White British youths are more likely to believe they are superior to those from other races and their attitudes are more of a barrier to integration than those of Muslims, a study for the UK government has found.
The findings turn on its head the current debate about integration, where a succession of cabinet ministers have told Muslims they must do more to fit in.
The study performed by the University of Lancaster in northern England was presented to the Home Office last month and is believed to be the first of its kind to compare levels of intolerance in different communities.
In recent weeks a succession of UK cabinet ministers have made remarks about Muslims, including Home Secretary John Reid, followed by Ruth Kelly and MP Jack Straw. Prime Minister Tony Blair followed with his own comments this week.
Muslim groups reacted to the study by saying the government had attacked their communities when the government's own report showed that Muslims were not the biggest problem.
Government ministers were also rebuked on Thursday by an employment tribunal for commenting in advance on the case of Aishah Azmi, a British Muslim classroom assistant who lost her discrimination case after refusing to remove her veil in a West Yorkshire primary school when male colleagues were present.
The Lancaster University study, commissioned by the Home Office, examined the attitudes of 435 15-year-olds on race, religion and integration. It also gives an insight into the attitudes passed on by parents and other influences such as religion. The study found that nearly a third of the pupils at a predominantly white school believed one race was superior to another, compared with a tenth from a majority Asian Muslim school and fewer than a fifth at a mixed school.
The students surveyed came from a predominantly white school in Burnley, a predominantly Asian Muslim school in Blackburn, and a mixed school in Blackburn.
The study concludes: "It might be reasonable ... to suggest that it is the Asian-Muslim students in both the mixed and monocultural schools of Burnley and Blackburn who are in fact the most tolerant of all."
At the all-white school, half felt it unimportant to respect people regardless of gender or religion, and a quarter felt there was no need to show tolerance to those with different views. Burnley was hit by riots in 2001 and the far-right British National party is strong in the town.
Blackburn is Straw's constituency, and he has said the wearing of a face veil by Muslim women damages community relations.
The study found that about one in 10 of white students had an interest in learning about other religions, compared with four in 10 Muslims.
Andrew Holden of the University of Lancaster said: "White children seem to benefit more from mixed schooling in encouraging positive attitudes to other ethnic groups."
This week the government announced that faith-based schools would have to take 25% of their intake from other religions. It was a move seen as being directed against Islamic schools.
But the results show that white children who are segregated from other races have far more intolerant attitudes than schools where whites mix with others.
Holden said: "One concern is that a lot of attitudes from the white children seemed to reflect their parental influences. We have discovered a lot of findings that challenge those assumptions that Muslims are a problem. It does fly in the face of what ministers have been saying."