What can Germany learn from the British school system’s engagement with ethnic, cultural and religious diversity?

What can Germany learn from the British school system’s engagement with ethnic, cultural and religious diversity?

by Vini Lander

‘Mummy, I am half Indian, quarter English and quarter Scottish’ said my young son when he was about six. What factors led to this declaration of identity? Was it confidence or lack of self-confidence with his dual heritage that led my son to articulate his perception of his own cultural identity?

The article is written from the perspective of a British-Asian teacher educator (one of a rare breed) who has worked throughout her career to permeate issues of race equality within her teaching. The article will explore some responses to cultural and religious diversity evident in some British schools and explores ways in which the German education system could adapt and adopt the successful approaches taken in Britain. Some approaches are school specific and can easily be adapted to suit the German school system, others are more structural and may require German educationalists with a passion for social justice to lobby the political establishment to instigate change that will facilitate schools to respond proactively to the cultural diversity within German society. Britain has much to celebrate in terms of its achievements in relation to its response to ethnic, cultural and ethnic diversity. However, whilst this article will take a rather optimistic stance, there is always room for improvement. The educational response to ethnic, cultural and religious diversity is an area of education, which like a good marriage, we will always have to work at.

Multicultural Britain

4.6 million people or 7.9% of the British population in 2001 were from a non-White ethnic group. Indians are the largest of this group followed by Pakistanis, and then those with mixed heritage backgrounds, followed by Black Caribbeans, Black Africans and Bangladeshis (data from UK Statistics). However, there are areas of Britain with very few minority ethnic people, such as West Sussex. A visitor to London would not gain this impression, because 45% of the minority ethnic population live in London and less than 4% of the non-White population live in the North East and South West. In schools 85% of pupils are White, the statistics for primary and secondary schools show slight variation, but approximately 7% of pupils are Asian, 3.8% are Black, 3% are from a mixed heritage background, less than 1% are Black African and less than 0.5% are Chinese. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) collects these statistics in conjunction with statistics about pupils’ performance. Such data can help educators to monitor the achievement of different groups of pupils, address areas of underachievement and celebrate success in other areas, for example, the outstanding achievement of Chinese and Asian pupils. 77% of Chinese girls are likely to achieve five or more GCSEs. Performance data can be used to examine educational practice, if a group is persistently underachieving then is there not a duty on the school and the teachers to address the causes of the underachievement that are under their control?

Anti racial  legislature

In Britain schools have to work within a legislative framework, which relates to racial diversity and the curriculum. Firstly there was the now outdated Race Relations Act 1976 which made racial discrimination in employment and other aspects of life illegal. It also introduced the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). The legislation was strengthened by the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 (RRAA), which followed the murder of a Black teenager, Stephen Lawrence but was not initiated by the findings of the McPherson Inquiry which examined the factors contributing to this crime and the failure by the Metropolitan Police to bring the perpetrators to justice. The RRAA places a general duty on public authorities, such as schools, and Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to respond to the Duty that requires public authorities to

  • Eliminate unlawful racial discrimination
  • Promote equality of opportunity
  • Promote good relations between people from different racial groups

The McPherson inquiry and the RRAA 2000 provided an impetus for schools in Britain to examine their existing practice with respect to race equality. Schools have responded on two levels. Most have written a Race Equality policy, which at least promotes thought about the issues; others have responded by examining how their school race equality policy will be implemented through the curriculum and other school practices. The level of response is dependent, in my experience, on the location of the school. Schools in high diversity areas did not have to change their practices. All schools already allowed the wearing of religious symbols, such as the kara and turban for Sikh pupils; allowing Muslim girls to wear the Hijaab, but only some ensured there was Halal food in the school canteen and in others provided GCSE Punjabi or Urdu classes as part of mainstream provision. In this way the school embraces diversity and helps the child affirm their identity as a British Asian or British Muslim. Some school cultures do not try to negate the child’s cultural heritage. A note of caution, such practices occur in high diversity areas, this is not the case in some low diversity areas, where the outdated notion of assimilation is still a strong philosophy amongst some headteachers and teachers.

