Recent events at the Montenegro v England football fixture brought into sharp focus the strides we have taken as a nation in the 40 years and how important education has been in that process.
I was brought up in the Borough of Lewisham during the 70’s and my father was an officer in the Metropolitan Police. The school I attended was a Catholic one but what was always interesting for me was its diversity even in that era. The catchment area for the school was wide, encompassing most of South-East London from the inner city to the suburbs. Because of its Catholic nature it attracted a lot of first generation migrants from the Irish, Italian and West Indian communities along with the older “British” white kids. It was remarkable considering the racial tensions at the time, including the Battle of Lewisham in 1978 and the Brixton Riots of 1981 that the school was an oasis of calm in terms of race relations without any form of formal teaching about diversity.
Looking back, the school rugby colours of green, white and gold were clearly Irish but the teams put out by the school were as multi-ethnic as any in the modern era and we never batted an eyelid. I clearly remember one of the main authority figures at the school was a first generation West Indian Maths teacher who apart from being an excellent teacher was very much a man to be respected!
My main point is that the process of multiculturalism in action was embedded in the school almost without a policy or even really any conscious thought. It happened because that was the way the area was and it reflected the diversity of London and that era. From that I have always had a healthy suspicion of trying “too hard” to manufacture and “ celebrate” diversity in a consciously overt manner.
The great battles over gender and racial equality although not won in this country are largely there. The overt and casual racism and sexism which I grew up with is now largely gone, which is why incidents at football matches in the far corners of the Balkans causes an uproar just because it is so unacceptable.
Now this amazing turnaround does not just happen by osmosis, legislation and external pressure groups. They have been crucial in the process of making this one of the most tolerant and diverse nations in the world but that is not the whole or even part of the story. Why do so many migrants want to come to the UK? It is not because we are a nation of bigots but on the contrary because we are ( in the main ) open, welcoming and tolerant as a nation. Just look at all of our sports teams as a symbol of this.
However, the key determining factor for me in creating this rainbow nation has to be schools and teachers. The profession has been at the forefront in many communities of sweeping sociological and ethnic changes in the last 30 years, especially in our major metropolitan areas. The system has adapted, coped and triumphed in leading the United Kingdom into the tolerant and multi-cultural society it is today. It still is at the forefront of major challenges such as knife crime and the growing threat of fake news as well as adapting to the increasingly diverse world of the internet. It has been frontline teachers who under incredible pressure and in reality without much public backing, who in my opinion have delivered one of the greatest changes in British history. This should never be forgotten and in the toxic atmosphere of Brexit we should look back and maybe learn that tolerance and good educational practices that, for the most part helped embed the biggest cultural shifts in this island’s long past should be a cause of celebration and thanks to the teaching profession.
It is perhaps a mantle that teachers don’t want to wear and the current crisis in the profession over workload and stress is stripping away the very essence of the job. One of the reasons I founded Every Voice Counts was my growing frustration that in the 30 years I was a teacher so much good had been achieved and we were in danger of throwing that away. Great schools have great teachers and empathetic management teams, that is the core of their being. That relationship is between like-minded and respectful colleagues undivided by corporate titles and management speak. We need to come full-circle back to that relationship of trust, dialogue and co-operative decision making that makes good schools great. The challenge for me is to look forward with EVC as a platform for helping to establish that culture once again in schools. Sometimes back to the future is not a bad thing?
Going to all sorts of schools to present EVC has encouraged me to really reconnect with so many hard-working staff, often working under difficult circumstances and with increased pressures. The common theme is how passionate they are about the students in their schools and the age old concern of the teaching profession to do the best for the children in their care.
Diversity in all its forms has been such a success story that it is imperative not to lose the support of one of the major groups who made it happen- teachers.