The impact of the Education Reform Act (1988) on Ethnic Minorities meant that core disciplines (mathematics, English, science) were fore grounded making less time for peripheral issues (arguably therefore multicultural issues).  Yet in the earlier report by Lord Swann, the hidden curriculum[1] was an area that the Swann report addressed, using evidence on school ethos and pastoral workings to highlight the ways in which racist values of assimilation and integration still find expression in school policy and teacher perspectives.  

In this article, I examine and critically analyse the Swann report in the context of UK Ethnic Minority Education.

[1] “those unstated norms, values and beliefs transmitted to students through underlying rules that structure the routines and social relationships in schools and classroom life” Giroux, 1983

The Swann Report and Assimilation

In Chapter 1 entitled ‘The nature of society’, the report rightly criticised the previous model of assimilation.

“On the one hand, there is full assimilation - where the minority group loses all the distinctive characteristics of its identity and is ultimately absorbed and subsumed within the majority group. On the other hand, there is separatism - where minority and majority groups continue to live in the same society but each effectively operating within their own separate 'compartment', with the minimum interaction needed in order to coexist. In our view neither of these 'solutions' offers a just or indeed practicable basis for a multiracial society. A deliberate social policy of assimilation would, we believe, be a denial of the fundamental freedom of all individuals to differ on aspects of their lives where no single way can justifiably be presented as universally appropriate.”[1]

The report sees separatism and assimilation as two polarised models, neither of which were the answer in a multicultural society.

[1] The Swann Report (1985) Education for all Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups Chairman: Lord Swann, Chapter 1: The Nature of Society, p.3.


The Swann Report and Anti-Racism

Swann reflects the basic message of anti-racism concerning the need to oppose racism within the school and society.[1] The committee’s view of ‘Education for all’ attempted to blend multicultural and anti-racist perspectives into the beginnings of a curriculum and pedagogical strategy of relevance to all pupils.[2]

[1] Gillborn. Race, Ethnicity and Education, p162

[2] Gillborn. Race, Ethnicity and Education, p161

Criticisms of the Swann Report

Criticisms of the Swann report came from within the Muslim community.   The report treated Muslims as an ethnic group, whereas in reality, they are a multi-ethnic religious group.   On the other hand, they protested that, precisely as a religious group,

“Muslims could not accept the ‘extremely secular philosophical basis’ of the Swann report  which would, in turn, endorse the ‘prevalent secularist approach in schools to all branches of knowledge’ and aggravate the conflict which Muslim children therefore experienced between the ethos of their schools and the ‘religious approach to life and events which they learn more about at home’.”[1]

The report is coming from a multicultural viewpoint, with which there are also many problems.   Brian Bullivant (1981), in his empirical study of multicultural education ideologies and programmes in six countries in the 1970s led him to specify three key assumptions underpinning multicultural education.   Firstly, by learning about the ‘cultural’ and ‘ethnic’ roots of an ‘ethnic’ child would improve his educational achievement.   Secondly, the closely related claim that learning about his culture and traditions will improve equality of opportunity.   Thirdly, that learning about other cultures will reduce children’s (and adults’) prejudice and discrimination towards those from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.[2]   They appear to be child centred approaches that focus on equality of opportunity, yet in the views of Mullard and Troyna, multicultural education was simply the latest and most liberal variant of the assimilation perspective.

Multiculturalism has been criticised from the right as politicising education and intellectually vacuous, and from the left as marginalising, reinforcing institutional racism, essentialising ethnic minority cultures, and leading to the development of the fourth approach – Anti-Racism.  

Britain is said to be a ‘multicultural and multi-racial’ society, and schools are expected to prepare their pupils for life in such a society.   Bhikhu Parekh highlights how multicultural education can be criticised from both ends of the political spectrum;

“The conservatives reject this view on the ground that the schools task is to initiate pupils into the long established ‘common British culture’ and assimilate them into the ‘British way of life’.   The left, especially the radical, not the traditional political left, rejects it on the grounds that cultural tolerance has no meaning in a racist society and that the schools should concentrate on antiracist education.”[3]

Conservative critics say that multicultural education represents an attempt to politicise education in order to pander to minority demands.   Radicalists say that it is the familiar ideological devise of perpetuating the racist explosion of ethnic minorities by pampering their cultural sensitivities.  From the political right, any movement away from the teaching of British history and values can only harm pupils and the interests of the country as a whole.

