“They’re not all the same”: reflections on the experiences of minority religious and ethnic groups.

My topic tonight is “They’re not all the same: reflections on the experiences of minority religious and ethnic groups”. This topic arises out of experiences that I have had with relation to these areas. Prior to beginning work at the University of Chester, I worked at a large multi ethnic school in Manchester. The unique situation of this school meant that a large number of social, ethnic, cultural, and religious groups were a part of every day school life. One day a friend met me from work, while leaving the campus I saw a child who I knew with a group of others. I pointed Amjed out to my friend, as he is someone we had discussed, my friend replied; “How can you tell which one he is, they all look the same”. This person was not racist and did not mean any harm, but a group of Asian children in their school uniforms all melded into one. If this could happen for my friend, I have contemplated since that it can happen to each one of us who encounter children from other social, ethnic, cultural and religious groups. Although we know that every child matters, sometimes we slip into viewing people as a member of a group, rather than as individuals. If we look at two pictures this will help illustrate what I mean. In the first picture we have a variety of young men of Asian background. However, to describe them all as Asian, while true, would be to miss their distinct personalities and family background. For example in the picture we have:

  • A Pakistani Muslim
  • A Bangladeshi Muslim
  • A Pakistani atheist
  • A Gujarat Muslim
  • An Iraqi Christian

In the second picture we have my four children. All of whom are very different, and to lump them together as the same because they’re from the Holt family would be to miss their individuality. It is important that as teachers we scratch beneath the surface to find people who share common characteristics but are different in so many ways.

Let me use a further example of a child I knew, he was:

  • From a single parent family (his mother was a teenage mother, left with two children at the age of 23).
  • Neither parent had stayed in school beyond 16.
  • Has a visual impairment
  • Had suffered some psychological issues when his father departed, causing him to be withdrawn from pre-school provision.
  • Mother worked in a series of low paid jobs- bar maid, nursing home
  • Until the age of 6 could not be understood verbally by anyone apart from his older brother.
  • As a result of speech development had a below average reading age.

There are a number of factors that counted against this boy. Not least, the fact that he was from a single parent family which research shows “children are more likely to be maladjusted and less academically successful than those in two parent families” (Burghes, 1994). It would be possible to observe this child as a stereotype of the larger “social group”- however, this boy was much more than the stark facts of the six bullet points above. Yes, he was a member of the social group outlined, but a fuller exploration tells a different tale.

  • His father died at the age of 34, leaving a 23 year old widow with 2 children, and a wider support network from her family. (“The nature of the family disruption may be more important than either the disruption itself or the type of family structure that results. For example, children who live with lone parents who have been widowed often do as well as their peers in intact families” (Burghes, 1994)).
  • His mother was not allowed to stay on at school; girls didn’t do that type of thing, and sent out to work. She later achieved a university degree at the age of 50.
  • He’s blind in one eye, yet had perfect vision in the other.
  • He had a fear of being separated from his mother, meaning that when he was left at playgroup he cried for the two hours.
  • These jobs always ensured that his mum was at home when the children were.
  • He received speech therapy which he always attended.
  • Once speech therapy began, the boy’s reading age increased exponentially.

Why do I tell my story when I am not from a minority ethnic group? Perhaps because it is indicative of the possibility that everybody is from a group that can be marginalised and stereotyped. We are all a minority in some way, shape or form. It takes a teacher to look beyond the bare facts of a child’s record, or circumstances and focus on the individual. I was able to break out of the bonds of what was expected by someone in my social situation because of the belief of an amazing teacher, but more importantly because of the love of a wonderful mum who never placed any cap on my success or ambition. I am led to contrast this experience with one highlighted by Malcolm X in his autobiography:

I happened to be alone in the classroom with Mr Ostrowski, my English teacher. He was a tall, rather reddish white man and he had a thick moustache. I had gotten some of my best marks under him, and he had always made me feel that he liked me. I know that he probably meant well in what he happened to advise me that day. I doubt that he meant any harm. It was just in his nature as an American white man. He told me, “Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career. Have you been giving it thought?” The truth is, I hadn’t. I had never figured out why I told him, “Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer”… Mr Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. He kind of half-smiled and said, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a n***er. A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a n***er. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands – making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person – you’d get all kind of work” (X, 1968: 118).