The Education Reform Act

There have also been a number of Education Acts, most notably the Education Reform Act 1988, which introduced the National Curriculum in England and Wales as a minimum statutory entitlement. Part of the 1988 Act encouraged that the school curriculum should promote pupils’ spiritual, moral social and cultural development. The accompanying guidance also indicated that schools should prepare pupils to live in a multicultural and multiracial society. Whilst the National Curriculum was an imposed framework indicating the content to be taught, it did not dictate the teaching methodology. Others felt that some aspects of the curriculum, for example, Mathematics and History were Eurocentric and did not acknowledge other perspectives. The science National Curriculum offered non-statutory guidance to teachers that acknowledged the need to teach pupils that science was not an exclusively western pursuit. It encouraged teachers to use positive images of minority ethnic pupils and people succeeding in science and asked that pupils should appreciate the origins of science from the ancient world, Egypt, Arabia, Byzantium and China. But in reality I know of few teachers who incorporated this dimension into their science teaching. Some teachers argue that the National Curriculum provides opportunities to respond to cultural diversity.

Inclusion as a pedagogical category

Successive Education Acts have introduced a new term, inclusion. There are three principles of inclusion

  • Setting suitable learning challenges
  • Responding to pupils’ diverse learning needs
  • Overcoming barriers to learning and assessment for individuals and groups of pupils such as pupils with special needs, pupils with disabilities and pupils with English as an additional language

So what is inclusion? It is a drive to respond to pupils’ individual needs. The onus is on the school to restructure its provision, curriculum organisation and resources to enhance equality of opportunity. On the one hand inclusion could promote provision for minority ethnic pupils, but others argue that it only serves to blur the focus on race equality. Minority ethnic pupils could be included in all or none of the above categories of pupils for inclusion. In terms of setting suitable learning challenges this is usually linked to the achievement of minority ethnic pupils, for some schools this means maintaining and improving the already high achievement of Indian and Chinese pupils, but at the same time other schools may need to re-examine their curriculum and teaching with respect to the unacceptably low achievement of Bangladeshi and African-Caribbean pupils. The teacher needs to respond to the pupils’ diverse learning needs, but before they can do this they need to understand the pupil’s cultural background including the demands of the pupil’s family and religious life. As a teacher you can only respond the child’s learning needs when you know about the whole child, and when that child’s self-esteem is high enough to benefit from the teaching. The onus is on the teacher to find out about the child and adjust the curriculum to suit their needs. This adjustment will benefit the whole class.

Intercultural curriculum?

What about other aspects of the curriculum? Religious Education (RE) is a compulsory part of the curriculum in Britain. It can be used as a vehicle to develop pupils’ knowledge about different religious perspectives. The LEAs in England are responsible for devising an Agreed Syllabus for RE in primary and secondary schools. This curriculum may include the study of major world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. This can, at least, help to promote religious tolerance. Citizenship is also another aspect of the curriculum, which covers themes such as rights and responsibilities, community and identities. These topics can be used to examine race equality, develop pupils’ understanding about Britain as a multicultural society, examine the causes and affects of racism, as well as, affirm pupils’ self-identity. I have to sound a cautionary note at this point, by asking whose conception of citizenship is it? What cultural assumptions have mediated the citizenship curriculum framework?

I have outlined the legislative and curriculum cue for schools to respond to cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. But in England there is Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, which is responsible for inspecting schools. They have a duty to inspect educational inclusion, to examine the achievement of groups of pupils and to note the actions taken by the school to address the underachievement of certain groups. Ofsted will judge the effectiveness of such actions and they will examine the School’s response to the RRAA 2000, especially the school’s monitoring of racial incidents. But my experience has shown that although schools are accountable under the Ofsted inspection framework, there is still work to be done in training Ofsted inspectors regarding issues of race and cultural diversity.

The key for success...

Schools across England have demonstrated a variety of attitudes to cultural diversity. Schools in high diversity areas have responded positively but some schools in low diversity areas feel they ‘don’t have a problem’, because they have none of ‘them’ or very few of ‘them’ in the school. Research by Blair and Bourne (1998) showed that in good schools where minority ethnic pupils achieved well, the following factors contributed to this success.

