As primary schools round the country return from holiday, ‘school gate’ relationships are picking up where they left off. The importance of these relationships to adults delivering and picking up their children, can be gauged by their regular appearance as a topic on the ‘talk’ section of parents’ website Mumsnet. Indeed, Mumsnet has produced its own quiz on ‘school gate mums’.
Our recent research (conducted by Carol Vincent and Humera Iqbal at UCL Institute of Education, and Sarah Neal at University of Sheffield) set out to explore the social relationships made by adults and their children who live in areas with diverse populations and attend local schools with others from a range of ethnicities and social class backgrounds. Having a child at primary school means that many parents meet regularly, often twice a day for seven years, in the playground, as they deliver and collect their children, who are being educated in socially and culturally diverse classrooms.
We were interested in what kind of relationships result from this proximity, so, focusing on three London primary schools, we spoke with 8 and 9-year-old children, parents and teachers to discuss friendships across difference, asking if adults and children make, maintain, or avoid friendships with those who are in a different social class or ethnic group.
The overwhelming majority of the 46 parents to whom we spoke were positive about the diverse nature of their children’s primary, and some noted that it was this diversity that had made them choose the school. The schools all promoted strong messages about accepting and celebrating difference. Indeed, the children appeared to mix well, particularly across ethnic difference. Nearly all of the 78 children in the study had close friendships (identified as a ‘top five’ friend) with others in the class who were from a different ethnic group. A majority had close friends who had a different social background to their own. When we looked at who the children said their ‘best friend’ was, there were still a significant number of friendships across ethnic difference (nearly three quarters). There were far fewer ‘best friend’ friendships across class difference (just over a quarter of the children).
But the adults told a different story about their own friendships. Relations at the school gate were generally cordial, but, with some notable exceptions, the adults tended to live – as one mum described it – ‘side by side’.
Parents explained that making friendly overtures to people who were different involved considerable effort and risked social awkwardness, such as language barriers or simply not knowing what to say. Such encounters could cause anxiety. Making friends with ‘people like me’ appeared to offer mutual interests, a basis for trust and shared points of reference from the start. This tendency was not limited to one particular ethnic or class group but apparent amongst all social groups. This included the white British middle classes, even though they had often made a clear and positive choice to live in a diverse locality.
“The society is a little bit, you know, reserved society. That’s my view. Apart from places like pubs and school, […] sometimes in park areas as well, where children can go and play, you can see people opening up, opening themselves, so you can have such kinds of interactions and in rare situations, rare conditions, making friends.” (Black African father).
However despite evidence of some wariness over too much difference, we also found that some parents were concerned about too little difference in their lives. They were aware of the apparent contradiction between living in a diverse neighbourhood and not having that diversity reflected in friendship networks. The casual playground encounters, the greetings, the small talk, the interactions over the children all contained potential for making more substantial relationships with people different to yourself, drawn together by the shared bond of the children and the school. Indeed, we found cases where such relationships had formed. We also identified a small group of parents who more confidently engaged with difference and took an open, purposeful and intentional approach to socialising and making friends across social and ethnic difference. For these parents, this was the way people ought to live in a diverse neighbourhood.
Our research findings can be read positively, or less positively. The more positive reading emphasises the general amicability 0f parents’ and children’s relationships. We found little evidence of hostility or tension in the playgrounds or classrooms, and cultural difference was not simply understood as desirable, but as an integral part of everyday life.
Less positively, we note the distance between many parents, and their tendency to retreat into groups of ‘people like me’ – a clustering that also affected which children met-up out of school.
Our final point is to note why we feel the diversity of adults’ and children’s social networks is important. One answer is to point to the rise of hate crimes since the EU referendum, a rise which has continued, although thankfully slowing, into September. This rise seems to expose fragile communal ties, a puncturing of the illusion of an inclusive society. Having social networks which include those different to ourselves, such as those forged in the classroom and at the school gate, could help develop our readiness as a society to value diversity. Certainly the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, thinks so, as he has just announced the appointment of a Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement to help ensure Londoners ‘don’t just live side by side, but live truly interconnected lives’.
Carol Vincent is Professor of Sociology of Education