Multicultural education

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Why our education system hasn’t got to grips with our multicultural society

Any discussion that centres on ‘multicultural education’ will be closely linked to issues concerning race, though often the term ‘multicultural education’ is used without a definition of what constitutes a multicultural society. Education as a tool for social change, is applauded, but when society itself changes, what of education? How much does our education system match the needs of diverse groups within a modern society? As early as 1977, a consultative document, Education in Schools, expressed a need to recognise diversity in society stating that “Our country is a multi-cultural, multi-racial one, and the curriculum should reflect a sympathetic understanding of different cultures and races that now make up society.” (Amma 1989 p. 4).

The “integrationist” response in the 1960s was to disperse ethnic minority pupils to different schools through “bussing” to create an overall impression of cultural homogeny. But the failure of assimilation became apparent by the mid 70s, as the only children being “bussed” where non-white. The initial policy of assimilation directed at ethnic minority pupils was “clearly inappropriate …. Its practical implementation was ... racist in outcome.” (Klein 1993 pp.22-25).

Government policy in the late 50s was dominated by the view that migrants should be absorbed into the cultural mainstream and that by a generation’s time their children would be fully assimilated, indistinguishable (except by colour) from their white peers. Implicit in the notion of assimilation was a desire to suppress cultures and languages that were felt not to be British.

Since then various reports have argued that the key to moving forward is the realisation that Britain is now essentially a culturally plural society and that the role of education is to aim to prepare all pupils for life in a pluralist society whilst responding positively to pupils’ individual cultural requirements. “Multi cultural education in both senses is closely linked to the search for racial justice.” (Halstead 1988).

The 1977 EC Directive on The Education of Children of Migrant Workers ( made provision for mother-tongue schooling and was seen as favourable by minorities in Europe who sought to promote schooling in their languages and to protect their ways of life. This was rejected in the DES Circular 5/81 as not relevant to British minority children again lending weight to the assimilation model as the most desirable route.

In a modern educational climate schools can be perceived to be unsympathetic under a National Curriculum that orientates towards a Eurocentric philosophy (i.e. that religious education should be ‘broadly Christian’ and ‘modern’ languages are generally held to be European). More recently global political events and western foreign policy reinforce the position of some ethnic minority groups to protect their religious and cultural heritage through alternate schooling. Under many local authorities demographic changes in their inner cities have led to one or two ethnic groups gradually forming the significant majority in many schools.

Multicultural education itself has been an honest desire to promote social justice and change, celebrate pluralism, but many observers are nervous and clearly ethnic minority pupils have not simply melted into the education and cultural mainstream. This also poses new challenges to the supporters of multicultural education. Without a forced integration policy, the realities of many modern inner cities are religiously and racially divided schools, with little real contact between groups outside them. Society is multicultural for sure, but track record of the education system is one of failure to recognise what truly constitutes a changing multicultural society.


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