I’ve spent my life working at the intersection of the arts and education, but these interests have always been personal to me, too. As a student in Manchester in the 1980s, I grew up in a vibrant, multicultural environment where I learned – as a working class, British-Pakistani Muslim, how to navigate Britain, and found a place in it. Crucial to that was my education – informally in Manchester’s markets – and formally, at school in the city.
But I’m worried that today, not enough young people from ethnic minority backgrounds feel the same sense of inclusion and belonging that I did, and that not all schools are doing what they should. So for Radio 4 I’ve just made a documentary, Schools Apart, that explores identity and belonging and how England’s schools can encourage them both. I met students, teachers and policy experts across the country.
The first school I visited was my old sixth form college Loreto, in Hulme, Manchester. Loreto, then as now with a diverse intake, has a strong academic ethos reflected in its ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating. The teachers put a lot of emphasis on the arts, culture, citizenship – and ensuring all students feel valued and part of Manchester, their city.
Loreto’s headteacher Michael Jaffrain told me how they encourage confidence and leadership in their students: “We want our students to be agents of change, doers of justice.”
But Michael has a challenge:
“I think that probably the hardest thing for me as principal is I always say ‘I'm a white guy in a suit’, and for a lot of our students, a 16 or 17 years old from Black or Asian background, I can try to relate to them as much as I can. But I will still be a white man in a suit.
Mohammed Amara, a student at Loreto, echoed both that problem, but also the possibility that the headteacher is hoping to encourage:
“The contributions of ethnic minority people into modern day Britain are under-recognized and underappreciated in the curriculum”.
“A significant factor is identification, because if the youth do not identify with world leaders, people that make change, and do not see that they are potential of the same change, then they almost have this sort of limited growth mindset, where they believe that they cannot achieve equal or better. If we recognise the contributions ethnic minority people have made, they will be given inspiration and we'll be able to achieve this change.”
That optimism is shared by Alun Francis, deputy chair of the Social Mobility Commission. He told me about his experience overseeing the creation of the Waterhead Academy school in 2010 – the result of a merger of two schools in Oldham, one mainly White British, the other mostly British Asian.
That merger was a deliberate decision, taken after violent clashes in Oldham in 2001, to tackle educational segregation and as a way to engage communities which were too often experiencing divided lives.
“What's optimistic about young people is they're actually quite curious about each other, and they are quite generous and interested,”
Alun tells me.
“Curiosity is a very positive thing and you start to see those kinds of friendships grow. And the most important shift they got is a growth in trust.”
But not every school has the opportunity to create a different dynamic by merging. So in London I visited Stepney All Saints School and Lilian Baylis Technology School. Both are in economically deprived boroughs. Both have exam results higher than the national average. And both have adapted their syllabuses and provide curriculum enrichment programmes to support the needs and experiences of their large minority populations. At Lilian Baylis school, more than 90 per cent of students are from Black and Asian backgrounds.
What came across very strongly at the school was a sense of concern over racial inequality. Asked during a class discussion why there are not more Black teachers in schools, one Year 9 student had a clear answer:
“It’s because most Black people aren’t born with high social status,” she said, “meaning they can’t get a good enough education to get into teaching and most can’t afford university, college and stuff like that.”
In a school like Lilian Baylis, this sense of exclusion is a huge challenge: How do you inspire a school population that is mainly ethnic minority people with a curriculum that is predominantly white? Joy Mbakwe, head of English at Lilian Baylis, told me about her mission to diversify and enrich the classroom experience.
“There needs to be a dual experience here,” she began, “where we give you everything you need to make sure that you succeed at GCSE and A-level, because that's our first priority, because we believe that education is fundamental.”
But Joy is committed to doing more than that, as she made clear. “The education that you have about yourself, your identity, the pride that you should have leaving this school is also at play here as well.” The picture is changing. According to the UK schools census, schools are following the pattern of Oldham’s schools, and integrating more, and that can only be a good thing. But there’s still a long way to go, and the efforts of teachers like Joy in London, and Michael in Manchester will be vital. Whether they succeed may well determine whether all the next generation can have access to the same opportunities, and develop the same sense of belonging, that I did.
What struck me most about making this programme is just how committed and brilliant our teachers are up and down England, and their commitment to the children in their classrooms. Also it's impossible to talk about levelling up Britain without taking seriously the inequalities of race in our country, especially those issues raised by the young people and teachers in this programme. By ignoring these concerns, or seeking only to use them as content for culture wars, we are letting down the next generation.
Anwar Akhtar is founder and director of The Samosa Media, a UK arts and journalism charity that also works to embed diversity in curriculum in schools, colleges and universities. Anwar has just made a documentary in partnership with Radio 4, Schools Apart, that explores identity and belonging in England. He produced and presented the film “Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret – Lahore Museum '' and was producer of the play “Dara,” at National Theatre UK . Dara was the first South Asian history play at the UK’s National Theatre. Anwar was previously project director of the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, where he led the capital and business development of a new £30 million arts centre in East London.