Broaden their horizons
School leaders have a duty to get students to challenge the beliefs and prejudices of their parents and their culture, said Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to SHA members in Brighton. But instead, schools seem be going the other way. Nic Barnard reports.
It's hard to think of a better illustration of the eternal truths at the heart of Romeo and Juliet. As a teenager in Uganda, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown played the heroine in a school production which saw the Capulets played by Asians against black African Montagues.
The casting was the idea of her inspirational white English teacher, Mrs Mann, and Yasmin's performance won her a place at drama school, but at a cost.
Her father, she says, never spoke to her again until his death, appalled that she had shared a stage with Africans.
Some 40 years on, the incident informed her key message to the address at SHA's conference in Brighton.
Yasmin's argument was that schools and school leaders have a duty to help students break free from the chains of the past, to provide a refuge from the sectarianism and prejudices of their parents and communities, and to offer a forum where young people can debate matters of race, identity and belief.
She told delegates, "I think it was great that we had teachers who didn't capitulate to the demands of our parents and their prejudices; that we had teachers who saw their role as taking us beyond our home lives and in fact challenging the values of our home lives.
"I don't want my children to be burdened with some of the problems I carry, some of my attitudes, some of my prejudices. If they go to school and meet teachers who can liberate them from my problems, isn't that what education should be about?
"When did we move from that vision of education?"
The Independent columnist told delegates she feared the present government was making the same mistakes its Conservative predecessors made when they created the national curriculum in the 1980s: they have failed to ask the fundamental question: "What is education for?"
The torrent of reforms under New Labour are simply "a frantic exercise of change and targets and paperwork built up to create the illusion of progress," she told heads at Brighton.
Implicit in her argument is that by concentrating on targets and standards, they miss the true challenge of a 21st century globalised society.
"We have to create young citizens who are better than we have been at empathising and connecting and dealing with people who are utterly unlike themselves," she said.
"It's easy to feel empathy for people in your own group, or community or family. Many of our policy makers seem to be imposing community or family or tribal allegiances instead of understanding that the challenge is how you deal fairly and equally and creatively with people with whom you have no natural allegiance at all.
"At the moment it seems to me there's a terribly deep struggle for the soul of our nation at every level. The frightening thing is that forces of conservatism of the ugly kind are winning."
This conservatism doesn't just exist in the white media. Luton schoolgirl Shabina Begum's victory in the Appeal Court over the right to wear the traditional Muslim jilbab gown was, she said "heartbreaking".
Yasmin speaks as a Muslim woman who fears tribal identities are becoming more deeply ingrained in Britain's communities, among its ethnic minorities but also among whites.
A survey in the Economist had revealed that white children increasingly saw themselves not as British, but as English or Scottish or Welsh or Irish.
It was, she told heads, a "horrible fragmentation", and something educators needed to concern themselves with. We needed to "re-imagine" the country.
Our leaders, she said, were badly letting us down. Conservative columnists harked back to a non-existent golden age, and the chancellor, Gordon Brown, and Tony Blair now talked about the British Empire as a "wholly good thing" and nothing to be ashamed of. They did not grasp the global nature of the world in which we now live.
"Unless we look at the way the leaders of our country are holding us back we will not be able to provide the kind of education that I think we all agree we must seek."
This was a challenging message for heads, but Yasmin was keen to reassure delegates: "This is not an attack on you."
Nevertheless, some may have felt uncomfortable as she turned her fire on faith schools.
Diversity in Britain, she said, went far beyond the usually-quoted five per cent ethnic minorities. Britain enjoyed diversity of race, culture, religion, gender, age, class, language, caste.
Yet, in the phrase of John Tusa, former director of the World Service, we live in a world of niches, separated from, indifferent and even hostile towards the values, interests and wishes of those in other niches.
"If that is so, why is the government still even more every day supporting separated education for these various groups?" Yasmin demanded.
Why had ministers not pulled back from "this wholly dangerous idea that our children can't learn together, but can only flourish in separate Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or Catholic or Church of England schools?
"If Labour were as revolutionary as it says it is, and as modern and thrusting and youthful as they want us to think they are, why oh why are they supporting the most retrogressive policy in education?"
The government's answer would be that it was giving Muslim children the same rights as Christians, who have always enjoyed their own schools.
"But what we now need to understand is that Christian schools are just as fundamentalist in many ways in terms of whom they accept. We need to go back and start again."
Schools should be a place where children can interrogate each other about their beliefs and be interrogated in turn. "It's something people in your position should really be asking government questions about. What is this madness?"
Yasmin offered some ways forward, starting with a radically different view of the curriculum - one that involves teaching children more languages, and takes a different view of history.
We needed, she said, to think how we taught young people about asylum seekers - "the new swearword". If they hated asylum seekers, how would they cope in a world where more and more of these people came to the door?
Of course, there will always be a place for Shakespeare on the syllabus.
Black and Asian people understand Shakespeare better than anyone, she said. "We are still living his dramas." African politics was Macbeth and Julius Caesar played out in real time.
But perhaps the most resonant quotation of Yasmin's warmly-received speech came from another bard, Khalil Gibran, and his work The Prophet.
In it, he wrote: "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you ...You may give them your love but not your thoughts for they have their own thoughts ...You may strive to be like them but seek not to make them like you.
"For life goes not backwards nor tarries with yesterday."
© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders