You can’t tackle divisions by promoting diversity

Where does the Commission for Racial Equality, official celebrator of difference, get off blaming parents for racial segregation in schools?

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

Parental choice in schooling for their children ‘will encourage racial segregation’, says the Commission for Racial Equality. The CRE points out that in some areas of Yorkshire 99 per cent of pupils are white, while in other areas 95 per cent of pupils are non-white (1).

These revelations from the CRE follow its chairman Trevor Phillips’ comments in September 2005, when he argued that Britain’s cities were ‘sleepwalking into segregation’. Certainly, as Kenan Malik’s Channel 4 documentary Disunited Kingdom graphically illustrated in 2003, there are many racially segregated secondary schools in places such as Bradford and Oldham. But is it fair of the CRE to pin the blame on parental choice in schools? And is the solution to this problem yet more lectures on the importance of recognising ‘diversity’?

In the 1980s, the ruling Conservative Party made parental choice a key plank of its educational policies. This meant, in theory at least, that parents were given options to send their children to the school of their choice, rather than being restricted to local boundaries. It’s always been the case that middle-class parents have been able to bend the education system to their benefit, whether it’s through private tuition or having the right social networks to find the ‘right’ type of school. With the creation of Grant Maintained and Specialist Schools, the Conservatives simply made it easier for some middle-class parents to opt out of ‘bog-standard comprehensives’. And according to the CRE, it is this process that has steadily led to schools becoming racially segregated.

In actual fact, Britain’s inner cities and outer suburbs have long been divided between ethnic minorities and the white-middle classes. During the 1950s and 60s, immigrants were brought into London to fill the vacuum left by whites who had already moved to the suburbs. This was compounded in the 1980s by local councils that allocated social housing along racial lines.

It’s no surprise, then, that the pupil composition of secondary schools mirrored those divisions. Today, what has entrenched this divide even further is the elite’s emphasis on multiculturalism for society and, in particular, for education. At a time when our private beliefs and customs are considered to be the basis of our public lives, is it any wonder that parents are opting out of universal state schools and going for particularistic ones instead? Above all, it is the elevation of fixed identities that influences parental decisions about education. Indeed, parents are often told that the best route to educational success for their children is to have teaching methods that are ‘relevant’ to their kids’ ethnic background. Wasn’t it Phillips himself who argued, not so long ago, that black boys would do better at school if they were taught by black teachers only?

It is little wonder, then, that parents from different ethnic backgrounds may seek out schools where their child is with others from the same ‘ethnic background’. As explored in Malik’s Disunited Kingdom, some parents didn’t want their children learning ‘someone else’s’ culture. Also, at a time when we are bombarded with scare stories about the rise of bullying in schools, it is not so surprising that anxious parents would not want their child to be the only ‘minority’ in class, lest they become a target for real or imagined bullies.

All of this has coincided with a greater emphasis than ever before on how important children’s education is to their future success. When politicians and commentators constantly raise questions about the standards of education in schools, as well as over-emphasising the importance of exam success, some parents can be left in a panic about which is the right school for their child. This is one reason why faith schools are increasingly seen by some parents as the best option, with many ‘converting’ to a religion in order for their child to be eligible for a place. For all their faults, at least comprehensive schools allowed kids to get on with others from all sorts of backgrounds. It is the divisiveness of today’s multicultural thinking, not parental choice, that implicitly suggests that the old mixed comprehensive arrangement is either impossible or undesirable.

At first glance, it seems the CRE wants to combat the excesses of multiculturalism. In fact, it doesn’t so much want greater integration as it does more diversity within schools themselves. For multiculturalists, it is hard to promote ideas of difference if children are boxed off into particular faith schools. This is why local education authorities in Yorkshire have been ‘bussing in’ teenagers from racially segregated schools – not so much to demonstrate commonality and common interests, but so that the children can learn about each other’s ‘cultural identities’. Ideally, the CRE would like a mixed bag of ethnic identities in all schools precisely to demonstrate how ‘different’ we all are rather than as a means of recognising that children share common experiences and have common aspirations.

In nursery schools, for example, even toddlers are made to be ‘aware’ of how different they are from other children; they are encouraged to bring in examples of their family’s ‘ethnic cuisine’, for example, to show the rest of the class how exotic and distinct such food is. At a time in their lives when children just see other children, rather than black, white or brown children, multiculturalists are rushing in to underline the apparent divisions between them. The CRE wants the education system to institutionalise ethnic and cultural divisions within schools rather between segregated schools. That hardly represents a victory for re-establishing universal values in society at large.

Indeed, it is precisely the lack of universal thinking today which means that school students are seen in a tick-box, statistical way. The CRE may pay lip service to common national values, but its attempts to ‘overcome segregation’ are based on percentages of different ethnic groups rather than on establishing real common beliefs about the kind of society we all want to live in. If we could establish that, and in the process create a proper colour-blind society, it wouldn’t matter who went to what schools where.

It is outrageous for the CRE to question the validity of personal choice in education. What it really means is that people can’t be trusted to make ‘the right decision’ – and not just in education but in other areas too. According to one report: ‘The CRE’s view is that choice in other public services risks greater racial segregation. [The CRE has] evidence that choice in council housing may be further ghettoising communities and that even in health services, patient choice may result in ethnic segregation.’ For the CRE, ‘The language of choice is about individual needs, about self-interest. The language of integration is about society’s needs, about the collective interest.’ (2) This is less about promoting racial integration or dubious notions of collective interest, than it is an attack on individual autonomy so that diversity and difference can be enforced from above.

There is no doubt that multicultural thinking has helped to entrench already existing ethnic divisions within society. At a time when educational learning is centred on the tyranny of relevance, the logical conclusion is for parents to send their children to schools with similar ‘like-minded’ kids and teachers. Yet far from overcoming such artificial divisions, and establishing a truly universal form of education, the CRE wants the UK’s schools to be laboratories of micro-diversity. Once again, by appearing to criticise the excesses of multiculturalism, and in the process blaming parental choice for segregated schools, the CRE has strengthened the dogma of diversity.

(1) School choice means classroom ghettos, BBC News, 14 June 2006

(2) School choice means classroom ghettos, BBC News, 14 June 2006

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Topics Politics


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