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Multicultural Education is Dead

Russell Jones

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, The Queen's University of Belfast, August 27th - 30th 1998

This paper argues that the whole issue of multicultural education has ceased to exist in any meaningful or influential form. By taking an outrageously unprovable statement as its title, it is intended that the contentious nature of the debate will illustrate the way in which the subject has come to mean less and less on national, local and theoretical platforms. During the 1980s it was still possible to outline a general pattern of beliefs and research which could be seen to constitute the progression of the issue at the time, despite the fact that there were obvious and considerable differences over the way in which it was developing. This paper argues that during the 1990s the issue has become ideologically fragmented and all but lost in the drive towards sponsorship funding, inspection, SATs, accountability and effective management systems, leading to a position where, for some teachers, multicultural education simply has no part to play in the provision they organise for the children (or beginning teachers) in their care. The structure of the paper follows that of an obituary, and whilst the narrative style may be considered playful, it is intended to provoke serious discussion about the lack of impact generated by equality issues as we approach the millennium.

So, multicultural education is dead. In classrooms all over the country there are now teachers who have never heard of the subject, and teachers who were once committed to its ideals but now feel compelled to deprioritise the issue because of the weight of change affecting their practice. Even where effective classroom practice is taking place it is in spite of legislation rather than because of it. Funding for significant projects has long since vanished, and the notion of equal opportunities has slowly begun to slip away to the precipice of the current educational agenda. Issues of equality have been overtaken in the classroom by issues of assessment, accountability and inspection. Multicultural education in the late 1990s is, to all extents and purposes, dead.

Multicultural education's turbulent life was short, but rarely sweet. It passed through the infancy of assimilation, the adolescence of integration and reached a schizophrenic adulthood which manifested itself in two competing forms; anti-racism and cultural pluralism. This self-defeating personality disorder was the final indication that the subject had entered its death throes. This research set out to trace the last recorded moments of multicultural education's troubled existence. In looking at its impact in two university providers of initial teacher education and in twenty four primary schools across three counties, the study took in evidence from Heads, teachers, lecturers, mentors and students. In all, 157 semi-structured interviews were conducted in an attempt to locate and reproduce the stories behind those final, stumbling steps that took multicultural education to a cold and lonely resting place.

The youthful innocence of assimilation was undoubtedly misguided, but then is it not the job of the infant to display immaturity, blind affection and misguided self importance? Multicultural education was born at a time when it was believed that it was in everyone's interests that ethnic minority children be subsumed within the presumed dominant white, middle class, Christian culture as quickly and as effortlessly as possible. This approach conveniently shifted the responsibility for change from the state to the individual in general and the black individual in particular. The unmistakable message was that the state did not want to become involved in the process of integrating the ethnic minority child within the dominant white culture, instead, it was that child's responsibility to ensure that he or she became almost 'invisible' within the education system. This, clearly, was doomed to failure from the onset as everything that defined the ethnic minority child in terms of language, religion, dress and life experiences meant that such 'invisibility' was guaranteed impossible. Secondly, this approach was a convenient method by which the dominant white, middle class culture could both emphasise and protect that dominance. By ensuring that the education system dealt with ethnic minority children as 'pseudo-white children' then any raising of the importance of other languages, beliefs and cultures would not only be discouraged but would also be irrelevant to the perceived everyday social reality. The situation was well argued that;

To assimilate for blacks, is to discard voluntarily or to be forced to discard all that culturally defines their existence, their identity as West Indians, Asian or Africans. To assimilate, for whites, means to stay the same (Mullard, 1985 p44).

The overall assumption was that there were values, beliefs and ideals that were equally appealing to all members of British society regardless of 'race', sex, class or creed. In holding this unimpeachable truth to be sacred it was then convenient to assume that there would be a desire on the part of the ethnic minorities to aspire towards this unquestionable ideal.

As multicultural education developed, the first adolescent pangs of contradiction began to stir. The movement away from assimilation began with the recognition that there were issues that had to be addressed in order even to facilitate the (non) approach already adopted. The irony here is obvious; a non-interventionist policy was unable to operate unless there was some significant degree of intervention.

