One sociological explanation for differences in educational achievement by ethnicity is that schools are institutionally racist.
This means that the school system as a whole is racist, or that schools are organised in such a way that children from ethnic minority backgrounds are systematically disadvantaged in education compared to white children.
If schools are institutionally racist then we should find evidence of racism at all levels of school organisation – both in the way that head teachers run schools and the way in which teachers interact with pupils. We might also expect to find evidence of racism in government policies (or lack of them) and regulation.(OFSTED).
What might institutional racism in schools look like?
There are numerous places we might look to investigate whether schools are racist, for example:
- The curriculum might be ethnocentric – the way some subjects are taught or the way the school year and holidays are organised may make children from some ethnic backgrounds not feel included.
- We could look at school exclusion policies to see if the rules on behaviour and exclusion are biased against the cultural practices of students from particular ethnic backgrounds.
- We might look at how effectively schools deal with issues of racism in school – do the victims get effective redress, or is racism just ignored?
- We could look at teacher stereotypes and labelling, to see if teachers en-mass have different expectations of different ethnic groups and/ or treat pupils differently based on their ethnicity.
- We can look at banding and streaming, to see if students from minority ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the lower sets.
Below I summarise some recent research evidence which may suggest that schools are institutionally racist…
Exclusions by Ethnicity
More Gypsy-Roma, Traveller and Black Caribbean students are excluded from school, but this might not necessarily be evidence of racism…
Exclusion rates for Gypsy-Roma and Traveller Children
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) children are 5 times more likely to be excluded from school than white children.
I’ve included the temporary exclusion rates below as you can see the difference (you can’t really see the difference with permanent exclusions because the percentages are too small to really show up).
Exclusion Rates for Black Caribbean Children
The permanent exclusion (2) rates for Black Caribbean and mixed White Black/ Caribbean are two and half times higher than for White children. The respective exclusion rates are:
- 2.5 children per 10 000 Black Caribbean pupils
- 2.4 children per 10 000 mixed Black Caribbean and White pupils
- 1 child per 10 000 White pupils.
Gypsy-Roma children have the highest exclusion rates of all minority groups with 3.9 children per 10 000 pupils being permanently excluded, four times as many exclusions compared to White children.
Whether or not these particular ethnic minority students are being excluded because of institutional racism is open to interpretation, and is something that needs to be investigated further. There is certainly qualitative research evidence (see below) that both groups feel discriminated against in the school system.
Schools punish Black Caribbean Pupils for Hair Styles and ‘Kissing Teeth’
Campaign Group ‘No More Exclusions’ argue that schools with strict exclusion policies are unfairly punishing Black Caribbean pupils for having different cultural norms to pupils from other ethnic backgrounds.
They cite evidence of Caribbean girls having been temporarily excluded for having braids in their hair, while other students have been sanctioned for ‘kissing teeth’, a practice mostly associated with Black students.
Such exclusions are mainly being given out by Academies with strict ‘zero tolerance rules’ on student behaviour, but according to David Gilborn there is a problem of discrimination when black Caribbean students are being disproportionately sanctioned as a result.
In defense of this policy, Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School in London, which enforces very strict rules on behaviour, argues that we should expect the same standards of behaviour from all students, and that Black students know that ‘kissing teeth’ is rude, and so should be punished for it.
Another problem is that if you dig down deeper into the data and look at the overall statistics on reasons for exclusion by ethnicity we find that White pupils are more likely to be excluded for ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’ and Black students for more the more serious sounding ‘assault against a pupil’ which suggests maybe that schools are being harsher on White pupils, so this may not be sound evidence of Institutional Racism!
Source: The Independent (no date provided, just lots of adverts, but it must be from late 2019 as it links back to a previous article from October 2019. )
Racist Incidents In Schools Are Mainly Dealt with by Fixed Period Exclusions
According to a recent Guardian article (September 2019), Hate Crimes in schools rose 120% between the years 2015 and 2018. There were 1987 hate crimes recorded by the police in 2018, of which 70% were recorded as being racist. This means that approximately 1500 racist incidents occurred in schools which were deemed serious enough to warrant police involvement.
