Education, Multicultural


Education, Multicultural, educational approach that celebrates the cultural diversity of contemporary society. Its basic premise is that by exposing all children to the social and cultural customs of ethnic minority communities living in their country, they will have a greater understanding and tolerance of people from different backgrounds This article deals only with multicultural education in Britain.

The concept of multiculturalism in schools is part of a continuing debate about how to address the inequalities among different ethnic groups that exist in the education system, as well as how to engender tolerance and understanding between them. For decades, British educational theorists have been split between multiculturalism and anti-racism, the latter being a more direct challenge to racist structures in society. Since the publication in 1999 of the Macpherson Report into London’s Metropolitan Police Service’s handling of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, the concept of “institutional racism” has superseded the previous debates.


Ever since the first post-war wave of immigration from the Caribbean in the 1950s, the British education establishment has explored ways of catering for children from ethnic minorities. In the 1950s and 1960s, this took an assimilationist line, in which the emphasis was on teaching English as a second language where needed. The social, cultural, and economic factors that were barriers to ethnic minority children’s acceptance into British society were largely ignored.

The Race Relations Act of 1976 coincided with widespread concern among many black parents and educationalists about the failure of their children in school. Their growing dissatisfaction with the education system led to the spontaneous establishment of a large number of Saturday or supplementary schools in inner cities around the country. These schools, still in existence, are designed to boost children’s achievement in curricular subjects as well as give them a grounding in their own cultural heritage.

The introduction of multicultural education in schools was largely a response to this threat of separatism, coupled with the impact of academic studies contending that black children’s low achievement could be tackled by developing curricula that reflected cultural diversity. The white Eurocentrism of learning materials was challenged, leading to the introduction of more images and stories of black people in books and the celebration of Asian and Caribbean festivals. Ethnic minority storytellers, musicians, poets, dancers, and theatre groups were frequent visitors to schools, and teachers or parents cooked food from different countries. The teaching in mother tongue or community languages was also introduced in some schools.



While these innovations were a first step in addressing the ethnic diversity of post-war Britain, they had many critics. On the political right, head teachers and parents vehemently opposed left-of-centre local education authorities’ impositions of multicultural policies. The long-awaited publication of the Education for All report in 1985, commissioned by the government and written by the Swann (formerly Rampton) Committee to investigate the “educational needs and attainments of pupils of West Indian origin”, represented the single most important argument for multicultural education. In the highly controversial document, Lord Swann and his team highlighted the need for multiculturalism in the curriculum as an important means of combating the racism that existed in schools. Although the report was derided by many of its critics and its findings ultimately rejected, educationalists in practice have implemented its recommendations on weaving multicultural themes and issues into their teaching ever since. As well as recommending curriculum content that reflected the cultural diversity of modern Britain, the report stressed the need for all schools, regardless of their ethnic make-up, to take a multicultural approach.

Disagreement over strategies for multicultural education has, however, continued on both sides of the political arena. On one side, it was argued that anti-racist policies disadvantaged white pupils and cluttered the curriculum with irrelevancies; on the other, that multiculturalism reinforced racial stereotypes. Some critics also argued that the exclusive focus on cultural diversity ignored the more fundamental issue of the institutionalized racism in schools against children of ethnic minorities. The anti-racism and multiculturalism that became opposing forces in the academic world remain so, to a certain extent, to this day.

The Education Reform Acts of 1988 and 1993 have also played their part in taking multiculturalism and anti-racism off the curriculum agenda in practical terms. By generalizing equality of opportunity to all who are perceived to be socially and economically disadvantaged, issues around race and ethnicity have moved out of the classroom. Instead, through ethnic monitoring of exclusions and attainment at local authority and school levels, they have become the concerns of school management. While this may help to raise awareness about different levels of achievement between ethnic groups, many feel that it leaves the question of how to educate children to live in a multicultural society unanswered.

Contributed By:
Reva Klein