By the mid 1960s it had been widely accepted that the assimilationist approach was failing fast and that it was now essential that government intervention took place to recover the situation. The 'Race Riots' at the end of the 1950s and the First Commonwealth Act of 1962 brought the issue of 'race' firmly onto the public agenda, and education was again perceived to be one of the most likely solutions to the 'problem'. The initiation of this shift in approach has often been credited to a speech made by Roy Jenkins, then Home secretary in May 1966 (Carrington and Short, 1989 p5, and Gaine, 1988 p26). It was at this time that formal recognition of 'cultural differences' began to take place. Jenkins proffered the ultimate goal of working towards the creation of 'a national policy for race relations'. It was at this same time that the debate's language shifted away from the aggressively overt cultural superiority of assimilationism towards Jenkins' more liberal suggestions of 'equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance' (cited in Troyna, 1993 p24).

This phase in multicultural education's adolescent development came to be known as one of integration, or of multiracial education. This integration movement purported to recognise cultural diversity and some degree of structural inequalities faced by black people in Britain. During this phase it was also recognised formally that children from ethnic minority groups had special kinds of needs which were simply not being addressed within the existing education system. If members of the ethnic minorities were to achieve any degree of integration within British society it was argued that the state, primarily through the medium of the education system needed to become active not only to meet these needs but also to facilitate some greater understanding between different cultures. It was also at approximately this time in the issue's development that there were the first mumblings of 'cultural celebration'. There were those who began to suggest that the children of ethnic minority groups may be lacking in certain areas of their development and understanding, but that they were also representatives of cultures that held a wealth of rich and interesting traditions. It was argued further that these cultural differences were surely a cause for celebration rather than conflict, and the key phrases 'cultural diversity' and 'mutual tolerance' became the focal points for the coming years.

As with all healthy adolescents, this period of life was not without its tantrums and turmoil. Multicultural education was beginning to locate its own identity, and desperately wanted to provide an attractive face in public. Many efforts were made to ensure that just the right cooing noises were made to bring about wider attention. Multicultural education at this time was convinced that it had a powerful message to spread, and relied on the most potent means of communication it could muster, but there were outsiders who perceived this as merely adolescent attention seeking. As with most teenagers, an emphasis on music and clothing developed rapidly, and food came to be another real issue as all kinds of 'strange' new appetites came to the fore. Whilst multicultural education perceived these changes as indicative of new, fascinating and fashionable personal insights, there were those who were openly critical of this stage of development. These features were labelled as 'Saris, Steelbands and Samosas', and it was argued that they were outward displays of unwelcome personality traits. Multicultural education hit back with the argument that these were pleasurable and harmless pursuits, but it never really recovered from the accusation that they were in fact self-defeating, and likely to generate and maintain the very stereotypes they were intended to dissolve.

Over the coming years, multicultural education reacted badly to public criticism. It tried to gain some serious credibility with the publication of the Race Relations Act (1976), but was often left floundering in its own teenage daydreaming. Its elders and critics often suggested that it 'could do better', but the reality was that the adolescent multicultural education never really seemed likely to achieve to its full potential.

There are those who would argue however, that as multicultural education moved into its mid twenties, it began to realise more of this lost potential. Following another period of serious social unrest multicultural education was given the opportunity to be taken seriously in an adult world. For the first time, some credibility and support in terms of funding and research was provided, and from here it spawned its only surviving heir, the Swann Report in 1985.

Like all good children, the Swann Report felt compelled to dismiss its parent as being 'old-fashioned' and 'out of touch';

We regard both the assimilationist and integrationist educational responses to the needs of ethnic minority pupils as, in retrospect, misguided and ill-founded. (DES, 1985 p198)

but, like all good parents, multicultural education took this criticism on the chin and ploughed ahead, secure in its developing maturity, secretly learning from its children without openly acknowledging it.

Other siblings were forthcoming over the later years, but none were as resilient as the Swann Report. Some were stillborn, others made a few faltering steps before falling into oblivion, others managed to survive for a few years, largely with the aid of life support in the form of independent assistance, but they too eventually succumbed to pressure and gave up their struggle for life.

Instead of building on the birth of the Swann Report and gaining momentum as a movement, multicultural education found itself under attack from a variety of sources in the mid 1980s. There was a serious attempt to discredit the subject in the public eye through emotive banner headlines such as 'Left go to war on racist toddlers' (Stewart, 1986 p2) and 'Baker accuses school authority of 'thought control' book policy' (Kemble, 1986 p9). Many similar reports from this period remain in the public consciousness at the moment, One writer for example, found that on average 30% of the students he questioned were still able to name the London borough associated with the infamous 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' accusation, and recount similar 'Loony Left' stories almost ten years after these reports were published (Gaine, 1995 p52). There is a clear case to suggest that multicultural education failed in its objectives of raising wider consciousness to 'race' issues, and dispelling some of the stereotypical myths which characterise the issue.

