From the January 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard
Education — or rather schooling, for very little education takes place in schools despite the sincere efforts made by many teachers — is under attack once again from the media. This time the target is multi-cultural education in the London Borough of Brent. Recently, Brent advertised for a large number of teachers to be involved in setting up the Development Programme for Race Equality in Schools. Every school in Brent will have a senior member of staff responsible for implementing the programme. The project is funded by a Section II grant provided by the Home Office to areas with a large population of workers from the Commonwealth.
The tabloids eagerly published the news, giving readers the impression that their children's minds would soon be in the hands of Orwellian Thought Police, nicknamed Commissars. They also suggested that this would lead to a further decline in educational standards, particularly where white children are concerned. The so-called hard Left of the Labour council in Brent were blamed. The newspapers failed to note that events in Brent were in fact initiated by the previous Conservative council. They also failed to mention that these "commissars" are not very different from many teachers in other local authorities who work in the field of multi-cultural education.
Brent Council has only set a precedent in that it is using Section II money on a larger scale and in a more tightly organised manner. It is doing this to meet the recommendations recently put forward by several government reports on the effects of racism on the educational achievements of black children. Governments publish such reports on aspects of schooling at regular intervals to suggest that they take the subject of education seriously.
The media continually presents multi-cultural education as being a threat to both the education system and to society in general. Nothing could be further from the truth. Multi-cultural education is certainly not revolutionary in its aims and objectives. It is an educational reform that has developed in Britain over the past 20 years in response to the needs of Commonwealth immigrants who came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. But what is it attempting to reform? Education in a capitalist society is not worthy of the name. It is merely schooling. Achievement is not measured in terms of the personal development of each individual through his or her lifetime. It is instead measured in terms of success or failure at public examinations. This success or failure determines the young worker's future value on the job market. A school is, at best, a kind of factory which produces workers to meet the needs of capitalist society. But this is only a secondary function. Primarily schools are places where the energy and enthusiasm for learning of large numbers of young people are frustrated.
By the mid 1960s it was becoming clear that some kind of special English language teaching provision was needed if children of black and Asian Commonwealth immigrants were to succeed and compete as equals with white children in the British school system and later on the labour market. This resulted in the establishment of Section II funding directly from the Home Office in 1966. This is still the main source of funding for multi-cultural education. The Section II regulations reflect the origins of multi cultural education and have not changed for 20 years. Local authorities applying for the grant need to show that they have a large population of Commonwealth immigrants whose language and customs differ greatly from those of the rest of the community. They need to show that this population has proportionately greater needs than the rest of the community. This means that a school in an area with a mainly white population cannot claim the grant. Workers whose salaries are funded by Section II have to be individually and directly accountable to the Home Office. For example, Section II teachers are asked at regular intervals to send details of their pupils and the level of their needs.
In the late 1960s it was simply assumed that once the Commonwealth immigrants had acquired full command of the English language and were fully assimilated into British culture, the problem would disappear. The problem did not disappear — it got worse. Research into the education system showed that a disproportionate number of West Indian children were failing in the school system. Black and Asian workers continued to suffer discrimination in the labour market and in fact in all other walks of life. This was accompanied by the focussing of white discontent into the growth of the National Front and other violent fascist organisations. It was becoming clear that merely providing language classes for people who by now were no longer immigrants but established members of the community was not the solution. If schools were to continue to function effectively, both black and white discontent must be contained.
It was recognised that black achievement within the school system would continue to be low as long as schools presented a narrow curriculum based only on the culture of white Britain. The culture and history of black workers was either ignored or presented as inferior. This had a detrimental effect on the self-esteem and confidence of young black pupils which, in turn, affected their achievement at school. Britain was becoming a multi-cultural society, it was argued, and the nature of that society must be presented in the school curriculum. This would also challenge the racism of young white people. Of course, from time to time this results in the kind of right-wing backlash recently demonstrated by the press response to Brent. Meanwhile some black people view the reforms as merely superficial — a propaganda exercise aimed more at containing their discontent than with eradicating racism.
Multi-cultural education continues to miss several important facts about schools. Firstly, it is not only black children who fail at school. A significant number of children fail to pass any exams. Secondly, all school subjects, whether they take into account a child's cultural background or not. are forced down reluctant throats and so are hardly likely to be educative. In spite of the efforts of inspired teachers committed to education, at school children learn only how to accept oppression and how to compete rather than co-operate with their fellow human beings.
But the struggle to reform the school system continues and is growing more organised, as recent events in Brent show. Yet it is no more enlightened. However, it would be wrong to present a completely bleak view of multi-cultural education. It has stimulated much interest and research into language and culture. Information on African, Caribbean and Asian literature and history is increasingly accessible. There are also growing numbers of teachers who are opposed to racism and to giving all children access to a meaningful education. However, their energies are sadly misdirected in institutions where education rarely takes place. It is only when they challenge the existence of schools and the social system that produces such institutions that an atmosphere will be created where meaningful education can take place.