A fledgling programme tries to give children in areas where far-Right politics has gained a foothold exposure to a more multi-cultural environment.

The children of Shirley Manor, a primary school in a run-down part of Bradford, northern England, an area far-Right activists call a powerbase, are stunned. They have just returned from a visit to a school in another part of Bradford, where almost every pupil is Asian. “But actually, they like pizza,” the children report. “And they watch television. And one has an Xbox!”

Almost all these children are white British; some of their parents have played a part in the British National Party’s electoral successes in Bradford. For most of them, it has been their first social interaction with British Muslims. Barriers came tumbling down as representatives of the two schools began to list the things they had in common. Friendships were formed. “When are we meeting them again?” is the question ringing in teachers’ ears.

Shirley Manor is one of a host of primary schools across Britain emerging as an unexpected frontline in the fight to stem rising support for the BNP. As battle lines are drawn for local and national elections, schools in areas with BNP councillors, or where BNP candidates are finding support, are taking radical steps to change the hearts and minds of future generations of voters — and their parents.

Predominantly white schools in deprived areas as far apart as Bradford (northern England), Solihull (central) and Essex (south-east) — all regions where the BNP has gained a presence on local councils over the last decade — are initiating programmes of exchange visits with inner-city schools that are predominantly non-white. The visits provide stimulus for public art projects and performances, to which parents are invited, celebrating diversity in Britain and condemning racism.

The action is not nationally co-ordinated. A series of independent schemes have come to life during the current academic term, most aiming for completion before the mooted May elections.

For example, this job advert was found in November on the internet notice board artsjobs, for a creative practitioner to work on a project with pupils at a primary school in Solihull, West Midlands: “The school is in an extremely mono-cultural area of high deprivation ... The area has a BNP councillor.” The project? To oversee a series of exchange visits with a Birmingham school that is “100% Muslim”, then help pupils to create a piece of “outdoor/environmental art or sculpture”, to go on public display by May 2010.

The school is located at the centre of a large estate in an area of Solihull called Chelmsley Wood. The ward’s BNP councillor won his seat in 2006 and is due for re-election in May.

This year’s school development plan at a primary school in Epping Forest, Essex, where seven BNP members now sit on the district council and where around 90 per cent of the school’s population is white British, stated: “[In] 2008/2009 there was a rise in the number of recorded racial incidents. We need to raise levels of tolerance for all children...”. The school is forging links with a primary school in Enfield described as “mainly Turkish”.

Both the Solihull and the Epping Forest schemes are new; the content is still being negotiated and organisers are treading softly — as one commented, “wary of upsetting the parents”, in other words, the parents whose support enabled the BNP to gain a foothold in the first place.

In Bradford, Shirley Manor was running exchange programmes as long ago as 2004 — the year a BNP councillor won a seat in the ward of Wyke, where the school is located. “Our pupils never really mixed with Asian children,” says Hannah Brown, a year four and five (eight-nine-year-olds) teacher who has overseen the exchange programme. “They think they’re from another planet.” She says some pupils arrive at her school with “some” racism entrenched, but also considerable confusion: “They hear words bandied about and aren’t sure what they mean.”

Shirley Manor is at the beginning of a new relationship with Thornbury primary, a considerably larger school nearer the city where most pupils are of Pakistani heritage and nearly all are learning English as an additional language.

The schools have been brought together by the Schools Linking Network, an organisation based in Bradford that is now rolling out its services across Britain. With funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families the SLN is underwriting the cost to both schools of managing an exchange programme, paying for additional staff and coaches.

The two schools will first come together in a community centre for a day of games and activities. Everything is designed to let the children discover parallels in their lives, such as a game where you have to perform a certain action if, say, you have two brothers. “By lunchtime you see groups forming,” says Ms. Brown. “Like boys who support a certain football team. It’s never forced.”

She makes a point of discussing discriminatory language with the children before the trip, and will encourage them to ask the Thornbury pupils: “Is this word offensive to you?”

The pupils will meet again in subsequent weeks when they visit each other’s schools. In previous years, deep connections have formed. Ms. Brown tells the story of two girls crying at the end of the final visit; they later met up outside school. Many continue to correspond by email.

One legacy of these exchanges is wall displays that line the corridors of both schools. Pupils create cut-out paper dolls of each other. The multiracial dolls will be mounted side-by-side, their hands touching.

Previous exchange visits have changed children’s outlook, says Ms. Brown, citing an activity in which pupils define what makes someone British. When first asked, the children of Shirley Manor tend to say you are British if you are born in Britain and speak English. Following the exchange visits last year, year five worked together to word a new conclusion: “If you are prepared to follow rules and be a good citizen, you deserve to be British.”

Angus King, headteacher at Thornbury, says his predominantly Asian population can be as mono-cultural pupils as in Wyke.

The implicit danger is militant Islam. “Extremism can exist in any group,” he points out. “It comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding. The children at my school don’t normally meet white British kids en masse. I think the big thing is to give children the opportunity to meet other children.”

Ms. Brown says it is essential that this work is conducted at primary level. “If it’s left too late, the views of those around them are imposed,” she says.

But politics is never mentioned. “The project gives the children information and encourages them to make decisions,” says Ms. Brown. “We would never say, ‘You mustn’t vote BNP’.”

She is now making plans to hold an adult “linking night” next year, in which the parents of children at the two schools will meet each other for the first time. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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