Oldham schools still polarised 10 years on from race riots

Study says that a key underlying factor was the segregated nature of schools and communities in the town

Schools in Oldham remain among the most racially polarised in England, despite the closure of its more segregated schools in the aftermath of race riots, according to a study.

Over 80% of of primary school pupils of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnicity are concentrated in "minority white" schools, where less than 20% of children are white British, and most of the town's white pupils are in "majority white" primary schools, where at least 80% of the pupils are white British.

There is less segregation at secondary level, in part because there are fewer, larger schools: 60% of Pakistani pupils and 65% of Bangladeshi pupils are in "minority white" secondary schools.

The study, by Simon Burgess and Rich Harris of Bristol University's centre for market and public organisation, finds that this polarisation has changed little over the past nine years.

The report's publication coincides with the 10th anniversary of the riots, which reached a peak on 26 May 2001. "There was a strong ethnic component to the unrest, with confrontations between gangs of white and Asian, largely Pakistani, youths," the study says. It says: "While the precise triggers of the rioting remain controversial, there is general agreement that a key underlying factor was the polarised nature of schools and communities in the towns."

The research finds that there has been "essentially no change" in levels of ethnic segregation across England over the last 10 years, though it notes that primary schools in Birmingham and Manchester have become more mixed.

While school attendance is linked to residential neighbourhoods, the academics argue that it should still be feasible for more integration to take place. Instead, segregation has continued despite the fact that some of Oldham's most monocultural schools have been closed and merged since the riots, while others have been moved to different areas to seek a mixed intake.

Well over 30% of primary schools and more than 40% of secondary schools in Oldham are Roman Catholic or Church of England faith schools that include demonstrable practice of a faith among their admissions criteria.

The study says: "If such practices have cultural and ethnic underpinnings – which they do – then including them among the admissions criteria is unlikely to aid mixing within schools."

The academics accept it is "hard to be the first mover", saying it is a bold step to seek integration as an individual parent applying to a school dominated by another ethnic group.

It also highlights the risk that segregated schools can entrench false views of other communities. It quotes a headteacher at a primary school in Huddersfield, where 92% of pupils are of Pakistani heritage: "Some of our children could live their lives without meeting someone from another culture until they go to high school or even the workplace … Our pupils think it's amazing that they like pizza too."

The study says: "Growing up thinking that pupils of another ethnicity are so different that they might not like pizza is a very powerful demonstration of the influence of separation, of simply never talking to people from other ethnic groups.

"This is perhaps the single most important reason to have major concerns over pupils living their school lives in parallel universes."

A new academy school opened in Oldham last September with the stated ambition of promoting integration. The academics suggest this school, the Oldham Academy North, may help overcome the town's segregation.Burgess said: "Parents may prefer a mixed, integrated school, but the fact that the school system is so highly segregated means that they are forced to send their children to essentially mono-ethnic schools.

"If this is the case, the new academy will attract parents from all ethnicities seeking an integrated education for their children.

"More pessimistically, it could be that there are few mixed schools because no one really wants a mixed school."

Headteacher Colette Burgess said the school currently has an intake dominated by children of Bangladeshi origin, with a small number of children of Pakistani descent and a "smattering" of white children.

"My school is very much of the community it sits in," she said. "In Easter 2013, we're moving to a new-build school, which ... will reflect the surrounding catchment area, and have a lot more white students as well as the existing students."

She said she hoped the school's exam performance would attract families of all backgrounds. "What our families want, irrespective of culture and religion, is a good education.

"This is about recognising that our children are going to be living in a much more globalised world than we did when we were children, and have to be exposed to different experiences."

An official inquiry published the year the riots took place recommended that all schools should have no more than 75% of their pupils from a single faith or ethnic group; however, ministers immediately rejected this.

The inquiry, led by Ted Cantle, found schools in Oldham where the intake was almost 100% from one ethnic background.


Jeevan Vasagar, education editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Oldham's effort to end segregation in schools now looks hopelessly ambitious
By the time Asian and white children arrive at secondary schools, their perceptions of each other are crystallised

Helen Carter

25, May, 2011 @6:00 AM

Article image
'After assembly, I cried': Surrey school grapples with race issues
School became scene of protest against perceived ‘white privilege’, though students say concerns are starting to be addressed

Nazia Parveen Community affairs correspondent

28, Mar, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
'How Fair is Britain' report shows that for UK, race is still the issue

Major report finds ethnically diverse Britain facing new challenges – but homosexuality now far more accepted

Randeep Ramesh, social affairs editor

10, Oct, 2010 @11:01 PM

Article image
Campaign to oust police from schools in Greater Manchester gathers pace
Teaching unions say plans for more officers will risk criminalising young people

Nazia Parveen Community affairs correspondent

22, Jun, 2021 @10:37 AM

Article image
Children 'may lose out' due to lack of policy on racism in UK schools
Ex-children’s commissioner says inconsistent approach may be harming pupils’ future prospects

Nazia Parveen Community affairs correspondent

28, Mar, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
England's schools are becoming more diverse

In some cities, children from ethnic minorities remain clustered in just a few schools, say researchers

Jessica Shepherd

20, Jan, 2010 @7:00 AM

Article image
Exclusion rates five times higher for black Caribbean pupils in parts of England
Exclusive: analysis of racial disparities in education system raises concerns over ‘criminalisation of children’

Niamh McIntyre, Nazia Parveen and Tobi Thomas

24, Mar, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
'I was shielded from my history': the changes young black Britons are calling for
Exclusive: from schools to policing, 50 people share their experiences of growing up in the UK

Lucy Campbell

30, Jul, 2020 @9:48 AM

Article image
UK schools record more than 60,000 racist incidents in five years
Guardian research reveals figure as experts accuse government of hiding the true scale of the problem

David Batty and Nazia Parveen

28, Mar, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Taskforce warns of risk to children from 'county lines' gangs
Professionals and parents warned that children from all backgrounds are at risk of exploitation

Richard Adams Education editor

14, Nov, 2018 @4:30 PM