Scottish primary school teachers’ perspectives on multicultural and antiracist education
Byerly, Anna Katarzyna
Primary school teachers’ commitment to social justice may be enshrined in various educational policies in Scotland and beyond, yet it stands in conflict with growing push for teacher accountability, value of education as a market place (Ball, 2006) and the persistence of the myth of meritocracy (Tomlinson, 2008; Oyler, 2012). At the level of practice, whether teachers actually engage in inclusive and critical multicultural education is not always clear; what we know for sure is that teachers find it difficult and shy away for any discussions which challenge power relations between groups (May and Sleeter, 2010). As student population continues to diversify, minority groups demand recognition in ways not seen before. Yet still, discrimination based on ethnicity, language, religion social class, disability, gender and sexual orientation is commonplace, and racism can often be an elephant in the (class)room, discussed in hushed voices only when an ‘isolated incident’ happens. Much more often, it remains unrecognised or is dealt with in a way which perpetuates white privilege (Arshad, 2008). Antiracism is oftentimes misunderstood or outright avoided, as teachers fear using any terminology that sounds negative or they are unsure of, and retreat to the language of all-encompassing, positive sounding, but fuzzy celebration of diversity and equality (Gaine, 2005). Multiculturalism, on the other hand, being blamed for failing integration and social cohesion of communities by the political right, remains in popular debates but occupies a weak position in education and public policy (Modood, 2007). This research set out to investigate what are primary school teachers’ perspectives on multicultural and antiracist education in the context of Scotland, where legislation and educational policies are in theory demanding educators to be proactive. The research followed a nested case study design, which involved observing and interviewing 9 class teachers in 4 primary schools, both rural and urban. I used the critical interpretive lens to find out what are their understandings of multicultural and antiracist education, both as concepts and principles and in terms of how they are being incorporated into their everyday teaching. Teachers were asked to define these terms, as they developed in the specific national context (Ball, 1990), and then consider the interplay of ideals behind ‘race’ equality policies with the realities of their school and classroom practice. This study was concerned with the personal, structural and institutional aspects of teachers’ work. The importance of the context of teachers’ work is stressed, that is their ‘organizational embeddedness’ (Holstein and Gubrium, 1994) and institutional thinking that teachers are thought to be immersed in. To get to know this context better, additional interviews with 4 Head teachers, 3 English as an Additional Language teachers and 5 other Key Informants were conducted. Finally, policy analysis was undertaken, using aspects of Critical Theory to find out how teachers’ attitudes correspond to the attitudes expressed in education policy, as well as what is the impact of educational policy on these attitudes. The findings suggest that there is no one definition of the study’s central concepts to which all teachers can ascribe. Whether or not teachers take up issues of discrimination and difference depends more on their own dispositions and characteristics rather than on any official policy, of which they are largely unaware. Teachers’ prior knowledge, attitudes to diversity and personal experiences of discrimination influenced their commitment for social justice and exercising agency in practice. Structural and institutional boundaries placed on teachers acted as either directions, limits, opportunities or enablers. These related to the leadership within the school more than from the local authority, and included the influence of various actors within the school context. Finally, the translation of policy ideals into everyday school life was seen as uncertain, as it depends on a number of actions and interpretations within any school context. This study concludes by comparing teacher’s perspectives on critical multicultural practice with policies on racial equality in Scotland, to demonstrate which areas need most bridge-building if policy and practice are to be more closely aligned.