Religious leaders warn racism is still common in the classroom

Religious leaders have warned that racism and discrimination are still common in the classroom.

The comments came as pupils at La Sainte Union, a Catholic school in Highgate Road, embarked on a pioneering project to break down stereotypes at a workshop with Muslim pupils from Brent.

Father Andrew Cain, of St James Church in West Hampstead, said many black members of his congregation had spoken of encountering racism.

He said: “If you speak to any parent of a black or mixed race child, they will have stories of racism. I think that is probably a universal experience unfortunately.

“It is very difficult. Hopefully things are getting better, and I would hope that in our schools there is no racism.”

Nationally, 88,000 racist incidents were recorded in Britain’s schools between 2007 and 2011, according to a BBC investigation.

Debbie Danon, education manager of the Three Faiths Forum, an interfaith charity, warned racist attitudes were often passed down by parents, and that some teachers lacked the confidence to confront them.

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She said: “Racism is not always when someone has been singled out and been a target of racism, but we more commonly find that some of the things pupils say are essentially racist or discriminatory.

“Some teachers have a really brave policy of zero tolerance. For others it is such a controversial issue, there can be a reluctance.

“They can face difficulties from parents, and attitudes among adults in this area do filter down to young people. The question is, are these headteachers getting the right advice?”

Commenting on pupils in Camden, Barnet and Haringey, she added: “All of these boroughs are very diverse. The question is, how are young people experiencing that diversity?

“Do they enjoy it and think it is exciting, or is it a question of ‘that is the Afghan crew, that is the Turkish crew, that is the Somali crew’, and never the train will meet.”

While some pupils can inherit overtly racist attitudes from their parents, Ms Danon said it was more common that youngsters had stereotypes of other ethnic and religious communities that can be challenged with education.

La Sainte Union is a case in point. Before embarking on a project of interfaith dialogue, many of its pupils had said they thought Muslim girls were quiet, meek and did not often express views.

But after the project they had changed their minds. It was summed up in a note left from one pupil that read: “I learnt how to see people for who they really are.”