Interestingly, Mr Ostrowski did not adopt that mindset with all of his pupils:

What made it really begin to disturb me was Mr Ostrowski’s advice to others in my class—all of them white. Most of them had told him they were planning to become farmers. But those who wanted to strike out on their own, to try something new, he had encouraged. Some, mostly girls, wanted to be teachers. A few wanted other professions, such as one boy who wanted to become a county agent; another, a veterinarian; and one girl wanted to be a nurse. They all reported that Mr Ostrowski had encouraged what they had wanted (X, 1968: 118).

My question tonight is: Do we as teachers sometimes unconsciously place barriers in the way of our pupils’ achievement and development? We may not say it in the same way and with such stark bluntness but we may well do it through our actions and expectations.

I would suggest that there are two areas where teachers and schools can have an impact in their dealings with children from minority backgrounds (whatever that minority might be):

  1. Achievement
  2. A feeling that they belong, can contribute to, and are a part of the school and the wider society.

You may well wonder why I am not attempting an in-depth study of a particular minority. Certainly, a lot of work has been undertaken in different areas of minority experience in schools. The argument of this paper is that a lot of the same umbrella issues that face one group are replicated whichever religious, ethnic, social, gender group pupils find themselves in. More importantly, the experiences and backgrounds of individual groups may differ, but the barriers they encounter can be overcome in a number of ways that can be applied to all. As a personal example, I am a member of a minority religious group, and I sat in a training session regarding the ways in which universities could engage with and motivate those within black and Asian communities. The suggestions being made could just as readily be applied to the community to which I belong as to the ones being discussed. To borrow from Martin Luther King’s vision for society as we raise one group of people, we are not causing another group to be made low. By focussing on those from minority backgrounds, we are able to utilise some of the same tools to enable those outside of these groups to be raised in turn.

In a real sense all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly (King, 1967:181).

Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized. . . . Let us be dissatisfied until our brothers of the Third World of Asia, Africa and Latin America will no longer be the victims of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy and disease (King, 1968: 110-111).

Extending King’s view of the “blessed community” that would result, one can relate the view of the experience of the minority groups in the classroom and beyond. Cox has argued that “It is . . . essential to notice that the two elements, the holy outcast and the blessed community, must go together. Without the vision of restored community, the holiness ascribed to the poor would fall far short of politics and result in a mere perpetuation of charity and service activities’’ (Cox, 1967: 133). This would enable a vision of an integrated society far beyond the one recently lamented by David Cameron:

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.  We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong (Cameron, 2011).

What are the steps needed for a greater experience for the minority (and majority) groups. One of the steps is to raise achievement of all pupils.

New data from the annual pupil census confirms the picture to be complex. While Chinese and Indian children achieve better exam results than average, children from Black Caribbean and Pakistani backgrounds do significantly worse. While over half of White, Indian and Chinese pupils now achieve at least five good GCSE passes, the same is true for just three in ten Black Caribbean children and four in ten of those of Pakistani or Black African origin (DfES, 2003: 4).


(DfES, 2003: 7)


Some of the underachievement can be related to socio economic circumstances, but not all. It has been argued that “continuing underachievement endangers social cohesion and leaves personal and economic potential unrealised” (DfES, 2003: 4). It is not just the individual that is affected by the underachievement, but society as a whole. If we want an “integrated” society where everybody is respected and valued for who they are. That every person has the opportunity to reach their potential then various things need to be put into place to help everybody have such opportunities. In a school the DfES identified various characteristics of schools that successfully raise the achievement of all pupils:

Strong leadership: The headteacher and senior managers must lead an effective strategy that is applied across the whole school

High expectations: Every pupil is expected and encouraged to achieve their potential by teachers and parents. These expectations are underpinned by the practical use of data to monitor the achievement of particular groups of pupils to pinpoint and tackle underperformance

Effective teaching and learning: Lessons are planned and delivered as effectively as possible, with support provided for bilingual pupils, and teachers are able to reflect the cultures and identities of the communities represented in the school in their lessons

Ethos of respect, with a clear approach to racism and bad behaviour: There is a strong ethos and culture of mutual respect where pupils are able to have their voices heard. There are clear and consistent approaches to bad behaviour, bullying and tackling racism across the whole school with a focus on prevention

Parental involvement: Parents and the wider community are positively encouraged to play a full part in the life and development of the school (2003: 4-5).


