School of Education, University of Birmingham, UK
This paper provides an overview of how a UK school has and is responding to cultural, ethnic and religious change within its student demographic, including the author’s opinion on the success of this response. The assignment focuses on Ofsted requirements for community cohesion and how the school has responded to this in order to engage and enthuse all students.
Keywords: British; education; culture; ethnicity; achievement; government; policy; community; cohesion; racism; secondary; grammar; religion; race; Muslim; Hindu; Sikh; Ofsted; Caribbean; multiculturalism; Birmingham
‘Nearly half of teachers say racist bullying is a problem in their schools, a survey has found. A Teachers TV survey of 802 teachers found two thirds said their schools had no policy on such bullying, and many worried about religious intolerance. One in five said they were aware of Islamophobia in their schools.’ (BBC News 2009)
Within the last twenty years schools across the UK, particularly those in large urban centres, have experienced huge changes in their student population in terms of ethnicity. As inward migration has increased, new generations of students are joining local schools.
This experience has been particularly true of grammar schools. Social mobility amongst second and third generation migrants in particular has led to the ability to afford coaching, educational literature and tutors. Furthermore, many grammar schools are located in large urban centres where many migrant communities can be found. As a personal example I attended Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Walsall between the years of 1987-94. There were 5 boys in my year group (of roughly 100 pupils) that were of Asian heritage. This year I visited Queen Mary’s and that number is now somewhere between 50 and 60 per year group.
Similar demographic changes can be seen in many Birmingham grammar schools, from my school, Bishop Vesey’s, in the north of the city, to King Edwards in the south. Having spoken to Tim Maw, Deputy Head at Handsworth Grammar School in central Birmingham I found that fewer than 10% of its students are now characterised as ‘White British’.
This sea change in student population has brought with it a number of challenges. Grammar schools have traditionally been institutions whose student populations have broadly been white and drawn from the middle and working classes. This is reflected in the curriculum and extra curricular activities of grammar schools. Rugby, cricket and tennis are typically the core sports whilst musicals and operas are common after-school activities. Assemblies are Christian based, with the singing of hymns practised regularly. These traditions, in some cases, stretch back hundreds of years. However, it is arguable that these activities no longer reflect their student intake given that large parts of the student population are made up of pupils from ethnic minorities.
With this in mind, the purpose of this assignment is to study these changes in my own school through three research questions:
What is the breakdown in my school in terms of ethnicity and how does this reflect the demographic of the local community?
How do we define ethnicity, culture and religion particularly in reference to education?
What has my school done in response to the changes in its ethnic and cultural demographic?
The overall purpose of this assignment is to provide an insight into how grammar schools can, and are, bridging the gap between urban demographic change and traditional educational philosophy. I aim to investigate and evaluate policy and practice at my own school as a case study of community cohesion in action within a contemporary context. Community cohesion is a relatively recent government initiative. OFSTED (Teachernet 2007) defined it as ‘By community cohesion, we mean working towards a society in which there is a common vision and sense of belonging by all communities; a society in which the diversity of people’s backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and valued; a society in which similar life opportunities are available to all; and a society in which strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in schools and in the wider community.’ My focus in this area is an international one. At Bishop Vesey’s students speak a total of 41 languages, hail from a plethora of different faiths with heritages from as far afield as China, India, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Africa.
It is important, at this point, to mention my own involvement in the sphere of community cohesion. Around eighteen months ago I was talking to a Year 11 student of Caribbean heritage, for the purposes of this example, I will call him Ricardo. He told me he had never felt part of the school. He looked up at a basketball hoop that had recently been put up in the playground and said that he had been asking for one for three years and now we had one just as he was about to leave. Ricardo subsequently under-achieved in his GCSE exams and failed to obtain the grades necessary to get into sixth form. Whilst it is too big a leap to cite the lack of a basketball hoop as a reason for under-achievement in exams, it did provide an insight into a wider issue. In December this year the Hamsted Norreys School in Berkshire achieved the highest points score per pupil in the Year 6 SATS tests in the country. When the headteacher Alex Butler was asked about the reasons for the school’s success she replied ‘It starts with things like having happy children, having kind teachers. It's more about the whole school ethos. We're welcoming, to start with, everybody feels part of the school.’ (BBC 2009) I agree with this philosophy. I believe that those pupils who feel part of the school, who feel that the school represents them as well as them representing the school is integral to wellbeing. This wellbeing, this feeling of belonging, increases motivation, which in turn affects achievement. For these reasons I am a total advocate of the ethos behind community cohesion. Schools should reflect the needs of their students, academically, socially and culturally. By doing this pupils of every culture, religion and heritage can connect with their institution of learning and hopefully, will be happier for it. I have overall responsibility for community cohesion from a senior leadership perspective at Bishop Vesey’s. I have attended conferences, researched government policy and introduced community based initiatives across the school. I am a passionate supporter of community cohesion as a method of improving achievement and wellbeing amongst students. This essay therefore, cannot be a study of the whether inclusivity and cohesion are viable tools in contemporary education, on this question my mind is already made up. I can however, explain, analyse and critically evaluate the ways in which we try to achieve cohesion in the school environment through my own case study, the experiences of other schools and academic research.
