Where one school leads, will the country follow?by David Goodhart / April 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Waterhead Academy: “Britain needs the process of integration taking place at the school to succeed”
You have almost certainly never heard of the Waterhead Academy school, and the people who run it want to keep it that way for at least a couple of years. For there is something happening there that, if all goes well, could have quite important implications for parts of the British education system and even British society itself.
And, for now, all going well means staying out of the headlines. The almost 1,400-pupil Waterhead is the result of a merger between two ethnic monoculture secondary schools—Counthill almost entirely white, and Breeze Hill almost entirely Pakistani—in Oldham, one of the most ethnically segregated towns in Britain.
It was only in November that the two schools merged into the handsome new, brown brick building that is Waterhead and it is so far, so good. When I visited the school recently it seemed like a normal, well-ordered school full of boisterous children, and its clever design makes it feel less oppressively large than it actually is.
The school principal is Nigel McQuoid, a pleasingly straightforward Northern Irishman who knows a thing or two about polarised places: his uncle was murdered by the IRA. He is, of course, glad to have proved the pessimists wrong so far—it has not “kicked off” in the phrase everyone likes to use—but he is braced for trouble. The school could be just one big racially motivated playground brawl from disaster.
His experience of Northern Ireland—where a unique sectarian divide persists—lies behind his acknowledgement that this is unlikely to be a fairy story. “Oldham is a very territorial place and that is not going to change rapidly,” he says in his office looking out on to spanking new playing fields. The classes, and all school activities, are mixed but during the lunch break I saw the pupils in their smart blue school uniform socialising overwhelmingly with others from their own ethnic background.
“It’s true that at dinner time they still sit in their old friendship groups but you are seeing a bit more fluidity among the younger kids in year seven,” says McQuoid. Talking to older pupils, some say that they now have classroom mates across the ethnic divide but the idea of having contact outside school or going to each other’s houses is…