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Segregated Schools: Racism Begins Early

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Is 2012 the year that racism makes its name? It's hard to ignore the fact that sports headlines have been less focused on, well, actual sport than the prejudicial antics of a few well known players. Whatever our opinions of John Terry and Luis Suarez, it seems that racism is not dead. The sad fact is that many school teachers could have told you this a long time ago.

In every school I've worked in, I have been startled and disappointed by the racial segregation that occurs on a daily basis in our canteens and playgrounds. I'm not even talking about what David Levin, the vice-chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference commented on last year when he stated that society was "sleepwalking towards Johannesburg" as schools became monocultural institutions serving small and distinct communities. Even in schools that cannot be designated as being populated by one particular racial group, the keen observer of teenagers will notice that they group together in factions of single cultures. The Asian students will befriend the Asian students, the Turkish will remain with the Turkish, the White with the White and the Black with the Black.

This need for grouping along cultural or racial lines is not new either. I remember attending a state comprehensive in Leicester and I am ashamed to admit that even though there were students from different backgrounds (very few, as it served a predominantly Asian area and therefore was made up of mostly Asian students), it did not occur to me to mix with those who were different to me. That happened later. Not at my sixth form college, mind you. I still tell colleagues and friends of the mini-apartheid that existed at this institution. In class, we mixed; in the canteen, one side was white, the other side brown and ne'er the twain did meet. It was only at university that I discovered friends from different backgrounds and started to consider what integration and what cultural inter-mixing really meant.

While there have been very few incidents of open racism in the schools I have worked in, I cannot help but wonder what this means for a society that is again starting to realise that race and class are as divisive as they have always been. This week, a fascinating TV documentary, Making Bradford British, will deal with the uncomfortable truth of our segregation. Like in our schools, Bradford is a city that contains lots of different ethnic groups who, on the surface, accept each others' presence, but make no effort to understand each other. Our canteens are the starting line for this kind of social division. It begins in teenage years and it extends throughout lives.

There is a distinct difference between physical proximity to other cultures and actually understanding them. What is it that we need to do in schools to ensure that children grow up with an acute understanding of someone else's religion, culture, race, background? The simple answer to this is to make Religious Education a fundamental, almost sacrosanct, part of the curriculum. I believe that this subject goes part of the way in addressing lack of basic knowledge about religion, but it does not necessarily deal with race and culture. Learning about the 5Ks of Sikhism does not mean that people from different cultures truly understand each other.

The Guardian article on Making Bradford British cites a publican called Audrey. Her statement - "I have lived in Bradford for more than 30 years and I have never been invited by an Asian to have Sunday lunch or a cup of tea," - is hideously revealing.

Firstly because Sunday lunch or cups of tea are culturally specific to her and secondly because she inadvertently identifies the problem. Our students are educated together, in seating plans that mean that they sit next to and work with other students from different cultures, but they don't go round for dinner, or attend weddings together, or celebrate religious festivals together. Many students' cultural experience is made up a thin veneer of multiculturalism - easily peeled away when they no longer even have to sit next to that person because their life choices mean that they've segregated for good.

Is it too uncomfortable to point out to our students that this is the case? Do we allow them to divide along racial lines because that is our own experience - the way it has always been and the way it will continue to be for generations to come? It would take a brave soul to begin, in an educational context, to tackle what most are too afraid to admit. Racism, for most of us, is something that footballers experience - it is Stephen Lawrence eighteen years ago, it is pictures from South Africa, or the American Deep South. We don't look at our playgrounds closely enough, because then we might see that racial misunderstanding and the perpetual mystery that surrounds 'other' cultures begins very early.

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