White pupils less tolerant, survey shows

White youths are more likely to believe they are superior to those from other races, and their attitudes are more of a barrier to integration than those of Muslims, a study for the government has found. The findings turn on its head the current debate about integration, where a succession of cabinet ministers have told Muslims they must do more to fit in.

The study, by the University of Lancaster, was sent to the Home Office in September, and is believed to be the first of its kind comparing levels of intolerance in different communities.

In recent weeks a succession of cabinet ministers have made remarks about Muslims, including home secretary John Reid, followed by Ruth Kelly, Jack Straw and this week the prime minister. Muslim groups reacted to the study by saying the government had attacked their communities despite their own report telling them they were not the biggest problem.

Government ministers were also rebuked on Thursday by an employment tribunal for commenting in advance on the case of Aishah Azmi, a British Muslim classroom assistant who lost her discrimination case after refusing to remove her veil in a West Yorkshire primary school when male colleagues were present.

The Lancaster University study, commissioned by the Home Office, examined the attitudes of 435 15-year-olds on race, religion and integration. It also gives an insight into the attitudes they are getting from their parents and other influences such as religion. It found that nearly a third of pupils at a predominantly white school believed one race was superior to another, compared with a tenth from a majority Asian Muslim school and fewer than a fifth at a mixed school.

The students surveyed were at a predominantly white school in Burnley, a predominantly Asian Muslim school in Blackburn, and a mixed school in Blackburn. The study concludes: “It might be reasonable … to suggest that it is the Asian-Muslim students in both the mixed and monocultural schools of Burnley and Blackburn who are in fact the most tolerant of all.” At the all-white school half felt it unimportant to respect people regardless of gender or religion, and a quarter felt there was no need to show tolerance to those with different views.

Burnley was hit by riots in 2001 and the far-right British National party is strong in the town. Blackburn is the constituency of Mr Straw, who has said the wearing by Muslim women of a face veil damages community relations.

The study found that about one in 10 of white students had any interest in learning about other religions, compared with four in 10 Muslims. Andrew Holden, of the University of Lancaster, said: “White children seem to benefit more from mixed schooling in encouraging positive attitudes to other ethnic groups.”

This week the government announced that faith-based schools would have to take 25% of their intake from other religions. It was a move seen as being directed against Islamic schools.

But the study’s results show that white children who are segregated from other races have far more intolerant attitudes than schools where whites mix with others. Dr Holden said: “One concern is that a lot of attitudes from the white children seemed to reflect their parental influences. We have discovered a lot of findings that challenge those assumptions that Muslims are a problem. It does fly in the face of what ministers have been saying.” He said the study will last for another year.

Massoud Shadjareh, chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said was “shocking” that the government had “ignored its own findings and then cynically helped to unleash a public anti-Muslim backlash that has included the vilification of Muslim schools and Muslims rights to practise their religion”. Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, which was accused by the communities secretary, Ruth Kelly, of not doing enough to ensure integration and community cohesion, said: “The cumulative effect of their remarks has only increased the anti-Muslim climate.”

Guardian, 21 October 2006