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|Race and education
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One of the things that most hits me when I come 'home' from time to time after seven years living in France and Switzerland is the UK's bizarre preoccupation with the outmoded concept of 'race'.
It is only in the UK that I am ever asked to fill in questionnaires that, ridiculously, make me identify myself by my skin colour (not that I usually bother to answer). At no point in my life has it ever entered my head that this might be part of my identity: nationality, yes; culture, yes, but never 'race' or skin colour.
'Race' was a bogus 19th century idea with absolutely no foundation in reality. It led to some of the worst abuses of colonialism and ultimately to the Holocaust. So why on earth do the British still go on about it, especially in connection with education?
I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that anyone has ever mentioned 'race' since I came to work in Switzerland. This is true both in my own school, with its 141 nationalities and 87 mother tongues, and in my contacts with the Swiss and French public education systems.
When a visiting trainer from the UK suggested to our teachers that they might do some 'ethnic monitoring' of exam results I had to move in to protect him from their spontaneous outrage at the idea that we should even think of our students as belonging to 'racial groups'.
Our students have needs for learning and language support that vary hugely according to their background and their capacities. We are also sensitive, when students join us mid-course, about transition from the many very different education systems from which they come. We certainly don't treat everyone alike or pretend that particular groups don't have problems that need to be addressed. In no part of our minds, however, do we ever see them as belonging to 'racial groups'. Our unspoken assumption is that it would be deeply de-humanising to do so.
So this is my New Year's resolution for the English education system: wake up to the idea that it is perfectly possible to run a child-friendly and culturally sensitive education system without being required by officialdom to label people according to discredited classifications that bear no relation to the complex realities of their lives.
Nicholas Tate is Director-General, The International School of Geneva, and a NET Leading Thinker
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