On Thursday 5th November the Guardian published a story about integrated schooling in Oldham, where there were serious race riots in 2001 (http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/nov/05/integrated-school-waterford-academy-oldham). Breeze Hill School (almost totally Asian) and Counthill School (dominantly white) were both closed and combined in the new Whitehead academy in 2010. Integration was handled with caution. Care was taken to account for community sensibilities and the full start was delayed until 2012.
The results of this real-time social experiment have been monitored by Miles Hewstone, Professor of Social Psychology at Oxford. It is widely accepted that it is very easy to generate social antagonism between 2 groups which have a separate identity. In Oldham residential, school and religious separation between white British and Asian groups was some of the most extreme in England. But would integrating schooling help?
Miles Hewstone has a theory that positive contact will improve respect and cooperation between groups. The results after 3 years are modest. It has not been helped by the fact the school itself has to cope with severely disadvantaged children and has routinely failed Ofsted inspections. The two ethnic groups still socialise in separate spheres. However, measures of inter-community trust have improved and there have been no instances of racial violence between the pupils. Hewstone believes there has been a permanent boost to tolerance and understanding between the two groups.
In July, the prime minister made a speech on extremism that ended with a call for action to tackle ethnic segregation: “It cannot be right … that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths.” He mentioned two cities where segregation was particularly marked. The first was Bradford, the second was Oldham. Cameron was careful not to lay the blame on any one community. Housing was an issue, he said, as was education.
This from a government that has sponsored the development of faith based schools. It is clear that religion is a major issue in creating a divided society and by supporting faith based schools the government is fuelling community antagonism based on religion and culture. If Hewstone is right positive efforts have to be made to integrate communities, not divide them. We need only look at Northern Ireland to see the damage that can be done by continuing to educate communities in separate religious establishments.