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The tougher side of village life

One Norfolk school has provided thousands of pounds to help pupils in Ghana, yet racism still stalks parts of rural Britain. Wendy Wallace looks at the issues involved in appreciating cultural difference

Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown's involvement in the Yeovil-based Partnership Against Racial Harassment - and the subsequent burning of the MP's car - have drawn attention to racism in provincial towns and rural areas. Are schools in these areas, where black pupils may be a tiny minority, doing enough to support black pupils and educate white ones about other cultures?

Nigel Derby, head of Buckler's Mead County secondary school in Yeovil, believes his school is dealing with the issues. "We've only got about 11 pupils who are not white," he says. "I can't remember any youngsters expressing concern about how they're treated. But the onus is on us in primarily white schools to make sure our pupils get the flavour of diversity." Multi-culturalism is included in personal and social education, and religious studies at the school.

But recent research by the Commission for Racial Equality has highlighted a gulf between the perceptions of black families in rural areas, and those of headteachers.

"My son came home from school and said 'Mummy, what does nigger mean?' " said one Norfolk parent. This experience was typical for black families, according to a 1994 study by Norwich and Norfolk Racial Equality Council. Author of the report Helen Derbyshire says: "Every parent of black children and every black child I spoke to had experienced some kind of racism. It was a universal experience, although the nature of it varied."

Many had their first experience of racism in the school playground. Children in Norfolk were more likely to have been called names or joked about than actually assaulted. But the racist teasing had lasting effects: one child, after being told she was "dirty" on her second day at primary school, developed a habit of trying to scrub her skin white. Others developed a dislike of school verging on phobia.

An earlier study in the same county found heads unaware of the issue. Asked whether racism was a problem in their schools, 98 per cent (and 100 per cent of heads of primaries) said it was not. This disparity can be partly explained by the fact that many provincial teachers don't recognise name-calling as racism.

"Throughout school, in front of teachers, I'd be called a Paki and told to go back to my own country," says Parveen Nizhar, 25, who grew up in Telford, Shropshire. "For teachers, it was safer to ignore it." In 1995 she wrote the report No Problem? Race Issues in Shropshire for Telford and Shropshire Race Equality Forum, which showed her experiences were far from unique.

Brenda Sempala-Ntege, a white English woman married to a Ugandan man, says teachers deny what is happening, "because if you accept it, then you have to do something." Sempala-Ntege was (until funding ran out) an advisory teacher in Somerset for multi-cultural education. "Schools would ask: 'Why, in Somerset, do we need to look at these issues?' " she says.

It's a common response according to Simon Rahamim of the Commission for Racial Equality. "People say: 'We don't have a problem. There's no black people here'."

Even where teachers have a will to address the issues, multicultural education can be hard work in a monocultural context. "It's quite difficult for white children in Somerset," says Brenda Sempala-Ntege. "They don't have the ambient culture of shop signs and restaurants and so on. They're often completely ignorant of other ways of writing, of other languages. Without education they can go from here in a state of quite shocking ignorance about racism, the history of black people, global issues."

Many teachers also lack knowledge of other cultures, and the confidence to deal with matters of race. "In provincial areas, which are overwhelmingly white, a lot of staff have no personal experience to draw on," says Helen Derbyshire. "Unless they have lived or worked in more multi-racial parts of the country, or abroad, or have black friends or partners, staff can feel very out of their depth."

No one would claim that racism and race-related issues are not problematic in racially-mixed areas, but at least they cannot be ignored. "The difference in the inner city is that people are more aware because they have to be," says Brenda Sempala-Ntege.

Policies on equal opportunities and guidelines for dealing with racist incidents may be ineffectual without accompanying education. "Guidelines come from County Hall and are immediately sent to the only black member of staff, or the one who has a black child," says Helen Derbyshire. "Then if they raise things they can be dismissed as making mountains out of molehills."

While more training of teachers would help, it needs to be carefully designed to avoid stereotypes, says Parveen Nizhar. "People start thinking they can box you off - 'this is what a Hindu is, this is what a Sikh is'. But for the generation that is coming up now, it's not clear-cut."

For black children at mainly-white schools, forging identity can be difficult. Some - particularly from mixed race families, or who are adopted - grow up knowing no others from the same cultural background. Nizhar, feeling isolated, tried to integrate herself into the dominant culture at secondary school. "I thought maybe I should change myself," she says. "But you wear your DMs and Levis and you're still not accepted. Eventually you have to be proud of who you are."

Mike Fielding is head of the Community College, Chulmleigh, in Devon, where MP Emma Nicholson's adopted Iraqi son was a pupil. "I'm very much aware that there is a semi-unconcious racism, where people - by omission or commission of unthinking acts and words - are racist," he says. "We need to think in terms of multicultural education, particularly because there are few black children here. But I'm not sure we do it very well."

Brenda Sempala-Ntege's son, 19-year-old Benjamin, grew up in Somerset. "I never had a strong sense of being black. Except when racism strikes and you remember that you are different in other peoples' eyes."

Nigel Derby sees little connection between the bombing of a Turkish restaurant and other racist incidents in Yeovil and the life of his school. But others do. "Most images of racism in the media are the rare, extreme examples," says Helen Derbyshire. "But if that's what's seen as racism, it enables people to see name-calling and bullying as not really racism. If these things are not dealt with, then the extreme examples can happen."

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