Ethnic diversity – starting young really does make a difference

An interesting report published by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at the University of London caught my eye this week. This study of inter-ethnic relations between teenagers surveyed around 4000 Year 10 students in state schools in England, to explore the role that school and neighbourhood ethnic composition play in the level of ‘warmth of feeling’ that young people have towards different ethnic groups, and the results were very interesting. Not surprisingly, the study found that pupils have greater warmth of feeling for those from their own ethnic group, but what is particularly interesting is that the researchers found clear evidence that these young people feel more positive towards another ethnic group if they encounter more pupils from that group in school (more so than in their neighbourhood – something about the environment of school appears to facilitate this growth in warmth of feeling).

Globe in hands

In fact, the study showed that the warmth of feeling of a black student for white students increases by 1.04 points for each 10 percentage point increase in the share of white pupils in the school, while the warmth of feeling of a white student for black students increases by 1.74 points for each ten percentage point increase in the share of black pupils in the school. Put together, this has a cumulative effect: this means that the increase in warmth of feeling equates to a reduction of over 10 per cent in the gap between the warmth of feeling that students felt for their own ethnic group, compared to the other group.

The value of this research lies in the fact that it confirms what should be – if we take time to reflect on it – common sense about human relationships. In stronger terms, it is an essential human truth: when we spend time with people who see the world slightly differently to us, we learn to appreciate both them, and humanity in a broader sense, more fully. It should be obvious to us by now that walking in the shoes of others makes a difference, and that diversity is to be valued … sometimes, however, it takes a growing body of definitive research to make the clamouring voices so loud that they cannot be ignored.

This research is particularly heartening, of course, because it was done with young people, showing the shift that can occur with those who are the future leaders of, and contributors to, society. Although it would require further longitudinal research to see how this warmth of feeling persisted into adulthood, it would be reasonable to make the assumption that it had some positive lasting effect; teenage years, after all, are where so many values are cemented.

What to do with this understanding though? Although some may rush to insist on some kind of artificial social engineering in schools, we should be wary of rushing to close down schools rooted in their communities in favour of bigger, super schools, even though these by definition are likely to have more of an ethnic mix, and greater diversity, simply because they will draw children together from a wider geographical and/or socio-economic demographic. No credible evidence exists to support the value (other than financial cost-saving value) of larger schools.

What it does suggest is that schools need to be hyper-alert to the creation of opportunities for their pupils to build meaningful relationships with their peers from different cultures. This may be at a local level, building partnerships with schools in other parts of the town, city or region, enabling students to work together on projects and share purposeful experiences; importantly, it can – and arguably should – also include opportunities to work together and spend time with their peers who live abroad, and who have even more different backgrounds. Technology brings us many options in this respect; the most powerful opportunities will come, however, when creative educator minds focus on solutions, powered by a vision and driving sense of the importance of helping children connect with, and experience the lives of, people who are a bit different to them.

Internationalism, global outlook, and warmth of feeling towards others are all different aspects of the same fundamental issue that should be at the heart of our education systems and schools. We know what we have to do: let’s reach out and help our children experience and value the diversity in the world.

Read more: Powerful Schools: How schools can be drivers of social and global mobility

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