Bishop Vesey’s is a state grammar school in North Birmingham. Its catchment area theoretically is the whole of the UK but most pupils live in Greater Birmingham. This is a disparate region, economically and socially. Our students are therefore diverse in their background. Postcode studies done by the school revealed that students come from more prosperous areas such as Sutton Coldfield, Four Oaks and Solihull as well as former council estates as Falcon Lodge, Kingstanding and Castle Vale. These are predominantly ‘White British’ areas. We also have many students from former and current migrant communities such as Handsworth, Aston and Sparkbrook. From these areas we tend to draw in students form the Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. This is reflected in the ethnicity and religious breakdown in our school statistics which can be seen below for 2008.
Table 1: Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School - Ethnicity and Religion statistics 2008
Figures are based on parental returns to school requests for information
Asian & Black Bangladeshi
Info not obtained
Other ethnic group
Other mixed background
White + Asian
White + Black African
White + Black Caribbean
White + Chinese
White Western European
Church of England
From this data we can see that roughly 40% of Bishop Vesey’s student cohort are from ethnic minorities, dominated by students from an Indian, Pakistani, Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Chinese background. Indian and Pakistani are the two main groups other than White with a combined figure of almost 22.5%.
The 2001 census of Birmingham revealed that around 30% of the city’s residents were from ethnic minorities. This would suggest that at Bishop Vesey’s the proportion of ethnic minority students is actually overly representative of the city as a whole. That said, I am using the last official census information of 2001 against school figures from 2008. There is no formal information for demographic statistics available until 2011. However, a more recent study concerning population forecasts for Birmingham stated that ‘The White population decrease is about six thousand each year, or a net reduction of about 10% in a decade.’ (Simpson 2007) If this is the case it is a reasonable assumption that the school does broadly mirror the ethnic breakdown of Birmingham as a whole.
In terms of religion we can also see similar trends. 87% of the school population, according to our survey, have faith. Around 60% are of a Christian denomination, 13.5% are Muslim, almost 7% are Sikh and nearly 5% Hindu. The Birmingham census of 2001 reveals slight differences. The percentage of Christians is very similar, 58%. Muslims make up around 14.4% of the population whilst Sikhs and Hindus are fewer at 3% and 2% respectively. However, the differences are not large and, again, I am using 2001 figures which may have changed since their original publication.
What these figures do reveal is that Birmingham is a multi-faith, multi-ethnic city and this is reflected relatively accurately within the student body at Bishop Vesey’s. As mentioned earlier this change in demographics over the last twenty years has led to a need for change in the way our school is managed and the facilities and education we provide. We are, ostensibly, a service organisation and our client base has changed. In order to provide the best possible service to our clients we need to reflect their needs and wants. The purpose of the next section is to study academic research and external case studies in terms of how an academic institution can best serve these requirements. The areas of ethnicity, religion and culture are at the core of these needs and in order to understand how we can best serve them we first need to find usable definitions of the terms themselves.
