. And a wasp in the classroom is always guaranteed to create chaos.

Teachers put a lot of effort into supporting pupils who don't speak English as a first language, but native speakers can also find their words are lost in translation. I remember talking through an upcoming theatre trip with my class, explaining that they could only go to the toilet and eat their sweets during the interval. As they nodded understandingly, I heard one child ask another: "What's an interval?" It's easy to forget that children's experiences out of school are hugely divergent - until they remind you.

As a trainee teacher, I taught a Year 1 class with a high proportion of children who had recently arrived in the country. One day it started to snow and we allowed the enraptured five- and six-year-olds outside to make snowballs. One child, whose family had moved from Pakistan, dashed out with a beatific smile on his face, but his joy quickly turned to horror as he threw himself at a snow-covered climbing frame. "It's cold!" he wailed, running inside with tears of disappointment streaming down his cheeks.

But diversity can manifest itself in a more heartbreaking fashion. Before Christmas we held a school charity week to raise money to help tackle the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Teachers talked to their classes about why the money was being collected and prayers were written for those affected by the disease. We were teaching citizenship, charity and awareness; we ticked boxes on the school mission statement and the PSHE curriculum. But we had no idea how close to home we had come until Theodore - a bright, sensitive, wonderful boy - asked quietly if we could pray for his grandmother back home who had just died of Ebola, and for the rest of his family who didn't know if they had contracted the disease.

Sometimes you don't recognise diversity when it's right in front of you. And sometimes, when you do, you can find very little to celebrate.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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