When multicultural education splintered as an academic debate, it failed again as it proved to be unable to unite those groups with power and influence in educational settings. The post-Swann debates began to filter into one of two camps, and brought about the split personality which contributed so heavily to multicultural education's demise. On one hand, there were those who argued that the continued failure of multicultural initiatives meant that something more effective needed to be done if change was to happen. It was argued that this would only come about if the weak, liberal idea of multicultural education was abandoned, and then replaced with a form of education which truly began to deal with the root causes of the problem. Thus Anti-Racist education began life in earnest, and a plethora of 'Race Awareness Training' courses sought to address structural and institutional racism as part of the educative process. On the other hand, these moves were seen as the direct result of politically motivated extremists, who cared little for children and instead wanted to promote a revolutionary agenda which bore no relation to the reality of educational experience. For some, the result of this recognition was a retreat into what came to be known as 'Cultural Pluralism'. Whilst there are those who would argue that this was a new way to address the issue, it has been argued that in reality this was largely the same, old, discredited multicultural education re-marketed under a new, politically neutral name. It is hardly surprising that the coroner's report found that multicultural education's personality disorders were a contributory factor to its eventual demise.

On the political front, multicultural education found itself in the midst of an even deeper identity crisis. If the dual personality at academic level proved confusing, the myriad of personalities it took on at street level became overpowering. For example, at one point in 1993, the interested onlooker had to choose between two simultaneous protests at the rise of the National Front (NF) and the British National Party (BNP) in London (Anderson, 1993). These demonstrations were conceived and planned separately by the Anti Nazi League (ANL) and the Anti Racist Alliance (ARA). If this were not divisive enough, there could easily and equally have been other similar protests organised by the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF), Anti Fascist Action (AFA), Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) Socialist Action and Red Action amongst others. Each of these groups actively campaigned against the rise of the far-Right, but each seemed to have spent at least as much time expressing discontent with the agendas of other anti-racist organisations. When Diane Abbott MP was elected as Chair of the Anti Racist Alliance it was expected that some degree of unity would result, and as Britain's largest anti-racist group, the ARA would then begin to lead by example. Within two weeks however, Ms Abbott, three national officers and eleven other executive members had staged a public walk-out and claimed that 'the alliance had squabbled itself out of existence' (Johnson and Myers, 1994).

At an educational level, the introduction of the National Curriculum effectively sounded the first death knell for multicultural education. Its introduction coincided with a range of political and academic views on the subject. On the one hand teachers were told by the (then) Secretary of State for Education that 'Racial discrimination has no place in the education service' (CRE, 1989 p5), but were also aware that they had been informed earlier that;

In the inner cities - where the youngsters must have a decent education if they are to have a better future - that opportunity is all too often snatched from them by hard-left education authorities and extremist teachers. Children who need to be able to count and multiply are learning anti-racist mathematics - whatever that is (Margaret Thatcher reported in Hughill, 1987 p12).

Similarly, teacher educators were told at a later date;

I want reform of Teacher Training. Let us return to basic subject teaching, not courses in the theory of education. Primary teachers should teach children to read, not waste their time on the politics of gender, race and class (John Major, Speech to the Conservative Party Conference, 1992 cited in Hill, 1994 p219)

Academics provided equally confusing responses to the National Curriculum and equality issues. On one hand there were those who recognised the National Curriculum immediately as a potential threat to the very existence of multicultural education;

Hitherto ... the structural decentralisation of the education system in England and Wales has permitted a degree of autonomy at the local level. It is within this 'space' that campaigns for racial equality in education have been waged, albeit with different degrees of commitment and vigour ... The ERA will almost certainly deny this 'space', a prospect which has deleterious implications for the promotion of anti-racism (Ball and Troyna, 1989 p24).

On the other hand there were those who argued that it allowed all kinds of opportunities for the study of issues such as multicultural education. One author claimed; There is no question about the legitimacy of multicultural education in the National Curriculum' (Grinter, 1994 p162), and numerous attempts were made to identify ways in which it could be incorporated into the programmes of study at Key Stage Two (Grinter 1994; 1995; 1997, King et al, 1993; Manning, 1997 the National Union of Teachers, 1996).