The Oxford English Dictionary (2009) defines religion as ‘1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.’ Clearly the religions in Table 1 fit into all three of these categories. It is interesting to see that in the Bishop Vesey’s list of choices there is ‘no religion’ rather than a specific category for humanism and/or atheism which may, to an extent, fit into the third definition. The British Humanist Association claim that as one of their aims ‘we offer a voice for the growing number of people who are non-religious.’ (British Humanist Association 2009). There is also an atheist movement in the UK which is growing in its vociferousness and is led by authors such as Richard Dawkins. Although these movements unite people in what they don’t believe in rather than what they do there might be a place for asking whether students would describe themselves as ‘Humanists’. The Humanist movement, rather than focusing on its own system of beliefs such as democracy as human rights, does seem to have an anti-religion agenda as seen in the photograph below, where it ran an advertising campaign on London buses earlier this year. (The Independent 2009)
Of course, both the use of the words ethnicity and religion are strongly linked to ‘culture’. Returning to the Oxford English Dictionary (2009) culture is defined as ‘the customs, institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or group.’ Much like ethnicity this is a hugely broad definition but I do see a theme in my research. Winnicott in 2005 describes culture as ‘inherited traditions’ and Phillips and Schweisfurth see the ‘cultural context’ as ‘a mixture of traditional (mainly indigenous) and modern (mainly imparted) values’. Ultimately, whereas ethnicity is more concerned with place, culture is linked closely to time. I would see culture as activities, values and social norms that are passed on generationally. These can be passed on in the country of origin amongst the indigenous population or in the host country amongst migrants, second and third generation settlers. In terms of education and cohesion in the UK it is concerned with researching, catering for and perhaps celebrating those aspects of ethnic groups that reveal the differences between those groups and indigenous, British culture.
Ethnicity, religion and culture are intertwining definitions but all three have two core parts, commonality and difference. Cohesion in schools, from my perspective, should be concerned with recognising and, to some extent, catering for the differences as well as finding out what we have in common and celebrating this. The celebration of what we have in common as well as what is different helps promote wellbeing but the process of finding this out has great intrinsic value in itself because it involves valuable communication between groups that may previously have felt isolated from each other.
When researching community cohesion and the management of the transition of demographic change my first port of call was OFSTED. This is the education arm of the government system and more or less dictates policy to UK schools. Its policy on community cohesion (OFSTED 2009) looks at school involvement in the local, national and global community as well as the context of community within the school itself. Clearly, schools are also expected to have anti-bullying, anti-racism, gender and sexuality equality policies as the foundations of a cohesive environment.
A number of case studies have given me further ideas of the nature of this topic. My initial research started with meetings with staff from the Arthur Terry School, Sutton Coldfield and Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Walsall. I listened to case studies from schools across Birmingham at a Community Cohesion NCSL conference as well as studying the work at Waverley School, Birmingham and Broadway School, Walsall. More historical reading included the ‘Elusive Ideal’ (Nelson 2005) which is a study of equal opportunity in schools in Boston and ‘Looking South’ (Delpar 2008) which has some interesting insights into the use of the curriculum to reflect identity and culture. Race, Culture and Difference (Donald and Rattansi 1994) and Comparative and International Education (Phillips and Schweisfurth 2006) have informed the context, framework and language of this assignment.
I have so far analysed the ethnic breakdown of students at Bishop Vesey’s, evaluated the three key terms (religion, ethnicity and culture) and outlined the sources of information that have helped me to gain a greater understanding of the issues affecting demographic transition in schools, particularly UK grammar schools. The purpose of the final section of this assignment is to analyse the community cohesion work that has been put in place at my own school. I have added, in the appendices, the Bishop Vesey’s Community Cohesion document which I authored and was published by the school in November 2009. I will be using this document to study the community cohesion work the school has done and evaluate the usefulness of the projects and events that have taken place.
Research was the first aim of the school community cohesion policy. Using a combination of DCSF, OFSTED and other educational literature it was important to find out what community cohesion actually was and therefore how we could address it. It became clear that it should be addressed through three main strands:
Teaching, learning and curriculum – what we do inside the school to promote diversity and equality.
Equality and excellence – How school policies address these issues.
Engagement and extended services – How we interact with the communities outside of the school.
Following this came a long process of auditing. In order to find out what we needed to do to improve it was vital to pull together what we do already. Every member of staff completed a survey on what they themselves and their department contributed to the strands above. The results of these surveys revealed that we actually do a large amount of community cohesion work already but we don’t actually recognise that we do it. RS study the six main religions, Geography looks at migrant communities, English and Art do much cultural work. We celebrate Black History month, have links with schools in China, Poland, France, Tanzania and Germany. The school has an active Christian Union Society and a designated Muslim prayer room. There were many examples of good cohesive work. However, we felt that we needed to improve. Surveys were completed by our ethnic minority students, canvassing their views on what we could improve and a Community Cohesion Change Team was set up to investigate ways in which we improve our delivery and provision in this area. As mentioned previously, this involved looking at the work of other schools, case studies and our own ideas – both staff and students.
