What I wished I’d known about social cohesion

4th November 2016

As a geography teacher in a large, mono-cultural secondary school, I remember feeling a depressing powerlessness in the face of a small but fairly vocal minority of pupils’ attitudes to race, ethnicity, or any culture that differed from their own. Studying topics like migration and aid were particularly prone to revealing views that made me feel uncomfortable. In the rural area I taught in, pupils were unlikely to have any meaningful interactions with people from other ethnic backgrounds so these attitudes were frustratingly based on very little or no actual experience of people from other cultures. Yet faced with racism or intolerance, I was often left with more questions than answers:

  • How could I successfully promote tolerance and understanding of other cultures?
  • Were my pupils’ views verging on the “extreme”?
  • How was I meant to teach cohesion, and was that the same as teaching Britishness?
  • What exactly was Britishness anyway?
  • Why were some pupils’ understanding of what it meant to be British so different from my own?
  • Were my own views so different to those of some pupils that they were off-putting and potentially polarising?
  • What was I doing wrong?

Our new mini-report, published today hopefully offers some answers. It is based on a fascinating debate we held at the Ship of Adventures in September, as well as a substantial body of academic research.

One thing that struck me during the debate was that while we found broad consensus that schools were an important vehicle of social coherence, there was huge divergence in peoples’ views about how schools should promote coherence. It is a finding that lies at the heart of our new report.

The report reveals that socio-economic disadvantage is the biggest influence on people’s perceptions of cohesion, with those from low income backgrounds less likely to feel that society is cohesive. High levels of crime in a person’s neighbourhood meant they were less likely to feel society was cohesive. On the other hand, having friends from different ethnic groups, and being involved in local decision makes it more likely that people will feel a sense of cohesion. It is therefore vitally important to recognise that schools cannot bring communities together by themselves; instead, multiple agencies need to work together to reduce disadvantage.

Yet there are also things that schools can do, and these don’t require schools to take on an additional burden of responsibility or to adopt new curricula in an overcrowded timetable. Instead schools should:

  1. Ensure they engage with all groups in the schools’ community, recognising and celebrating their cultures and building links with community groups and parents.
  2. Prioritise discipline and order since this will affect pupils’ perceptions of cohesion and safety. Where possible they should also work with police to reduce pupils’ chances of being affected by crime after school;
  3. Do what they can to promote wellbeing and healthy after school activities, which will help reduce the likelihood of pupils engaging in anti-social behaviours;
  4. Look for opportunities in the curriculum to develop pupils’ understanding of their democratic agency in local and national decision making, as well as using pupil voice to ensure they feel they can influence decisions that affect them in school;
  5. As far as possible, schools, local authorities, Multi-Academy Trusts and the Department for Education should ensure that the schools’ admissions promote socio-economically and ethnically mixed schools.

Social cohesion is everyone’s responsibility- not just schools. Nonetheless, schools are uniquely placed to help communities engage positively with each other, and to equip children hold critical and empathetic views of others. We hope our new report will help schools do their bit and that it will re-assure teachers wondering how they can respond to the sorts of tensions I experienced in my classroom in Derbyshire.


Read the full report ‘Can schools make our society more cohesive?’ here.