Sunday, November 27, 2011

Norwegian school's segregation sparks race row

White flight takes hold

A political row has erupted in Norway after a secondary school segregated students with ethnic backgrounds in classes away from white Norwegians. Bjerke Upper Secondary School in Oslo filled one of the three general studies classes solely with pupils with immigrant parents, after many white Norwegians from last year's intake changed schools.

The controversy has highlighted the unease in Norway over how to integrate the 420,000 "non-Nordic" citizens who migrated between 1990 and 2009, and who make up 28 per cent of Oslo's population.

"This is the first time I've heard about this and it is totally unacceptable," Torge Odegaard, Oslo education commissioner, said before pressuring the school to inform parents that the three classes would now be reorganised.

But Robert Wright, a Christian Democrat politician and former head of the city's school's board, struck back, arguing that the authorities had been wrong to block the move. He said that other Oslo schools should start to segregate classes to prevent a situation of "white flight" developing. "Bjerke School has come up with a radical solution to a real problem," Mr Wright said.

The decision only came to the parents' notice earlier this month after Avtar Singh, a Punjabi Norwegian, confronted Gro Flaten, the school's headmistress, on why his son, Gurjot, had no ethnic Norwegian classmates. "She said straight out that the school had experienced ethnic Norwegian students dropping out if they weren't grouped together in smaller classes," he told the newspaper Dagsavisen.

Mrs Flaten said: "We made the decision because many Norwegian students were moving to other schools because they were in classes with such a high percentage of students from other nations. They seemed to be in a minority."

Students at the school have expressed anger at the segregation. "This is apartheid," said Ilias Mohamed, 17, from Somalia. "They do this because I'm from Africa and my father is from Africa But everyone of us is a Norwegian."

But school captain Helena Skagen, 18, said she understood what the school had been trying to do. "They just wanted to keep the Norwegian students at the school," she said. "But they now know that what they did was wrong because you can't split the students according to their culture."

Mr Wright said he believed that the shadow of Anders Breivik, the anti-Islamic extremist who massacred 77 people in Oslo in July, had made discussions of immigration difficult in Norway.


Why we need to talk about history

This vital subject must have higher status in the British curriculum, says the co-author of a new book investigating how our past is taught in schools today.

Here are two quotations that might be taken from the current debate over the teaching of history in English state schools. First: “It is surprising to find how little real knowledge of history is possessed by the average Englishman, or even by the average educated Englishman.” Second: “We need to return to an old-fashioned method which had governed the teaching of history for generations, namely 'dates, conventional divisions and an insistence upon mechanical accuracy’.” Sound familiar? It certainly does; and then some. For the first of these remarks dates from 1906, and was made at a meeting which saw the establishment of the Historical Association; and the second was made in 1924 by Hilaire Belloc.

As these two quotations suggest, complaining about the inadequacy of history teaching in English schools is nothing new: indeed, it has been going on for as long as history has been taught in the classroom, and this means back to the 1900s. So when, these days, Jeremy Paxman deplores the fact that insufficient attention is given in English schools to teaching the history of the British Empire, he is merely repeating (but perhaps does not know he is) a complaint that was made by (among others) Winston Churchill during the Second World War, by King George V in the 1920s, and by Lord Meath, the founder of Empire Day, before 1914.

For as long as it has been taught in state schools, history has always been a controversial and contentious subject. There have been those who thought it was taught well, and those who thought it was taught badly. There have been those who wanted a cheerleading narrative of national greatness, and those who wanted a “warts and all” account of the English past. There have been those who wanted to focus on this nation to the exclusion of all others, and those who wanted to situate England’s (or Britain’s) history in a broader global context. There have been those who thought history is primarily about imparting knowledge, and those who thought it is essentially about teaching skills.

Most of the arguments that are made today are merely the latest iterations of points that have already been made many times before, yet there is scarcely any awareness that this is so. How strange it is that history teaching in schools is discussed and debated, but with almost no historical perspective brought to bear. All too often, there is an easy presumption that there was once a golden age, when history was much better taught in the classroom than it is now, from which there has recently been a deplorable and catastrophic decline. But there is very little evidence to support that alarmist view.

Among other things, history teaches perspective and proportion; yet perspective and proportion are all too often lacking in the current debate on how history is taught in our schools. All too often, individual scare stories are hyped in the media, with no effort to establish whether they are in any way typical or representative; and since there are more than 30,000 schools in this country, any generalisation about what goes on in them is bound to be at best superficial. And we should also remember that the discussion and disagreements about history teaching in schools in this country is paralleled by similar discussions and disagreements in many other countries, too.

