The social engineering of integration

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Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, today called for schools with an overwhelmingly Muslim pupil intake to be closed down and replaced with large academies serving a mixed community. In an interview with the Financial Times (apparently not online, but there’s a synopsis here), he claimed that the present situation of there being schools with an overwhelmingly Muslim intake and pupils who speak a foreign language, like Bangla, at home, “has become a real strategic security problem”. “They would be much more likely to collaborate with the police and tell them people within their own community are doing things they shouldn’t be doing if they were better integrated,” he alleged. (More here, here and here.)

There are a whole host of problems with this idea, but let’s deal with the simplest first. The idea is to close two schools, which if they are inner-city secondaries are likely to be large, and open … an even larger school. While the economies of scale this would bring might open up avenues for a more varied curriculum and improved IT and extra-curriculars, it might also produce a huge, impersonal school “community” which is difficult to keep track of, with attendant problems of bullying and other crime. Then there are the logistical issues. It might well lead to people from the edge of the old schools’ catchment areas facing a long bus (or car) journey into school each day, when previously they might have had a short bus journey or been able to walk. Besides the disadvantages of having less time to themselves, or to sleep, it could open them to more problems from other schoolchildren on the bus. Let’s face it, you don’t like sharing a bus with lots of schoolkids, do you? I know I don’t, and I didn’t when I was one myself (and some kids have other problems in that situation besides noise).

I have two bigger concerns than these, however. First of all, what Taylor is proposing is to simply throw two groups of teenagers together in one big melting pot and assume that this will mean they all make friends and they won’t live separately later on. My suspicion is that doing such a thing at that age will have the exact opposite effect. Secondary schools tend to be more stressful than primaries because people suddenly enter a much bigger and more impersonal environment, facing sometimes aggressive older pupils who are physically adult or nearly adult, and teachers who might not be very friendly and might be more concerned with correcting their P’s and Q’s than protecting them from the aggressive older pupils. They might well be expected to take orders off those same pupils (and in the second year, the new prefects may well be the people they called bullies the year before). And both groups are going through all the body changes and the hormonal issues associated with them that we all know of.

So if you take two large groups of adolescents from two communities with two different sets of problems and largely different sets of values and throw them together at an age when they already have quite a bit of stress and might not be best equipped to deal with more, is this a recipe for successful integration later on? My guess is that it is not; it will be a recipe for more friction between the two groups, even if the teachers do their best to put them together for academic work.

Leading on from this is exactly what problems the two communities - the white community and the immigrant Muslims in east London, specifically Tower Hamlets which was mentioned in this context - have. I’m the first to admit that the Bengali Muslims in east London have their problems. For example, there are unconfronted racism issues, which any non-Bengali Muslim who tries to marry one of their daughters will encounter. (The same issues exist in many Indian immigrant Muslim communities, by the way.) There are also issues of class and caste (the latter particularly among Hindus) and there is the tendency to bring wives from back home who do not speak English. What ties all these problems together, however, is the fact of close-knit families with strong religiously-based values. This in itself is a good basis for good citizens and good neighbours.

It’s highly unlikely that a school in Whitechapel might be knocked down to “integrate” with a school in Canning Town (not least because Canning Town is in Newham borough, not Tower Hamlets), but let’s imagine for the moment that two areas anything like these are to be expected to share one of Cyril Taylor’s megacademies. If the non-Muslim ghetto area in question is one which is notoriously yob-infested, in which courier companies refuse to deliver because of vandalism and attacks on their staff, in which someone is shot dead on his doorstep for confronting a criminal gang which terrorises the neighbourhood, there is likely to be some objection from parents in the other area - be they Muslim or otherwise - to their school being forced into such an arrangement with one in that neighbourhood for the sake of “integration”. When I worked as a parcel delivery driver for what is now DHL five years ago, nobody ever told me not to deliver in Whitechapel or any other Muslim-associated east London district (though this was before the no-go on Canning Town came to be known of). Someone is dragging these yobs up, and if the yobs don’t speak Bengali or Urdu, you can guess that their parents don’t either. I’m sure many Muslim parents don’t mind having non-Muslims in their school if they don’t have plenty already; they just do not want these ones.

To throw together secondary school age youths from these two backgrounds is a recipe for social disaster. It could lead to far worse problems than those we now face, which basically amount to one successful terrorist attack a year and a half ago. The very real problem of sectarianism and associated violence elsewhere in the country has not stopped the authorities dragging their feet on Protestant-Catholic school integration in these areas, and the culture of Catholics and Protestants in Scotland is vastly more similar than those of inner-city whites and inner-city Bengalis and Pakistanis. It would very likely lead to social groups forming based on ethnicity, with antagonism and violence between them which might spill out into the streets. Also consider that the Asian youths who would have to deal with the yobs on a daily basis might not listen to the radio talk shows and read the newspapers in which it becomes clear that most white people, whatever their religion, hate yobs as well. They would no doubt hear about the latest scandal involving western troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, and draw some connection between that and the violence they face at school or on the way there.

What sticks out about this proposal is its white-centredness - the focus on appealing to fears among middle-class whites of Muslim ghetto youths turning to extremism and failing to help the police if they are not mixed in with white or black ghetto youths. The strengths of Asian and Muslim cultures and why they might be worth preserving do not seem to occur to Cyril Taylor. Academic under-achievement is alluded to, but tackling this could surely be better done by addressing the needs of a group of children in their own setting, rather than in an unfamiliar (if gleamingly new) setting where there are pupils with considerably different problems.

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