Posted on January 24, 2007

Schools Must ‘Confront The Problem Of Marginalised White Pupils’

Alexandra Frean, London Times, January 24, 2007

White children living in mixed-race communities feel as marginalised and uncertain of their British identity as ethnic minorities, a controversial government report has found.

A review of citizenship lessons in schools by Sir Keith Ajegbo, a Home Office adviser, concludes that white children are suffering “labelling and discrimination” that is severely compromising their idea of being British.

His review will suggest that while most people assume issues about diversity or “cultural and community cohesion” centred on the black or Asian communities, just as much thought and resources need to be put into providing diversity education to white pupils.

White pupils in areas where the ethnic composition is mixed can often suffer labelling and discrimination, Sir Keith will say. “They can feel beleaguered and marginalised, finding their own identities under threat as much as minority ethnic children might not have theirs recognised.

“It makes no sense in our report to focus on minority ethnic pupils without trying to address and understand the issues for white pupils. It is these white pupils whose attitudes are overwhelmingly important in creating community cohesion. Nor is there any advantage in creating confidence in minority ethnic pupils if it leaves white pupils feeling disenfranchised and resentful.”

The report will quote the example of one white pupil in her early teens who, after hearing in a lesson that other members of her class originally came from the Congo, Portugal, Trinidad and Poland, said that she “came from nowhere”.

These issues were important in white schools as much as schools with a mixed race intake, the report will say.

“Even though the white population who live in predominantly white areas might be removed from the immediate personal experience of ethnic diversity, it is still likely to be an issue for them because they encounter diversity through media representations.”

Sir Keith’s report is based on interviews with pupils, community organisations and faith groups across the country about what they thought of citizenship lessons. It was commissioned last year after the bombings of July 7, 2005, amid fears that extremism was rife in universities.

It is expected to recommend that citizenship lessons focus on teaching what it means to be British, along with an understanding of values such as tolerance and justice.

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, who will publish the Ajegbo review tomorrow, agrees that many white working-class children have negative perceptions of their British identity. He is likely to accept that more support is needed for predominantly white schools to support a wider understanding of diversity.

While the spectre of white marginalisation is regarded as an increasingly pressing issue, governments have been cautious of tackling it head-on for fear of being accused of racism.

Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, said last night that he had long regarded this as a crucial issue.

He highlighted a recent speech in which he gave warning that the “perception of inequality” existed among white as well as non-white populations. “Many of the white working class people who vote for the BNP sincerely believe that it is their colour that means that they are poor, or that their sons are failing at school, or that the council gives everything going to the Asians.

“Not all of this is imagined. All the recent evidence shows that inequality based on race and faith is polarising our communities,” he said in the address last November.

Ian Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, welcomed Sir Keith’s findings, adding that it was about time the Government woke up to the issue.

“For some white working-class boys, it appears to them that everybody else but them has somebody who worries about them. They feel they are at the bottom,” he said.

“The issues that affect white working-class boys are the same as those that affect Afro-Caribbean boys.”

What tomorrow’s citizens learn

Citizenship lessons are compulsory from 11 to 16. Pupils do not have to take an exam but may do so. The curriculum includes:

* The diversity and origins of national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in Britain

* Legal and human rights and responsibilities, the criminal justice system

* Central and local government, forms of government, the electoral system and voting

* The role of the media

* The global community, conflict resolution

* The rights and responsibilities of consumers, employers and employees

* Britain’s relations with the EU, Commonwealth and UN, global interdependence and sustainable development

Under the curriculum, pupils should be taught to:

* Think about topical political, spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues, problems and events

* Justify an opinion about issues, problems or events

* Contribute to group discussions

* Take part in school and community-based activities

The citizenship review is being undertaken by Sir Keith Ajegbo

* Sir Keith was born in 1946 in Lee Green, southeast London, to an English mother and a Nigerian father

* He has devoted most of his working life to education in a multi-ethnic urban environment and is author of Black Lives, White Worlds

* After schooling at Eltham College, and an English degree at Downing College, Cambridge, he worked in comprehensive schools in southeast London for 33 years

* Last year he retired as head of Deptford Green School

[Editor’s Note: More on this report can be read here.]