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Traditional view sets off race row;Briefing;International

CANADA. Immigrant parents' wish for old-style schools has sparked racial debate, writes Nathan Greenfield

Asian and Chinese immigrants in British Columbia have won a battle to establish schools that will spurn progressive teaching ideas and return to traditional methods.

The decisions of the Vancouver and Richmond boards of Education to agree to the demands of the immigrants, who make up more than a third of the population in each city, has sparked a racial debate.

The Vancouver board, which has 57,000 students, received a 3,000 petition from parents with Asian and Chinese names calling for a return to teacher-directed education last year. The board has begun to search for a site and define how the school would run.

The Richmond board, which has 24,000 students, is set to follow suit in early March when the board will approve a plan to establish a traditional school.

Immigrant parents were instrumental in setting up the five-year-old traditional school in Surrey, British Columbia, because a lot of the town's immigrants come from India and are familiar with the British type of education.

"They like the controlled atmosphere in traditional schools," says Heather Stillwel, chairman of the Surrey board of education. "They were concerned about chaotic classrooms and were frustrated with their kids getting out of school feeling good about themselves but not knowing the names of the 10 provinces or where to put the apostrophe."

Collen Gem, spokesperson for the Vancouver Traditional School Association, said: "The current British Columbia school system is focused on child-centered learning and does not offer parents the choice of a school-wide structured learning environment that focuses on the mastery of the basic skills. Nor do existing schools have a clearly defined code of conduct and clear expectations.We believe that teacher-led education will enhance students' critical thinking, problems solving and decision-making skills."

But Sandra Bourque, a Richmond School board trustee, said supporters of traditional schools had "made untrue statements about our teachers and their methods, about Canada and Canadian kids. They say our schools are too slack, lack academic rigour and discipline. These comments are very hurtful.".

The debate has developed subtle racial overtones, reminiscent of the "Yellow Peril" fear which gripped British Columbia at the turn of the century.

However, Ms Gem insists: "The Vancouver Traditional School Association proposal clearly states that the school will be a district school open to all. Our intention is that the multicultural diversity of the community will not be overlooked."

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