WHILE teaching a group of children, I was suddenly interrupted by two pupils running towards me. Both were shouting. "He just hit me," said one, obviously distressed."Well he just called me a darkie," the other replied .
What caused this incident? The language group to which these boys belonged had recently started a new reading book. Intended to be representative of Britain's multicultural society, it featured black and white children in stories and pictures. The task for the pupils required them to choose one of the characters and describe a sequence of events related to the story.
The two boys had been working together. When choosing the character one said that the other was a black child from the story, resulting in the incident I've described.
Being a supply teacher I had been teaching this composite P3-P4 class for only a little over a month. Before and during this time the children had been exposed to a curriculum that was multicultural in that various different religions had been taught. This was in line with school, local authority and national guidelines.
Implementing a multicultural approach within the curriculum is based on the dominant belief that racial prejudice and discrimination are caused by individuals who lack knowledge of different cultures in Britain today. Therefore by teaching about the variety of religions and cultures and through celebration of festivals from different communities prejudices caused by misunderstandings and ignorance are tackled.
However, if that approach was indeed effective in eradicating racism surely the classroom incident would not have occurred. Instead it highlights the great offence that the child felt simply by being told that he was one of the black characters from the story.
This raises a whole range of issues. Why did the child perceive the black character negatively when the character did not have a negative part in the story? With the child being exposed to a multicultural curriculum had issues concerning inferiority and superiority not been addressed?
A case study I carried out in a primary school last year highlighted these issues. It aimed to investigate whether the learning of "other" cultures in school actually does challenge and combat negative preconceived ideas children hold about black people.
Though I strongly believe that all schools, whether they have black pupils or not, have to address racism, I chose to carry out the research in a school that had a mixed intake. From my experience it was more likely that such a school would be implementing some kind of strategy for tackling racism.
At first it was necessary to examine whether the school, which had a multicultural anti-racist policy, was putting it into practice. Most schools have some sort of multicultural anti-racist policy. However, only the multicultural part seems to be incorporated within the curriculum. With my experience of supply work in a large number of schools I believed that many thought that by implementing multicultural practices racism was being addressed.
The findings from observations, interviews with staff and pupil discussions showed a school policy of multicultural practices with little emphasis on anti-
racism. Yet the ineffectiveness of multicultural practices in combating racism was evident.
In fact, the investigation showed that some of the school's multicultural activities unintentionally reinforced racist ideas. In addition many of the views that children had about black people were left untouched. The children were left with their preconceived ideas such as belief in British superiority and stereotypes about black people and "black" countries.
The need for an approach that actually looked at the causes of racism itself and the power relations involved has been discussed in the research findings. Simply exposing children to learning about various different religions rarely addresses the racist ideas that children pick up from friends, family and the media.
The research and the classroom incident described above highlight the pressing need for anti-racist practices as an integrated part of school life. The school, playing a large role in a child's life, has the ability to shape youthful ideas. Institutional racism needs to be addressed. This requires not only the tackling of racist incidents but incorporating measures which challenge racism through the overt and covert curriculum. Otherwise negative ideas, unchallenged in society, will continue to flourish.
Teacher education institutions must recognise the need for anti-racist strategies in their curriculum. Students would then gain the confidence to implement anti-racism within everyday classroom practice.
In the past year the media have bombarded us with stories of racism in various institutions across Britain. With the start of a new school year perhaps it is time for local authorities to consider these stories and begin to make some real changes.
Monica Kaushal is a primary teacher. She undertook research into the effectiveness of multicultural practices in combating racism as part of an MSc degree at the Equality and Discrimination Centre, Strathclyde University. This was successfully completed in November last year.