ONLY a few minutes' walk from London's financial district, the bowler-hat and umbrella heart of a white British preserve, is a school where you have to look long and hard for a white face. Here, at the Mulberry School for Girls in London's East End, the local version of the British school uniform is a tunic and trousers to accommodate the Muslim precept that women's legs be covered. A conversation with the matronly and very British headmistress is punctuated by wafts of Asian music, cumin, and curry. Welcome to multicultural Britain, a reality that is challenging the educational establishment.
Only 50 years ago Britain was a fairly homogeneous, Anglo-Saxon society. But the prosperity of the postwar years and the crumbling of the British Empire brought a flood of Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, and West Indians into the country.
Since the 1970s, strict legislation has stopped further mass immigration, but the nonwhite population has grown to 2.5 million. Nationwide, nonwhites represent only 4 percent of the population, yet their concentration in urban areas makes the question of educating a multicultural student body urgent.
One of the more voluble participants in this debate, Ray Honeyford, was dismissed from his job as headmaster in Bradford (a Yorkshire city where 25 percent of the population is of Asian origin) when he refused to give Muslim children special treatment.
``What's important to me,'' Mr. Honeyford said in an interview, ``is integration: We want a melting pot, not a tossed salad.'' The way a school integrates its children, according to Honeyford, is by ``letting them know they're British. Which means emphasizing the English language, English tolerance, English institutions, and Christianity, which is part of the British legacy, whether we like it or not.'' Integration, he stresses, is not assimilation, but ethnic heritage should be left at home. In Honeyford's opinion, a multicultural approach is counterproductive, because it makes children more aware of their differences.
This attitude is rejected by the Commission for Racial Equality, a government body set up by the 1976 Race Relations Act. The commission has ``gone beyond the tokenism of multiculturalism,'' in the words of its spokesman Andrew Dorn, to tackle head-on what it sees as the major problem facing multiracial schools - racism.
And racism, in the commission's view, doesn't just mean individual prejudices of teachers or children. It also means discrimination that is built into the system itself, or what is called institutional racism.
``No teacher will say this to you,'' says Valerie Davis, a black teacher now in charge of the Development Program for Racial Equality in the London borough of Brent, ``but blacks are labeled as underachievers. At inner-city schools a lot of teachers buy comic books for their Friday afternoon math classes - they say the pupils will be tired. But they wouldn't dream of doing that in a middle-class school.''
THE existence of institutional racism was recognized by the 1985 Swann report, an official inquiry into the reasons for underachievement among West Indian pupils.
Today, most regional bureaucracies governing state schools - the Local Education Authority (LEA) - concur with the report's conclusions. Out of 110 authorities nationwide, about 70 have issued statements committing themselves to ``anti-racism'' policies. Teacher training colleges, too, are making anti-racism an integral part of their courses.
Still, according to Dr. Jack Gundara of the University of London's Centre for Multicultural Education, in rural areas, where the population is mostly white, many schools see no need to adopt a multicultural approach. And even in LEAs that have embraced anti-racism, what happens in the classroom varies considerably.
Take Burnage High School. Situated in a mixed-race, working-class area of Manchester, Burnage made national headlines in 1986 when a 13-year-old Asian schoolboy was stabbed to death by a white classmate. What particularly shocked the teaching profession was that the school was known for its commitment to anti-racism. The independent inquiry into the murder was a condemnation of how not to apply anti-racism. ``Moral anti-racism ... based on the assumption that all white students are to be seen as racists ... led to a polarization between black and white students.'' What this dogmatic anti-white version of anti-racism meant in practice was that the community education department in a school where two-thirds of the student body was white was uniquely directed to Afro-Caribbean and Asian parents and children.
The authors of the report, all well-respected specialists in the race-relations field, made clear that they were not criticizing anti-racism per se, only Burnage's interpretation. But the report provided ready ammunition in what the commission has called ``the smear campaign'' against the whole idea of anti-racist education.
The point is, as the Burnage report emphasized, many whites resent what they see as the special treatment being received by nonwhites. Recognizing this failure in communication, the commission is planning a public relations counterattack that will replace ``anti-racism'' with a term like ``fair education'' to tell people ``what we are for, not what we are against.''
At the Mulberry School, headmistress Daphne Gould is oblivious to semantics. For her it's all very simple. ``Anti-racism is a full education. Part of your duty is to educate students to challenge received opinion.'' She dismisses the notion that talking about racism will create it: ``If you stand by, then you're condoning it. An extreme example of that is what happened in Nazi Germany.''
Ms. Gould oversees a student body where whites, at 15 percent, are a minority among children of Bangladeshi origin. An anti-racist approach here means, among other things, making sure white students are not on their own in the classroom.
``Bangladeshis and West Indians are also guilty of racism,'' she says. ``Just the other day some of the Bangladeshi girls told a group of white girls that they ought to go to their own school - I went berserk.'' But this is an exception.
IN place at the Mulberry School for over 10 years, multiculturalism and anti-racism permeate the curriculum, and teachers must show a commitment to this approach before joining the staff.
A book like ``Uncle Tom's Cabin'' is used to look at prejudice; history lessons look at the plight of slaves as well as at the expansion of the British Empire; all religious festivals are acknowledged; and math exercises are not just with John and Jane, but with Hanif and Aruna, too.
Britain is having a hard time adjusting to its multicultural identity. What kind of national culture will eventually emerge is unclear, although you can catch glimpses through the Notting Hill West Indian carnival, the biggest street festival in Europe; the novels of V.S. Naipaul; and films like ``My Beautiful Laundrette.''
Britain's ethnic minorities may not be English, but they are British, and they are here to stay.