Between Past Failure and Future Promise: Racial Discrimination and the Education System

The focus of this article is to examine the theme of racial discrimination within the context of education policymaking. It will draw on an ongoing conceptual debate that analyses contemporary education and social policy evidence within an integrationist/multicultural framework, but also analyse the "extreme" concepts of assimilation and anti-racist education policy. The method draws on policy evidence and documentary analysis of the evolution of integration and multiculturalism concepts within education policymaking.

The primary and secondary data sources are education and social policy documents from 1965 up to the present day, from an English and Welsh context. The concepts, as shown in the table below on the education policy in England and Wales, 1950-2007, give readers an idea of where the theme of anti-discrimination sits, or does not sit, in the education policymaking discourse. This article concludes with recommendations on how future promise could be achieved in relation to anti-discrimination education policymaking.

Multiculturalism, as a concept, is still relevant in 2007 and is crucial in social debates concerning cultural diversity and citizenship. It is perhaps even more important after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (2001) and 7/7 (2005) than it was before. The political discourse and rhetoric of integration sit uncomfortably alongside both multicultural realities, e.g. the civil disturbances in Birmingham (October 2005), Paris (November 2005) and Sydney (December 2005), and the social scientific notions of where multiculturalism positions itself domestically and internationally. The period from 9/11 to 7/7 witnessed global Governments moving toward integrationist approaches concerning political and social policy.
Trevor Phillips, the then Chairperson of the Commission for Racial Equality in the United Kingdom, suggested in 2004 that multiculturalism had brought us in a position of racial segregation, where ethnic groups within London and the United Kingdom live in separate entities with no interaction with each other. "In recent years", he said, "we've focused far too much on the 'multi' and not enough on the common culture." What Phillips called for was a social and cultural debate on the plural realities of British culture, calling for an examination of multiculturalism, racial segregation and what is actually applicable in contemporary society.

Education policy documents provide evidence in how politicians and civil servants, in an English and Welsh context, have handled large influxes of immigrants into the United Kingdom in the recent past. Some of the terminology is significant. In the Education of Immigrants, an education circular published in 1965 and 1971, minority communities are asked to participate and be responsible -- but responsible to whom? Racial stereotypes are reinforced, with West Indian and Pakistani families being singled out for criticism for not being responsible enough. The policy documents do not focus on schools, teachers and the education system itself, and highlight the assimilation and integrationist social discourse of the day. However, despite education policies that helped integration, and local authorities and educationalists who acknowledged the complexity of the issues, the integrationist approach (integration with cultural diversity, as Roy Jenkins described in 1967) predominated until the mid-1970s.

It is worth focusing on the Rampton and Swann reports on education because of what was not achieved, rather than what was. Swann called for greater cultural diversity within the education curriculum -- the focus was not on minority communities but on what was actually being taught in the classroom. The fact that the interim and final reports took eight years to complete suggests "past failure", but again good practice and new initiatives were highlighted by both committees that suggest past successes. Barry Tronya reflects on the period from the publication of Swann in 1985 and the creation of the National Curriculum in England and Wales in 1988. A conservative government was never going to implement Swann's more radical "multicultural and anti-racial" recommendations -- this underlines that political parties have the right to implement or reject report recommendations. Educationalists in 2008 will reflect upon the twentieth "anniversary" of the creation of the National Curriculum in England and Wales. Citizenship has been a major curriculum development, although it is not compulsory in England and Wales at Key Stages 1-2 (children aged 5 to 11). This curriculum covers elements of multiculturalism, human rights, anti-racism and even anti-discrimination. But how do individual governments incorporate these ideas and respond educationally to the changing global world? The governmental discourse has slipped back towards an integrationist social framework in England and Wales with the extreme danger of a return to assimilation education and social policies.

With the expansion of the European Community and large numbers of immigrants from Poland and Bulgaria entering the United Kingdom, there are wider social issues that need to be addressed. These "social issues", in an environment of risk and terror, do not just come from Muslim communities; we need greater insight and coherence into the wider multicultural picture, which have consequences for teachers, schools and the wider education community.

The educational thrust of this article highlights the importance of the concept of multiculturalism and encourages continued debates into its usage and applicability to the education systems of today. Have we reached a stage that goes back and beyond the Phillips debate, where we need to move on from multiculturalism and redefine the debate? If we are to move forward towards more anti-racial, more anti-discriminatory and away from integrationist and assimilation education policies, I would recommend the following:

  • Politicians and civil servants at the national, central, federal and local levels need to get into schools to see what is going on and report back to their Government about good practices within culturally diverse environments. Administration and bureaucracy can prevent anti-racial policies, but as Michael Barber has recently written in Instruction to Deliver, administrative hurdles need to be reduced to allow political policies to be created, developed and delivered.
  • International comparisons are important and best practices need to be examined and reported upon in global communities, such as the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as in publications like the UN Chronicle. It is interesting that a policy document commented on by my students at Roehampton University is the Salamanca Agreement, which promotes special needs within an inclusive education framework. How many politicians, civil servants and education researchers are walking or being invited into schools to see how these proposals are being implemented or not?
  • I feel it is crucial that policymakers and policy implementers actually see what is going on. It is all very well being conceptual, but what is practically going on in schools and how relevant, for example, is school curriculum today? The education basics -- literacy and numeracy -- are crucial, but we need to ask more of the education curriculum. In England and Wales, the creation and development of citizenship as a compulsory subject for 11- to 16-year-olds is an important development, but is it enough?

We are at a stage whereby in 2007 "future promise" resides, in England and Wales, in a core subject of education that needs to sit alongside English, math and science, with the focus on, among other things, multicultural, anti-racist and anti-discrimination themes, which use domestic, international and global case studies.