Ministers must realise the implications of Bradford's divided schools

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The Independent Online

The one thing which should not have come as a surprise in Lord Ouseley's report on race relations in Bradford was the revelation that the city's schools are "segregated". The same is true of most urban areas in this country with large non-white populations. It is the predictable outcome of parental choice. If ethnic minority pupils become a majority in a school, the phenomenon of "white flight" usually means that it becomes 100 per cent non-white within a few years, while other schools in the area tend to remain overwhelmingly white.

What was surprising about Herman Ouseley's report was the Government's failure to make the connection between the problems of segregation and its plans for more faith-based schools. Now it seems that Estelle Morris, Secretary of State for Education, has belatedly woken up to the glaring contradiction in Government policy. She says she would not want more single-faith schools unless that is what the parents want. That is to dodge the issue: the point is that the sum of parental preferences leads to an outcome which most people do not in fact want. What most parents would prefer would be for their children to go to schools which offer high-quality education in the company of a wide range of pupils from different backgrounds.

The Government cannot, of course, bring about that outcome by forcing parents to send their children to particular schools – and no one has yet suggested that bussing is the solution in Bradford or any other ethnically mixed part of Britain. The question is whether Government policy pushes people towards ethnically balanced schools or towards segregation.

Promoting specialisation and differentiation in schools is a sound idea. Schools need to feel distinctive if they are to take pride in their identity, and the Government has been careful to minimise the extent to which specialising in arts, music and technology can be used as a proxy for selection on academic or social grounds. Its plans for more church schools, however, cut against the grain not just of its rhetoric of inclusion but against a common-sense approach to race relations in Britain.

The establishment of single-faith state schools for non-Christian religions could not be opposed so long as the taxpayer in this country pays for schools in the name of Christian denominations. But it is not the right direction in which education policy should be driven, and the Government's plan for a big expansion in the number of Church of England schools gives it a further push towards division rather than integration.

Ray Honeyford, sacked as a Bradford headteacher in 1985, may feel vindicated in his warnings of the effects of well-meaning educational policies. But he is wrong to suggest that such policies were designed to promote Pakistani culture and language over British.

There is a balance to be struck between respecting the cultural heritage of British children from immigrant families and equipping those children with the skills they need to make the most of their opportunities as Britons. Good schools with a strong sense of purpose and community can do that, but in places like Bradford they cannot be single-faith schools.

Ms Morris must face up honestly to the problem of free parental choice which must tend, in the absence of countervailing forces, to polarise schools between different racial groups. There are problems enough, even in ethnically mixed schools, of racial divisions. The question is whether the policies of the Government are likely to make such polarisation worse. She must rethink her predecessor's policy on church schools and ensure that all her policies work to bring people together rather than drive them apart.