“I think the school is the best place [to] meet people. Normally when you go shopping and stuff you don’t stand up and see people and say ‘Hello Hi’, it is just I think school […] I think it is probably because you go every day, you see them every day, so obviously you will get to know them and you will meet many people” (Pakistani mother, Junction School)
Our project on children and adults’ friendships which ended in the summer explored the ways in which ethnicity and social class are both present in friendship relationships based within and around primary schools. We held a well-attended and very successful end of project event at which we presented our key findings, alongside presentations from Professor Ann Phoenix and Professor Tim Butler who have both been working in related areas, and there was interest from the media (click here).We also attended the summer fairs of our three case study schools, in order to meet families and talk with them about the research. We ran a tombola to entertain the children, and had a summary report to give out, along with a booklet with extracts from the children’s interviews as they discussed their friendships.
The project’s final report is pin brief, our data show that for children, but particularly for their parents, class often appeared a more impenetrable barrier to friendships than ethnic difference.
Nearly all of the 78 children in the research had close friendships with others in their classroom who were from a different ethnic group to themselves (we defined ‘close’ as meaning amongst their ‘top five’ friends). There were also close cross-class friendships, but fewer in number than cross-ethnic friendships. However, a majority had close friends – in their top five – who had a different social background to themselves. Yet when we looked at who the children said their closest 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).
However, despite these tendencies for encounters with those different to oneself to be slight or even avoided, we found the schools operated as an important point of contact, as the opening quotation shows. In addition, we point to the importance for adults and children of being part of a diverse school community. Sharing a playground induced a specific playground etiquette amongst adults where smiles, greetings and small talk among the diverse school parent population were important, and research participants complained of any who breached these conventions. We have referred to this as a form of ‘civil attention’, suggesting an extension of Goffman’s well known concept of civil inattention (the process of unobtrusively acknowledging unknown others in public spaces, thereby reassuring them that their presence has been recognised, but no interaction is expected or necessary). The playground etiquette, the sense of sharing the resource of the school with others, and the growing familiarity of the school playground and the others in it , combine to create conditions of attention to others, a mutual recognition which requires some social interaction. For these reasons, we argue that schools offer a valuable space for creating and encouraging encounters across difference for adults as well as children. That is, being part of a primary school world requires acknowledgement of others, a process that involves negotiating complex differences and diversities. Friendship practices contribute to this process. The relatively small and constant populations of primary schools means that interactions in the apparently egalitarian space of the playground have more potential to develop into friendships than fleeting interactions in public spaces, and our case study schools, and many like them, with super-diverse populations offer more immediate encounters with diverse others than many of the more hierarchical and private workspaces in which people are employed.
We recognise, however, that primary school playgrounds are not an entirely egalitarian space. Different parents possess different forms and volumes of economic, social and cultural capitals (to use Bourdieu’s terms), and some of these are more or less valued within the field of schooling. We found that across all three schools, middle class parents, often – but not always – white British, were organising the Parent Teacher Associations, sitting on the school governing bodies, and in dialogue with teachers and the head-teacher. In inner urban gentrifying locales, social class and its intersection with ethnicity remain a driving force in determining affective relationships and thus remain a key part of our analyses.
The funded part of our project is over now, but we continue to work with the data and its analysis, writing both academic and policy relevant papers. We are also working on a book proposal. There are further things we want to say about friendship and diversity, and we will continue to update this website.