In the later years of its life, multicultural education often appeared to go missing. Some claimed this was a metaphorical form of the Aboriginal spiritual walkabout, allowing the subject to come to terms with its own existence, gathering its thoughts and renewing its influence from the earth upwards. Others said it was a sign of early senility, the inevitable outcome of a life-long lack of direction. Whilst we shall never know the truth of this situation, it is clear that there were enormous periods over the past ten or fifteen years when onlookers never really knew where to look. In many ways, multiculturalism became the George Burns of education, everyone remembered it, but they were not quite sure whether it was dead or not.

In tracing multicultural education's whereabouts over the past three years it seemed logical to interview those who might have seen it most recently in public. When Heads were asked if they had evidence of multicultural education in the form of policy documents, I was told;

No, I haven't got one, and I don't think we… I don't think… it is one of the many policies that I haven't got and we should have. It does come at… I think that equal opportunities covers that.

In this school, to be honest with you, I don't see as we have any problem. We have nobody from other cultures, to be honest with you, but the equal opportunities side, I think I'm the one who has to worry about that here. I'm the only man here (laughs). I'm the only one that's harassed here. But there's no problem. Here, we don't discriminate at all.

Students who had come into contact with multicultural education through sessions on equal opportunities were questioned too. I was told;

I just wanted to say 'Oh shut up'. I just wanted to stand there and say 'You are talking out of your arse'.

It didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.

We just seemed to be talking about things we knew already, we didn't seem to be really going anywhere, just confirming things we were already aware of.

I questioned students in schools about their contact with multicultural education, and their responses were equally negative;

I didn't notice multicultural or equal opps policies. They seem to be kind of Christian oriented.

I shouldn't think there's a multicultural policy to be honest, but I'll ask.

There is no multicultural policy as such. It's coming through on the RE because that's what the school inspector insisted.

One member of staff thought that there ought to be a policy on racism, but there were some that were against that because they thought that by having a policy it meant that you would be talking to the children about it, and it would bring a contentious issue to the fore when before it wasn't surfacing. But 'Paki' and things had been bandied about and this member of staff said she felt there was a need for it, but there was resistance (pause) they think that by discussing it they would create a problem that wasn't there before.

Teachers seemed to have some difficulty in remembering what multicultural education looked like. When I asked if it had appeared in their classrooms I was told;

Of course it doesn't crop up here. It just doesn't crop up.

The multicultural aspect here, it's not a particular problem.

I don't see that we have any problem.

We don't really have a problem with that at all.

Written evidence of multicultural education's existence in schools was equally difficult to pin down. Teachers who were asked for documentary evidence told me;

I don't know if there is a policy or not to be honest. I think we've got a policy for just about everything. It must be in something somewhere. I don't know. Don't quote me on that. Ask me about special needs.

We are looking towards writing a multicultural education policy.

There is a draft equal opps policy and we have a separate multicultural education policy. I know there is one but when I asked to see it the Head said he had lost it.

It has already been documented that primary teachers do not see that their training brief with students job includes discussion about issues such as multicultural education (Ball, 1987; Radnor, 1997). This view appeared to be confirmed when the teachers I questioned told me;

Multicultural education... I don't think you learn it in school, that's where you need the experience at university. Things like that... the social and moral side of things are better taught at the university because you don't see it unless you are told about it, and then you can say 'Oh yes, I've seen that now', but in Cheshire you don't see it. At all.

It's the job of the college. They've got enough staff, it's their job.

Let's be honest here, who's getting their training done on the cheap? It's their job. I have never dealt with things like multicultural education with a student. It's not really an issue here anyway but it's the college who should be doing it.

When it is clear that the drive within initial teacher education is to become increasingly school-based, then these attitudes towards equality issues indicate the lack of engagement with multicultural education at the level of the classroom. It was interesting that whilst teachers and mentors were increasingly vocal about their own role within the training process, university lecturers were equally vocal about the training process;

I think it is absolute bollocks. I really do. The anomaly is the government is saying to us (pause) well the Daily Mail would have us believe that all teachers are crap and yet the government wants us, well wants the teachers who are crap to train the new generation of teachers and it is fucking bollocks, it really is.

These lecturers were asked if they had seen multicultural education in action anywhere on site at the University. Many claimed that it had 'permeated' it's way onto the course and was living underground, surreptitiously, somewhere on the campus. When I asked for specific locations, these lecturers became defensive and were unable to give any further indications of its existence. One senior lecturer told me however;

I think what sometimes happens is that the white traditions often get lost in the going overboard in looking at other cultures, and that's worrying... In England how many traditions do we have that are English? Very few. Yet we go overboard with things like Divali and Asian dance things and... erm... I don't know... art work from other countries... I must admit it worries me that the English culture is getting lost.

