In 1995 I took a year away from acting to do a postgraduate teacher training course at University College London. My teaching practise was at a school in Stepney Green. The school was for boys only,which made me uncomfortable before I set foot in it. If like me you went to a coeducational comp, and had friendships there that have endured into adult life with people of both sexes,you are going to think that segregation by gender for children is a bit odd,to put it politely. When I arrived for my first day at Stepney Green,however,there was another exclusivity which shocked me far more than the gender one. This school had 999 pupils,and every single one had a Bengali heritage. The main language spoken in corridor and classroom was Sylheti. The staffroom was a disgruntled one ,especially for the female teaching staff,who had just been instructed by the governors,elders of the Bengali community,that skirts above the knee were not to be worn. The boys spoke Sylheti in the classroom,and of course their ability to be understood in a language their teacher did not know gave them an advantage that will be familiar to anyone who has ever taught in London.So what,you ask? Well I was very uncomfortable then,at the age of 30,because I did not see how such separateness,state sponsored and endorsed,could be positive for anyone. And twenty years later I am convinced that separateness of all kinds, as manifested by faith schools,gendered schools,academically divided schools and of course public and private schools, is the main obstacle we face in embracing tolerance and difference in the UK.
Anyone who has been a parent,and plenty who have not,will recognise the power of the truism ‘children do not ask to be born’. It is a way of reminding ourselves to take responsibilty,however infuriating we may find our offspring in that moment. Children of immigrant families do not,similarly, ask to be born. And especially born in a counry that often seems hostile to them,with a media that is dominated by conservative and finance-driven agendas and which persistently demonises them.Often the boys I taught at Stepney Green,in their Drama,their English essays,and their talk,expressed anger at the England they were growing up in. And an anger at their parents for making them be here.Multiculturalism has a bad name now,because the media has made it so. It is said not to have worked,as if anyone ever really tried to make it work. Making it work would involve abolishing ,(by making illegal),all segregation of children by gender,finance,race,religion or disability. That has never happened because it is too difficult a message for the established powers in this country to accept. But it is absolutely the only way to even begin to address the prejudices that lie at the heart of our society. So you can’t have your catholic school,your all girls grammar school or your paying prep school,sorry. You can’t have Eton,and you can’t have a school with only Turkish children in it. You can’t have a school for hassidic Jews and you can’t have a school where they only accept very bright students. Because society is not structured like that. In the real world we must interact and collaborate. And segregation promotes only suspicion and intolerance of that we see as ‘other’.
This week I watched The Suicide at the National Theatre,a brilliant updating by Suhayla El-Bushra of the Russian classic by Nikolai Erdman. The action is transposed to a modern day multi ethnic London. And the main thing unifying the central characters is not ethnicity but money,or lack of it. Here we have a ribaldrous and uplifting celebration of the multiculture. And for me it is the only way. We live together ,we die together. This is our country,so let us not allow ourselves to be artificially divided,and let us take responsibility for not perpetuating that division by taking our children away from the ‘other’,instead opting to educate them only with what we percieve to be their own kind. For what is this need for exclusivity from others? It simply bespeaks our fear. We can reject fear,if we choose to.