Why is this so? Why is history now, and why has history always been, such a contentious subject in the classroom? Indeed, why has it always been, and why is it now, so much more contentious than most other school subjects? Perhaps it is because history is about ourselves, about who we are, about how we define ourselves as a nation, in ways that most other subjects are not. Physics or geometry or Spanish are much the same wherever in the world they are taught. But history in England or in Germany or in Japan or in Canada can be very different, because so much of it is taught in a national framework.

These are some of the broader considerations that inform The Right Kind of History, a book that I have co-authored with Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon. It investigates how the subject has been taught in English state schools from the 1900s to the present, and is published this week. Drawing on a wide range of official materials, as well as interviews with hundreds of former teachers and pupils, one of our aims is to put the current debates on history teaching in a broader perspective, and to make recommendations that are soundly based on the evidence.

Across the 20th century, and on into our own time, there has always been controversy, there has always been continuity, and there has always been change.

Discussion and debate, by politicians, academics, educationalists, pundits and journalists have invariably been polarised. Yet it is clear from the evidence we have collected that in the classroom itself, most teachers just want to get on with the job. Across the whole period with which we have been concerned, history in English schools has never been a compulsory subject beyond the age of 14. Yet this remarkable continuity has been accompanied by profound changes: the advent of the wireless, the television and the computer; the creation of a comprehensive system of education; the creation of the National Curriculum; and so on.

From this evidence-based perspective, we have tried to make clear what the current key problems are in the teaching of history, as distinct from those that erroneously assume a sudden, recent collapse from a lost and lamented golden age. It is our firm belief that the major problem is not the current National Curriculum, which in our view strikes a good balance between the history of our own country and its broader engagement with the world, and the histories of other countries. As such, it should be left alone, and politicians and mandarins should resist the temptation to keep tinkering with it. The major problem we have isolated is that history is still only compulsory in English schools until the age of 14.

Here is the root cause of many of today’s problems, especially the rushed treatment of many topics during Key Stage Three, the danger of repeating subjects (such as the Tudors and the Nazis) at Key Stage Three and then again at GCSE, and the lack of time to give appropriate attention to what is termed “the big picture”. Accordingly, our most important recommendation is that history should be made compulsory in all state schools until the age of 16. This would not only mean the subject would be better taught, but it would also be in line with the original proposals of Sir Keith Joseph and Kenneth Baker when the National Curriculum was being drawn up. They were right then, and their proposals remain valid today. It is high time they were implemented. In more ways than one, there is a great deal to be said for knowing more than most of us do about what happened in the past.


Getting unqualified blacks into university is pointless in Australia too

In much of the USA a black High School diploma is meaningless, not even guaranteeing literacy -- but it will get the holder into some sort of tertiary institution, where graduation rates are low. And even if the student does graduate, his/her skillset will often still not rise much above literacy. Without primary and secondary schools that provide a meaningful education, very little can be done for the black student at the tertiary level.

The folly is less advanced in Britain, with the government putting pressure on the universities to accept underqualified students from sink schools but at least the top tier of British universities seems to be fairly successful in resisting that pressure so far. Sara Hudson below is warning the Australian government that they too should fix the schools first

The Australian Government is conducting a Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. According to the government the review will provide advice and make recommendations on achieving parity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, best practice and opportunities inside universities and other higher education providers, the effectiveness of affirmative action policies and the recognition of Indigenous knowledge in the higher education sector.

Our submission to the review (available on our website here) argues that it is not affirmative action or opportunities inside universities that the government should be concerned with but the ‘sink schools’ in welfare dependent suburbs and the Indigenous ‘schools’ in remote communities. These schools do not provide adequate primary and secondary education to enable children to proceed to university. The few Indigenous students from urban welfare dependent families or remote communities who qualify for university are almost always those whose parents have them board with relatives to access quality mainstream schools, or those at quality boarding schools on scholarships.

Conversely, Indigenous students from working families are attending university in record numbers. In 2009 Indigenous higher education enrolment had grown to 10,465 with an estimated 26, 0000 Indigenous graduates in the labour force by the end of 2010. Increasing numbers of Indigenous graduates are going on to quality post-graduate degrees that will enable them to qualify for academic posts. The remarkable success of these students shows that ‘affirmative action’ is not needed.

With a small proportion of the total population, Indigenous academics will always only form a small proportion of academic staff. It is extremely important for their reputation as well as their self-esteem that they are not stigmatized as being appointed by ‘affirmative action’ rather than on merit.

No amount of affirmative action will make any difference for those Indigenous students from urban welfare dependent and remote communities. These students will continue to have low participation in higher education until the deficits of substandard pre-school, primary and secondary education cease. To put it simply, if children are not taught to read, write and count, they have no hope of going to university.


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