I found myself beginning to believe for the first time that multicultural education might really be dead.

Looking back, there are important resonances with these findings and the birth of multicultural education. Its birth and death appear to have been part of some celestial circle, as it dutifully arrived back at its starting place. The 1950s integrationist approach of conceptualising ethnic minority children as 'pseudo-white' became a recurring theme at the end of this study. I identified over thirty different ways in which Heads, teachers and students combined to reaffirm the old integrationist principles and conveniently ignore the ethnic child's identity completely. A selection of these strategies of avoidance included;

I don't think of him as black. His Dad's an airline pilot.

He's from Mauritius, but his father's a clinical psychologist. He's not stupid at all.

A child is a child, it doesn't matter what sex they are or what colour they are, what religion. It is better to have relationships with the children in your class because they are individuals, they are not Tommy who's black, Billy who's in a wheelchair, they are Tommy and Billy and the wheelchair and the colour bit doesn't even come close.

They are individuals. I don't look at them as brown or white, or boys and girls, it's how they are as a class. Their personalities.

I refuse to acknowledge she is black because I am sensitive to her needs. If I openly acknowledged her ethnic identity it would embarrass her. She wants to be just like all the other (white) children.

I know he is being abused by the other children but this is not because he is black. It is because he is a 'right little swine'. The other children laugh at him and call him 'Paki', but this is not because he is black, it is because he not a sociable or likeable child.

I don't see him as black because he fits in with all the other (white) children so well.

I do not want to start categorising children as black because I am a Christian, and my faith teaches me how to treat everyone the same way.

I do not want to deal with ethnic identity as an issue in my classroom because I simply do not want to teach in a school where there are black children.

He is not really black but he does have coloured skin.

I know he is being picked on because he is black, but he gives as good back, so it doesn't matter.

If I start to acknowledge his ethnic identity he will only use it as an excuse to get his own way.

I don't need to start thinking about the ways in which ethnic minorities have been discriminated against. I'm from Liverpool and people discriminate against me because of my accent and my social background.

Again, looking back, it is poignant to remember that multicultural education's sole surviving child had strong opinions on the life chances of its parent. The Swann Report recommended that multicultural education would only be successful when led from the front by central government;

All in all, central government appears to have lacked a coherent strategy for fostering the development of multicultural education and thus to have been unable to play a leading role in coordinating or encouraging progress in this field (DES,1985 p220).

With this in mind it is telling to acknowledge two further pieces of evidence. When the DFEE were contacted and asked for any documentation relating to multicultural education in schools and institutions of initial teacher education, I received a letter which read;

I have not found any circulars concerning multi-cultural education in primary schools. I hope that the attached press notice is of some interest / use, but please note that it is ten years old. (DFEE Representative, 1996)

When the TTA were contacted about the same issue, I was told;

I have not heard of multicultural education. I am not aware that it is a particular requirement of the National Curriculum. I can see why it might be important in areas where there are ethnic minorities or where it might fit in something like drug abuse (TTA Representative, 1996).

By sheer chance, pathologists have discovered that the timing of this statement coincided exactly with the point when multicultural education was last seen in public. From this point on, there are only second hand reports, and no-one saw it alive again. It would seem as though Jack Straw's new 'Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain' (Travis, 1998) arrived with its breathing apparatus just too late to prevent the inevitable downward spiral.

The truth can now be told. The reality is that multicultural education is not AWOL, there is no space for the 'missing, presumed dead' argument. There was no conspiracy theory. Multicultural education was not killed in action on an ideological battlefield, fighting for the disadvantaged. Multicultural education died a lonely death, unnoticed, unwanted and unloved.

There are those who will mourn its passing, but the fact is that there are many more who will not notice. There are fewer still who will claim that the reports are false, that multicultural education is alive and well, living in a long forgotten corner of an unidentified primary school classroom, or wandering through the corridors of some sympathetic publisher, but these reports have largely been dismissed alongside sightings of Elvis in the supermarket and the Loch Ness monster. It is time to accept the fact, whatever our personal affections might have been, that multicultural education really is dead.

Multicultural Education

1958 - 1998



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This document was added to the Education-line database 16 September 1998