  • Strong determined leadership on equal opportunities issues by the headteacher set the tone for the school ethos, which celebrated, supported and promoted positive attitudes to diversity
  • These schools made good links with, and listened to pupils and their parents;
  • The schools had clear procedures for dealing with racist incidents and good strategies to prevent exclusions
  • They had high expectations of all pupils supported by a robust system for monitoring pupil progress and clear processes for targeting pupils who were underachieving. Monitoring by ethnicity allowed the schools to ascertain whether all groups are achieving equally and, if not, to identify factors impeding progress and to take steps to address these factors

...for Germany?

This may be a set of actions that German schools could adopt. But this needs to be accompanied by a debate about the language of diversity and identity. In Britain we refer to people from non-White backgrounds as minority ethnic people, in Germany I heard my colleagues refer to such pupils as migrant pupils even when they were second generation Turks who had been born in Germany. Does the language imply inclusion or does it serve to provide a label, which excludes certain people from German society? Can our German-Turkish colleagues be included in determining their own identity? I have thrown this issue into the ring for debate by German educationalists. It is a fundamental debate that will shape future intentions and actions.

Which concept of interculturalism?

All schools may have a race equality policy, but how they permeate it within the school and the curriculum will vary. Some schools will celebrate festivals such as Diwali or Chinese New Year. They may look at food, customs and dress but schools at this level are merely operating the well known 3 Ss approach of saris, samosas and steel bands, which essentially is tokenistic. Other schools will embrace initiatives such as Black history month. They will look at the contributions of Black people such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. They will examine the contributions of Black people such as Elijah McCoy in science and Mary Secole in History. But it is not until we get pupils to examine the power relationships in society that we will begin to empower them to tackle racism and racist assumptions. Try this. Ask the pupils to consider, what was it like to be a Native American and to be ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus? Why don’t we have a Native American account of this event? Where are the Native Americans in today’s society? Why? Why was it that as a child I knew about Florence Nightingale, but it was not until my 20s that I knew about Mary Secole (a Black British nurse in the Crimean War 1854-56)? I never knew about the Sikh soldiers who gave their lives in the two World Wars or the contribution of Islamic scientists until I was 30? In Germany how could you teach about the Crusades to show sensitivity to your Turkish pupils? Who defines history?  Why?  Unfortunately I know of few schools that work at this level, but the opportunities exist and it is the teachers who can give them life.

There is still work to be done

In Britain we continue to examine the following questions

  • Why do certain minority ethnic groups still underachieve whilst others achieve well?
  • Why are Black African-Caribbean boys still more likely to be excluded from school?
  • Why do we still have racist incidents in our schools?
  • Why are there so few minority ethnic teachers and headteachers? In 2003 from the 768 primary headteachers appointed in England and Wales only 19 were from a minority ethnic group. Only 9% of teachers are from a minority ethnic group, which does not reflect the minority ethnic pupil population in schools, (18% of primary pupils and 16% of secondary pupils are from minority ethnic groups) [TES 5.11.04]

I believe that some of the answers to these questions lie in the continuing and pre-service education of our teachers. We need to educate teachers to teach in a multicultural society and to improve their understanding of diversity issues. The Teacher Training Agency in England has funded a project, called Multiverse to provide resources for teacher educators and students teachers to use to improve their understanding and response to ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. In 2003, only 32% of newly qualified teachers felt confident to teach pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds and only 25% felt confident to teach pupils for whom English is an additional language. I believe it is not until we tackle the level of knowledge of our teacher educators and student teachers that we are going to see a significant shift in practice. I believe this may be the missing part of the jigsaw. But we have to ask, will providing resources affect or deal with the underlying possibly racist assumptions held by some student teachers? I am still working on this. It is work in progress and I remain optimistic because to return to my son the influence of his home background and the affects of his education have led him to declare a positive culturally defined self-image that communicates that he has a stake in British society. The child remains at the centre of this process.

February 2008

Vini Lander is the Head of the Primary Education and Teaching Programme of the University of Chichester.