On the afternoon of Wednesday 22 May 2013, Drummer Lee Rigby was brutally murdered in Woolwich, south east London. After initial confusion in media reports, it emerged that Mr Rigby, a soldier, was attacked outside his barracks by two men, armed with knives and a meat cleaver, in what was described as a terrorist attack motivated by 'radical Islam'.
In the days following the attack Faith Matters, an organisation that works to reduce extremism, reported a sharp rise in anti-Muslim incidents and there were clashes between the English Defense League and anti-fascist protesters.
For some, the attack and the reactions that followed it are evidence that political attempts to promote a multicultural society based on acceptance and respect for cultural diversity have failed. For others, the incident is evidence that multiculturalism has not gone far enough in creating an inclusive society.
At the same time, cultural divisions appear to be on the rise in education. The number of faith-based schools is increasing and the British Humanist Association, a key opponent of these schools, argues they are divisive, and include fewer pupils in receipt of free school meals and lower numbers of pupils with special educational needs.
A key change in education policy under the Coalition government has been to allow the establishment of state-funded free schools. The government argues that free schools give communities the chance to set up a school if they are unhappy with local provision, but the schools have been criticised for increasing divisions within society. In addition to faith schools, examples of free schools include: schools for pupils with autism, a specialist music primary school, a Steiner school, and a school staffed by former armed services personnel.
It is clear that Britain is a country with a diverse population but debates about the extent to which current education policy and practice can reduce, or contribute to, divisions within society will, doubtless, continue.
What does this mean for early years practice?
- respond sensitively and carefully to children's questions about what they have seen or heard in the news media
- create spaces that allow all young children to talk about the issues they face in their communities.
Dr Katherine Runswick-Cole is a research fellow in Disability Studies and Psychology, Research Institute for Health and Social Change, Manchester Metropolitan University