None of these seem innovative, but they do not always happen. The first two are fairly straightforward, if you give people the expectation that they can succeed, then they will believe you. The support for bilingual pupils is crucial. One of the “fun” experiences that we have as part of the Secondary PGCE at Chester is the opportunity to be the pupils in a lesson that is taught in a foreign language. The RE trainees this year sat through a lesson about the Five Pillars of Islam in French. Firstly, no visual cues were given, there was no effort to help us understand what was being taught. We then received the same lesson using visual aids, body language, and various other strategies. As a non- French speaker I was able to engage with the lesson much better. However, the use of such images and styles of teaching does not just help those pupils who have English as a second language, rather it raised the attention and focus of all pupils.


There is also an opportunity for the building of a more integrated society with the employment of staff who reflect the various cultures found within the school. In the first instance having teachers of different cultures raises the aspiration of those from the same ethnic or cultural background, and helps them feel that their heritage is a part of the wider British society. This is not without it’s problems, employing staff is not just about racism, it is about family expectations and the status of teachers. There needs to be a concerted effort to raise the profile and status of teaching, eliminating the negative. One way to do this is to build links with different ethnic and faith communities (visiting the mosque and the black churches). Some of the reticence of people to go into teaching is the negative experiences ME have in school (research has shown that this is particularly true for black-Caribbean).


It is not just the non-white pupils who need non-white teachers- the white pupils need teachers who are different to them:

If you have significant people of colour [teaching], the white people in the group then learn in a different way… All the new studies suggest that what really changes white students is not simply the curriculum, it’s when people of colour are significantly part of the environment and so how can you purport to prepare students to work with people of colour when you have them in an all-white setting” (Perry cited in Tomlin, 2003: 6).


Pupils who find themselves the victims of bullying, whether racist or not are at risk of creating greater social problems: “children who feel ostracised at school are at greater risk of joining gangs or engaging in maladaptive behaviour. Students who feel pain or threat, particularly over something out of their direct control, often come to experience frustration and resentment towards the social groups they blame for their feelings” (Davies, 2008: 42). An example of how this works in practice is found in the life of Malcolm X. His early experiences of the “system” led him to make the following statement:

“I’ve never seen a sincere white man, not when it comes to helping black people. Usually things like this are done by white people to benefit themselves. The white man’s primary interest is not to elevate the thinking of black people, or to waken black people, or white people either. The white man is interested in the black man only to the extent that the black man is of use to him. The white man’s interest is to make money, to exploit.” (Playboy interview, February 21, 1965).

However, later in life he realised his view of the “white man” was generalised and based on his experience:

In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I will never be guilty of that again… The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when white people make blanket indictments against blacks.


His first inclination was to tar everyone with the same brush, and this is, to some extent, what happens for people in school who are ostracized- they react against the group that they see as responsible, leading to the disintegration of society.

Teachers have a crucial role to play in the prevention of ostracisation (sometimes called bullying). This will mainly be done in the classroom, through the discussions that take place and the attitudes which are shown and are allowed to flourish. This does not mean ignoring any divergent opinions or attitudes that arise, but confronting them. In effect teachers become “border crossers: able to listen critically to the voices of their students as well as able to critique the language in which histories of conflict was expressed” (Davies, 2008: 93). Shutting a child down, or sweeping their comments under the carpet does little but retain the status quo or exacerbate the situation.

A multiculturalism underscored by cultural relativism may result in a society of shared values, expressed in specific cultural forms. But this leads to a certain fragility of social interaction related to a fear of upsetting others and so the unwillingness to talk about, say, gender issues, will give rise to ‘walls of silence’.


