The paradoxes of (anti)racism in compulsory education

Published 17 May 2016 / By Pier-Luc Dupont

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There are few things I find more gratifying as a migration researcher than those chance encounters with conclusive evidence that radically challenges nationalist truisms – be it that “borders can be sealed”, “migrants have different values”, “too many of them trigger a backlash”, and the list goes on. If the evidence also exposes the contradictions of widespread policies premised on this common sense, then so much the better.

Plenty of such intellectual rewards have brightened my otherwise bleak foray into the racist implications of Western European education systems, whose results have just been published in the COMPAS working paper series. Prodded by the disquieting fact that children as young as five years old already display signs of ethnic prejudice, I wondered if the schools where they spend a significant part of their waking hours were part of the problem or a solution to it. Browsing through educational journals, policy reports and empirically grounded philosophical treaties, I found both hypotheses to hold a grain of truth and another of truism, but often not for the reasons I expected.

My first counter-intuitive discovery was that the wide variety of topics covered by national public debates concealed rather than revealed common underlying ills: biased curricula, overwhelmingly White teachers and inter-school ethnic segregation. For instance, ethnic monitoring in the UK and the Netherlands had made it easier to identify and measure the scarcity of minority teachers, but the problem was likely to be even worse in countries that paid it no attention. Similarly, PISA surveys showed pupil segregation to be rife everywhere, but official statistics in states like Spain only recorded foreign nationals, leading to a huge underestimation of ethnic clustering. Textbook analyses revealed a general pattern of self-glorification in historical narratives, but German controversies had focused almost exclusively on representations of the Holocaust and French ones, on the consequences of colonialism.

When political concepts crossed borders, they sometimes changed meaning in the process. Depending on the context, “interculturalism” could be interpreted as a mandate to teach the majority language to newcomers or, conversely, to offer special courses on their language and culture of origin. It could be construed as requiring teachers to take their diverse students’ learning styles into account or, alternatively, to refrain from inferring culture-based abilities. It could imply pluralist, non-confessional religious education or the hiring of minority religious leaders to transmit their own faith.

Not infrequently, these diverging meanings coexisted within the same institutional sphere, leading to the simultaneous pursuit of seemingly incompatible aims. Thus, a European intimation for schools with a high concentration of migrants to “develop specialised programmes, mentoring systems and access to training” sat oddly alongside the concern that “all forms of school segregation will weaken the ability of education to […] build social inclusion, friendships and societal bonds between children of migrants and their peers.

A recurring theme in migration studies is that, contrary to popular myth, self-segregation is more acute among the majority population than minorities. This pattern certainly holds in the educational sphere, where White middle classes keep foreigners at bay through strategic residential choices, special exemptions to district-based allotment, involvement in school boards, recourse to the private sector and political mobilisation. Meanwhile, minority pupils disproportionately grow up in daily interaction with schoolmates of all races, languages and religions. Another unwarranted assumption is that nationalist excesses are being corrected by the technocratic, rationalising intervention of European institutions. When it comes to school curricula, the latter seem to have emphasised an equally biased discourse centred on Ancient Greece and Rome, Medieval Christianity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Just as importantly, my research provided several reminders that the opposite of a flawed policy is not necessarily better. Minority faith schools reduce the number of foreign-origin students in public ones and thus their incentives to adapt their organisational practices, including through teacher diversification. However, maintaining a Judeo-Christian monopoly on the confessional education market further limits the options available to a hard-pressed sector of the population. Segregation hinders the formation of inter-ethnic friendships, but imposed desegregation can spark protracted conflicts that fossilise hostility. Mono-cultural education breeds exclusive identities, ignorance and contempt, but multicultural activities may validate pre-existing stereotypes, especially among the most prejudiced. If not carefully conducted, classroom discussions on racial injustice can be subverted by the notions that racism is a rare disease, a product of migration and cultural difference or a synonym of overt name-calling and physical aggression.

As it is, gloom and hope sometimes beckon from neighbouring quarters. Standardised curricula and assessment have often been used to enforce assimilation, yet they may be harnessed in order to inject new perspectives in predominantly White classrooms. “Culture wars” have aroused divisive soul-searching and attempts to resurrect narrow literary canons, but politicising school knowledge looks like the only way of bringing marginalised actors and concerns to the fore. Parental choice gives free rein to in-group preferences, but when combined with positive action in staff recruitment and student admissions, it offers a powerful antidote to the mutually reinforcing processes of residential and school segregation. The substitution of multiculturalism by the softer, middle-of-the-road ideal of intercultural integration has rehabilitated the traditionalist streak of national identities but also created a stronger ideological basis for mixing.

So if anything at all can be safely predicted about anti-racist educational reform, it is that change will come from many people who had not intended to set it off – or foreseen its consequences.

To read the associated working paper click here.


Pier-Luc Dupont, Human Rights Institute, University of Valencia, C/ Serpis 29, Edificio de institutos de investigación, 1.1, 46021 Valencia; email: