Migrants are rarely out of the news – mostly with negative words attached: ‘threat’, ‘invaders’, ‘illegal’, ‘flood’, ‘swarm’, ‘crisis’, ‘chaos’ ‘influx’, ‘sham’, ‘terrorist’ ‘suspected’. This is particularly so at present, with immigration a key issue in the EU debate. Voters have been exhorted to consider the security threat posed by migrants. Spreading fear of migrants, as human rights campaigners point out in a recent letter to the Guardian, ‘ is an age-old racist tool designed to stoke division’.
What effect does this kind of inflammatory scare-mongering have on children? And how as educators should we respond? At a basic level, there are direct implications for schools arising from population growth: migration puts pressure on school places. But it isn’t just a question of numbers. In their recent CPRT research review on diversity, Ainscow and his colleagues report that during the last decade the percentage of the primary cohort who were from minority ethnic groups (that is, not classified as white British) rose from 19.3 to 30.4 percent. Schools are in the frontline of response to these demographic changes, dealing, for example, with children who are non-English speakers or who have been traumatised by their earlier experiences.
Arguably however, the most difficult challenge ensuing from anti-migrant propaganda is its insidious effect on the attitudes of children themselves. This permeates all schools, not just those directly involved in receiving migrants. The controversial DfE policy which requires schools to reinforce British identity through fundamental British values, which in its turn was triggered by the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair involving Birmingham schools, is unlikely to help in this regard.
Our first concern might be to consider how to protect children from any propaganda they are exposed to. But we need to go further. Negative stereotypes need to be countered with approaches that not only redress untruths and misrepresentations, but also shift children’s gaze to the common values of humanity, generating compassion, empathy and understanding. Schools are uniquely positioned to provide such positive influences on children and their communities.
In their CPRT research review on diversity Ainscow et al makes the same point, reminding us of the opportunities for schools offered by rapid demographic change. Migrant Help aims to address the moral panic and embrace such opportunities. It argues that historically the UK has welcomed economic migrants and those fleeing war or persecution and it seeks to promote a culture of tolerance and acceptance, and the kind of community which aspires to the Bantu notion of ‘ubuntu’. Ubuntu is a central African word that means human kindness; it includes the understanding that every human action has implications for all around us and that our identities are shaped by the past and present lives of others. This concept, and the values that underpin it, resonates with no fewer than three of CPRT’s priorities: equity, community and Sustainability.
Under the ‘ubuntu’ umbrella, Jonathan Barnes and Alex Ntung of Migrant Help Education are involved in projects that directly address these values and priorities. One of them draws on the work of Bern O’Donoghue, an artist who addresses perceptions of migrants through her art, challenging myths and prejudice about immigration. Bern places fact-filled paper boats in public places for people to find. So far 7000 tiny origami paper boats inscribed with little known facts about migrants have been placed around Europe and the USA (translated into 6 languages) in nooks and crannies, bus shelters, on fence posts, wall cracks and signboards in the hope that passers-by will pick them up and read them.
Bern has been working with 9 – 11 years old in Hastings primary schools associated with the Education Futures Trust. When introducing the subject of refugee boats in the Mediterranean, Bern asked children to consider parallel situations in their own lives – being in a new place, moving house, changing schools – and what might help them settle in. This drew them into conversations about what ‘our’ (European), response should/could be to migrants fleeing war and persecution. Children too made origami boats to carry messages, and were then involved in the analysis and discussion of the messages they and others had created. Common themes emerged including friendship, kindness, fairness, home and safety – all suggestive of understanding and clarity about humanitarian values.
This small research project seemed highly meaningful to the participants, perhaps because it involved a current emotive issue that had already engaged the children at a profound emotional level and involved the application of values to an authentic context.
For the education team at Migrant Help UK there was more learning. They were reminded that youngsters are often much more generous in their responses than adults. The threat-laden language of the tabloids and ultra-nationalists was entirely missing from the children’s responses. The team reflected on how much adults have learned to live with values-compromises, values-inconsistencies, values-conflicts and values-suspension on a daily basis. Perhaps we should listen to the moral guidance of 9 year olds more often.
Another CPRT research report, on global learning and sustainability from Doug Bourn and his IoE colleagues, reminds us of the capacities that young children have for reasoning and discussion of complex or controversial topics. They say (p23): ‘With regard to cultural diversity, research indicates that while children begin to develop prejudices at an early age, they also start to understand concepts of fairness, empathy and justice early too.’ However, the report observes that schools tend to prioritise global and sustainability themes in order to foster empathy, rather than taking a more critical approach to controversial issues such as injustice and inequality. Early intervention, the CPRT Bourn report suggests, ‘can challenge negative stereotypes before they become entrenched, and provide a scaffold into which more complex themes can be added at a later age or stage of schooling’.
While evidence from the Cambridge Primary Review Community Soundings suggested that primary aged children are generally aware of and concerned about these issues, Bourn et al note that a good deal of research shows that teachers feel less comfortable with tackling controversial issues in the classroom, perhaps fearing backlash from parents or – given recent events – government. At the NUT conference in April 2015, executive member Alex Kenny commented: ‘The government’s promotion of “British values”, the Prevent agenda and the use of Ofsted to monitor these is having the effect of closing down spaces for such discussion and many school staff are now unwilling to allow discussions in their classroom for fear of the consequences.’
School leaders need to take their courage in their hands and counteract this prevailing culture of fear, especially with the prospect of Brexit triumphing on 23rd June.
Vanessa Young and Jonathan Barnes lecture at Canterbury Christ Church University and Vanessa is Regional Co-ordinator for CPRT South East. Find out more about the activities of this very active network and its member primary schools, and how you can join in.