The following projects and events were put in place in 2009:
Links were set up with a school in New Delhi. It was felt that this would have resonance with our sizable population of students who are of Indian heritage. Basketball sessions now run for Year 9 at lunchtimes and football may be introduced as an after school activity. Halal food is more clearly labelled in the canteen; assemblies have featured Muslim prayers, the history and culture of India and famous Black Englishmen. A Sport and Languages Day showcased international sports such as Sumo, Capoeira and Kabudi, all taught in the native language. The school now teaches and organises concerts for tabla and dhal. As well as teaching traditional languages such as French, German and Latin students can now study ‘community languages’ such as Urdu, Mandarin and Arabic. Sixth formers have forged closer links with local community charities and there is an eco-group that is helping to make Bishop Vesey’s a more sustainable, eco-friendly environment. Students whose first language is not English are being given extra assistance through extra literacy lessons and the school has created a position for a sixth form Community Cohesion Officer to ensure that the student voice is heard clearly.
The school has made great progress in the last eighteen months in addressing the community cohesion criteria as outlined by OFSTED and it is anticipated that in our forthcoming inspection the school will be awarded ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ in this category. I don’t believe that this necessarily makes us a cohesive school, there are issues that remain. Parents of ethnic minority students are still less likely to become involved in school activities for example. A survey of students told us that this is caused by long working hours, language difficulties and distance from the school. This is a socio-economic issue and is linked to the geographical segregation of different migrant and ex-migrant communities in Birmingham. In our previous OFSTED report (2006) the school was praised for its ‘racial harmony’. This is true; there are very few reports of racial bullying at the school. However, this does not mean there is racial cohesion. Friendship groups are often, but not always, characterised by heritage. This is not surprising from a social point of view; just as people from different backgrounds tend to settle in the same communities so friendship groups will form for students who naturally have something in common, whether that be faith or simply racial background. Can the school make ethnic minority parents come into school or change friendship groups? I’m not sure. Certainly the school could promote activities that appeal to students of different cultures which would bring them closer together and perhaps use translators to help parents work more closely with the school. That said these issues are, in many cases, sociological. The formation of migrant communities in Birmingham could be due to culture, deprivation, historical discrimination and in some cases an unwillingness to integrate – a school cannot solve this issue of geographical segregation.
There is also the issue of balancing tradition and modernity. The school has long been a rugby playing institution. Many of our students from an Asian and Caribbean heritage have little interest in the sport and have never played it before coming to the school. Many more of our White students have played the game previously and enjoy it. I am confident that if we surveyed every student in the school they would want to change the main school sport from rugby to football. Our White students enjoy both; our ethnic minority students prefer football. By changing this, the school, in terms of sport could become more cohesive. More boys from ethnic minorities would represent the school, perhaps feel more a part of the school itself and be involved in a team sport with White contemporaries which may even impact upon friendship groups. But Bishop Vesey’s has been a rugby playing school for over one hundred years and understandably some members of the Vesey community may resist this change.
What we have tried to do as a school is to introduce events, projects and policies that represent and reflect our diverse student body. I have no doubt that as long as this progress of celebrating and representing diversity continues; our students will no doubt benefit. However, for me there is a word of caution. Ricardo’s real problem was not the basketball hoop. The lack of one was a metaphor for the issues that made him feel disengaged and perhaps disenfranchised. He lived much further away than the average pupil which made him feel tired and affected the time he had to do homework. He lived in an area where many of his peers did not value education and had low aspirations. This area was also economically deprived; he didn’t have access to the amount of resources that many students do, electronic or otherwise. Ricardo was brought up in a community that believed that you should always be shown respect and that you should act if you are not given it. Hence, when teachers shouted at him in front of others he reacted badly which compounded the trouble he got into. Some of his relationships with teachers therefore worsened which affected his motivation. As a school, we can’t solve all of those problems for Ricardo. We can ask our teachers to modify their use of discipline but we can’t alter their attitudes to students, we can provide more learning materials at school but we can’t give him a computer at home. We can’t alter what his peers say to him but we can try to instil the value of academic progress in him by providing him with relevant role models.
We have to begin somewhere to address the issues that face successful multi-ethnic schools and, in my opinion, the basketball hoop isn’t a bad place to start. But as educationalists we must ensure that the projects that we put in place are not done to tick boxes but to add real value and real meaning to our student cohort. Cohesive education leads to a cohesive society so it is imperative that we lead by example.
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