Posted on May 22, 2008

Our Primary Concern

Stuart Greer, Oldham Advertiser (UK), May 21, 2008

STARTLING new figures reveal that Oldham (Lancashire, UK) appears to be moving backwards in its efforts to improve community cohesion among the borough’s youngest citizens.

The statistics obtained by the Advertiser show that more local primary schools than ever are now divided along racial lines—with a total of seven schools made up entirely of children from ethnic backgrounds, and many more dominated by pupils of either white or Asian heritage.

It means thousands of children are growing up having little contact with children from different ethnic backgrounds. The figures re-ignite the debate about what needs to be done to reverse racial division in our community—a key cause of previous unrest.

David Ritchie’s 2002 report into past disturbances found that in 17 borough primary schools ethnic minority children made up 80 per cent of pupils—and in 13 of these it was at least 90 per cent.

In six secondary schools, ethnic minority children accounted for less than five per cent of the school population, while in two others they were mainly youngsters from ethnic backgrounds.

Today, primary schools including Alexandra Park, Burnley Brow, Horton Mill Infant, Nursery and Junior, Westwood, Greenhill Primary, Werneth Infant and Nursery and St Hilda’s C.E do not have a single white pupil on the roll.

Secondary schools continue to slide towards monoculturalism with, as one example, 98.5 per cent of Grange’s pupils from Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Indian heritage—in the 80s this figure was around 10 per cent.

Meanwhile Kaskenmoor, has an intake that is 93 per cent white and Blue Coat also has very few students from ethnic backgrounds. In fact, only St Augustine of Canterbury RC School is representative of Oldham’s wider ethnic picture with 24 per cent of its students of ethnic background.

Experts blame the increase of racially segregated schools on a “white flight” phenomenon, where ethnic minorities have moved into a district and white people have moved out.

Cllr Kay Knox, cabinet member for Children, Young People and Families, believes that as long as we have divided communities, Oldham will continue to have divided schools.

“At primary level, where ever people live they want to send their children to school,” she said. “People of different ethnic backgrounds are still living in different areas from each other.They are moving and it will continue to happen, but it will just take time. It has to be the individual’s choice.”

MP Phil Woolas, the former Local Government and Comm-unity Cohesion Minister, says any solution will have to be based on a long-term strategy.

“The problem has been perpetuating for 40 years,” he said. “It requires a change in attitudes of young adults who will go through the school system and later become parents and send their children into Oldham’s primary schools. I believe it will take a generation to improve things in Oldham.”

Professor Ted Cantle, who wrote the ‘parallel lives’ report five years after the riots, believes Oldham Council may have to take a firmer approach in promoting the benefits of mixed schools.

He said: “We want children to grow up with children from other backgrounds. It’s part of their education living in a multi-cultural society.

“Everybody knows enforced mixing is counter productive, but on the other hand you can’t just leave things as they are. The alternative is to try and make multi-cultural schools a more positive choice for parents. We have to make this an attractive alternative for parents and actively encourage them.”

Janet Doherty, director for children, young people and families at Oldham Council , said whilst racial integration is not in school policy, schools do have a duty to promote community cohesion.

“School admissions policies are based on national requirements centred around parental and pupil choice,” she told the Advertiser. “Schools do not have to make sure that they have a mixed intake of pupils from different backgrounds. However, the council’s aim is to ensure that all schools are attractive to the whole community and are in accessible locations.”

She added that the borough’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme could help address the problem at secondary school level, courtesy of the controversial plan to merge six secondary schools into three new academies.

Twinning policies between primary schools from different parts of the borough are also being used to try and get children from different backgrounds to mix more frequently.