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

By Race, Richard | UN Chronicle, September 2007 | Go to article overview

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


Race, Richard, UN Chronicle


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 antiracist 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.

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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. …

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