The terms of reference of the Swann were,

“Recognising the contribution of schools in preparing all pupils for life in a society which is both multiracial and culturally diverse, the Committee is required to:

review in relation to schools the educational needs and attainments of children from ethnic minority groups taking account, as necessary, of factors outside the formal education system relevant to school performance, including influences in early childhood and prospects for school leavers;

consider the potential value of instituting arrangements for keeping under review the educational performance of different ethnic minority groups, and what those arrangements might be;

consider the most effective use of resources for these purposes; and to make recommendations.”[4]

Parekh identifies that these terms of reference assert that the educational performance of ethnic minority children is influenced by three sets of factors; those indigenous to the educational system, economic prospects of school leavers and influences in early childhood.   The Conservatives fail to assign much importance to the second and stress inherited intelligence and academic quality of the school.  The Left stresses parental social and economic circumstances or class on the ground that it determines the quality of early childhood influences and the kind of school to which a child goes.  The liberals are nervous about the nature of inherited intelligence, ambiguous about the role and significance of class and place considerable value on early childhood influences.  Parekh states that the terms of reference of the report ‘combine and suitably dilute all three’.[5]

The Swann Committee devoted a large part of the report to social and economic factors and racism in British society.   It also devoted a good deal of space to the question of alleged genetic inferiority of Afro-Caribbean children.   The Rampton report had been previously criticised by the media for ignoring the ‘genetic factor’ when discussing Afro-Caribbean.[6]  This meant that the Swann report had no alternative but to grapple with it. The credibility of the Swann Committee depended on recognising and nailing the prejudice, and it rightly concluded that however painful and humiliating the exercise, the deep seated prejudices had to be analysed and exposed.   It therefore invited two distinguished Cambridge academics to produce a rigorously researched paper entitled The IQ Question.[7]

[1] Parsons, G., There and Back Again?  Religion and the 1944 and 1988 Education Acts, p. 174???? CHECK

[2] Troyna, Barry, Can you see the join?   A historical Analysis of multicultural and Antiracist educational policies, from Dawn Gill, Barbara Mayor, and Maud Blair [Eds.], Racism and Education: Structures and Strategies, (SAGE Publications Ltd.: London), 1992, p.69.

[3] Parekh, Bhikhu, The Hermaneutics of the Swann Report, from Dawn Gill, Barbara Mayor, and Maud Blair [Eds.], Racism and Education: Structures and Strategies, (SAGE Publications Ltd.: London), 1992, p.96.

[4] The Swann Report (1985), Education for all Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups Chairman: Lord Swann, Preface, p.vii-xi.

[5] Parekh, Bhikhu, The Hermaneutics of the Swann Report, from Dawn Gill, Barbara Mayor, and Maud Blair [Eds.], Racism and Education: Structures and Strategies, (SAGE Publications Ltd.: London), 1992, p.96.

[6] The Rampton Report (1981) found significant underachievement in West Indians; similar figures were found by the Swann Report (1985), which testified to the existence of racism and prejudice in Schools.

[7] Parekh, Bhikhu, The Hermaneutics of the Swann Report, from Dawn Gill, Barbara Mayor, and Maud Blair [Eds.], Racism and Education: Structures and Strategies, (SAGE Publications Ltd.: London), 1992, p.97.

Education for All: A Landmark in Pluralism
Amazon Price: $39.95 Buy Now
(price as of Oct 7, 2016)

Multicultural Education

On the other hand, a multicultural curriculum is seen as nothing more than a defense strategy meant to protect the interests of a capitalist ruling class by dampening the potential for resistance by a ‘black’ underclass.  (Dhondy: 1978).  

According to Malik,

“The multicultural approach sees immigrant communities as somehow external to the nation.   Thus the Swann report regards the values of various ethnic groups as distinct from ‘British’ values[1]

“As immigrants remained ghettoised, excluded from main stream society, subject to discrimination and clinging to their old habits and lifestyles as a familiar anchor in a hostile world, so such differences became rationalised not as the negative product of racism or discrimination but as the positive result of multiculturalism.”[2]

The whole issue of multiculturalism is shot through with a complexity born out of the fluid movements of ideas such as ethnicity, race and increasingly, religion, their complicity in relations of power which operate across the social landscape. Strategies used to reconcile this slipperiness with teachers' understandable interest in practice and delivery is a very interesting area.

Mullard views multicultural education as a means of social control.   This has been echoed in comparative studies in six other countries. Bullivant (1981) concluded that curriculum policies of cultural maintenance of minority groups could be ‘managed’ so that there was no shift in real life chances and equality of opportunity.   Rizvi (Australia: 1988) concluded that by encouraging minorities to ‘celebrate their ethnicity’ the shared political and economic interests of migrants have been obscured   Multiculturalism in Australia had become the instrument of stability rather than change.[3]

[1] Malik, The meaning of Race, p.177

[2] Malik, The meaning of Race, p.177

[3] Gillborn, Race, Ethnicity and the Curriculum, p. 153

The Meaning of Race: Race, History, and Culture in Western Society
Amazon Price: $28.00 $26.85 Buy Now
(price as of Oct 7, 2016)