There needs to be an open and frank discussion about issues. Cuktural sensitivities are important but not at the expense of human rights:


Communities need to face any ‘unpleasantness’ existing within them and unmask elements of [abuses]. Diversity needs to encompass a human rights dimension and watch for human rights violation. The 1995 UN conference in Beijing stated that culture, tradition and religion cannot be used as a means of eroding human rights by the state… Sensitivity to community traditions cannot override the human rights of their members. Human rights legislation is a powerful tool and should inform our thinking on diversity in schools. It can help guarantee certain principles that will enable all to participate fully in society. It will also assist with the development of whole school inclusive strategies that will support local communities while being vigilant over the human rights of our young women and men students. Paulo Friere is as ever an inspiration here, reminding us that teachers are the radical agents of transformation and that education is a continuing struggle to reshape meaning (Heidi Safia Mirza).



Engaging in discussion will require extra work on the part of teachers, to learn about the various cultures, religions and ethnicities that make up the school. Part of this can be done through research, but the vast majority will be done through interaction with the pupils, their parents and perhaps the wider communities. Let me share a couple of experiences from my own teaching career that helped me learn, but also made pupils from a variety of minority backgrounds feel as though their culture, religion or ethnicity was valued and accepted.

  1. In the second school I worked in there was a large Muslim population. For a number of years the school had allowed an annual Iftaar meal. This allowed Muslims to practice their religion communally and as a part of the larger school community. However, it also had the potential for there to a be an “us” and “them” mentality. The Iftaar meal was opened up for any to attend, although there were small numbers of non-Muslims who attended, there was a large number of staff. The pupils were enthused to see their religious customs supported by teachers. In turn teachers were able to interact with Muslims beyond the classroom, and learn a little bit more about the faith of pupils.
  2. As a child my only interaction with Jehovah’s Witnesses was a girl who didn’t come into assemblies. As a teacher I first encountered Sarah when she came to visit me to complain about a colleague who was her RE teacher. Whenever she raised any question he would treat her dismissively. An example was her disagreeing with him when he taught that Christians believe Jesus was crucified on a cross- Jehovah’s Witnesses believe he was crucified on a tree. Rather than treating her concern openly, he dismissed it as an irrelevance. The next year, I had the opportunity to teach Sarah, and learn more about her beliefs as we talked and I communicated with her parents. The following year, I was invited to attend her baptism- which I did. The warmth which I received from Sarah’s family and religious community was a reflection that I accepted their religion as important in their lives, and did not make them feel an oddity for so doing.

This raises final suggestions that we can implement as teachers to help teach minority pupils to help them feel that they belong, can contribute to, and are a part of the school and the wider society. In speaking of community cohesion the DCSF suggested that meaningful contact between individuals from different groups breaks down stereotypes and prejudice. The definition of meaningful included:

  1. Conversations to go beyond surface friendliness
  2. People to exchange personal information or talk about each other’s differences and identities.
  3. People share a common goal or interest.
  4. Where contacts are sustained long-term, with one off or chance meetings unlikely to make much differences (DCSF, 2007).

While it is important to build understanding on commonalities, the differences enrich and make any contact “honest”. While children of all ages have similar interests and goals, which can form the basis of interaction, it is important to recognise and explore differences, and allow questions to form and be discussed.

It may seem simple for this to occur in a multi ethnic school, and less so in less diverse schools. However, problems of integration and exposure to other minorities in a meaningful way can be just as problematic through self-segregation.

I think I have taken an awfully long time to say not very much, and actually nothing at all that is innovative. The main thrust of this paper has been to suggest:

  • Pupils are treated as individuals and are given high expectations
  • Teachers take an interest in the differences that exist among pupils backgrounds.
  • Schools make links with parents and communities to help them feel part of the education process, and more integrated into society.
  • Attitudes of prejudice are challenged by all teachers.
  • Opportunities are developed for meaningful contact with a range of different groups (including adults).
  • Teachers make a child’s minority identity nothing out of the ordinary, and a valuable part of the pupil experience.

What will result:

  • Greater integration of the classroom (and society)
  • A better educational experience for minority groups
  • More informed teachers about minority experiences
  • Less opportunity for extremism to take hold, as minority individuals feel more a part of society.
  • Celebration and respect of all groups in society, rather than tolerance.
  • Children feeling valued and with high expectations of themselves and others.

What I have said may be overly utopian, but if, as teachers, we take our responsibility to make Every Child Matter seriously then these are some of the efforts we must make to make a more integrated classroom, school and society.