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

Ten years ago one of the UK's worst race riots began with a minor skirmish near the Good Taste chip shop in Oldham; it ended with 500 Asian youths battling with the police after their community was attacked by groups of white men.

In the aftermath of the riots, in June 2001, I visited a primary school project – set up before the trouble flared – that aimed to stop the polarisation of communities. Its aim was simple: encouraging children from Asian and white communities to meet and participate in activities such as art, IT, sports and maths, and break down barriers. Teachers at the paired schools hoped the nine-year-olds would eventually become ambassadors for racial harmony. The aim was that children would judge other pupils as individuals and not on the colour of their skin.

A decade on, that aim seems to be hopelessly ambitious, as Oldham remains educationally, and, often, socially divided. In 2011, just as in 2001, schoolchildren tend to be educated separately and are isolated from their peers from different communities until secondary school. By then, their perception of "other" communities and race will be crystallised. Much work is being done to promote integration. The Waterhead Academy opened last autumn with the aim of promoting interaction between children from different communities. Before September, Waterhead was two schools: Breeze Hill, where more than 90% of pupils were Asian and of Pakistani heritage; and Counthill, where 90% were white.

They are now joined in name, but for now, the school is split across two campuses. Late next year all pupils will move into a new building together. The challenge now is preparing the students for full integration with Tuesday afternoon mixing sessions.

A Home Office report commissioned after the disturbances claimed that people were leading "parallel" and "polarised" lives in which those from different backgrounds failed to mix, leading to hostility and stereotyping.

The report by civil servant David Ritchie highlighted Oldham's deeply segregated neighbourhoods, with communities living alienated and apart from each other.

He concluded: "Segregation, albeit self-segregation, is an unacceptable basis for a harmonious community and it will lead to more serious problems if it is not tackled."

It is not all doom and gloom in Oldham, though. The far-right BNP has failed to make inroads in the town and has not won a seat on the local council, despite fielding numerous candidates in elections that followed the riots.


Helen Carter

The GuardianTramp

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