Now this won’t be all hate crimes going on in school. Adult hate crimes only have a 40% reporting rate, and this might be lower for crimes against children given the increased levels of vulnerability, naivety and anxiety .
Schools handed out 4500 fixed term exclusions for racist abuse in 2017/18, but only 13 permanent exclusions.
If the under-reporting rate is similar for children as it is for adults and if most of these racist crimes aren’t ‘very serious’ then it seems that schools are doing a pretty good job at dealing with Racism, even if they are not always involving the police. This certainly seems to be backed up by the case study below…
Case Study 1: How One School Dealt with its problem of racism:
Some pupils do experience racist abuse from other pupils. One example is the case study of eight year old Nai’m, a boy who moved to from Bermuda to Britain with his mother in 2017, who was a victim of at least five racist incidents in a year. (article link from January 2020)/
His mother was contacted by the school when one student, apparently his friend, called him a ‘black midget’. Another pupil told Niam’h that his parents had told him he wasn’t allowed to talk to black or brown people. Niam’h plays football for his local professional club and says a lot of racist name calling occurs on the football field.
Besides Niam’h being a victim staff at the school where this incident happened (The Lawrence Community Trust Primary School) had also overheard racist comments from other students – such as ‘go back to your own country’ being directed at ethnic minority students and discussion about skin colour between students.
The school seems to have taken measures to address this problem with some of the racist attitudes being verbalized by some students by taking the following actions:
- they seem to have excluded at least one student
- they encouraged Niam’h to give a special assembly on Bermuda
- They called in Anthony Walker Charity to deliver a presentation to students on Racism
The A-C Economy
David Gilborn (2002) argues that schools are institutionally racist because teachers interpret banding and streaming policy in a way that disadvantages black pupils.
Gilborn and Youdell (1999) argued that Marketisation policies have created what they call an A-C economy: schools are mainly interested in boosting their A-C rates and so perform a process of educational-triage when they put students into ability groups.
Those who are judged (by teachers) to be able to get a C and above get into the higher sets and are taught properly and pushed to get a C, but some students are labelled as no-hopers and get put in the bottom or bottom sets and written off.
Gilborn and Youdell noted that Black Caribbean children were more likely to be labelled as ‘no-hopers by teachers and were overrepresented in the lower sets, thus this kind of labelling is linked to institutional practice and wider policy thus it is institutional racism.
Racism in Education Policy?
David Giborn has argued that education policies in England and Wales have done little to combat racism over the last several decades. He argues that education policy has never successfully celebrated multiculturalism and that ever since the London Bombings of 2005 there has been an element of anti-Muslim sentiment in the way schools are required to teach British Values.
PREVENT policy certainly seems to have been interpreted in way that is discriminatory against Muslims. 95% of pupils referred under PREVENT are Muslim despite the fact that there have been more problems with racism and extremism from White people following Brexit.
Schools DO NOT have to report Racist Incidents
Schools are not required to report cases of bullying or racial abuse to their Local Education Authorities, only to their governing bodies. Some LEAs insist that governing bodies send them the data but some do not, meaning we have incomplete data on racial incidents in schools.
This implies that the Tory government (this no-reporting requirement was introduced in 2010) isn’t interested in even knowing whether racism in schools is a problem or not.
The available data (1) shows us that 60 000 racial incidents were reported in the five years between 2016-2020 but that information had to be collected through a Freedom of Information Request and will not included all of the racist incidents in schools during that period.
Student Perception of Racism in Schools
70% of Black students report having experienced racism in school, according to a YMCA poll of 550 students in 2020 (3)
The report is depressing reading with Black students reporting being called racial names such as ‘monkey’ and being criticised because of having untidy ‘Afro’ hairstyles.
The report also noted a resigned acceptance of the fact that schools were just institutionally racist.
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children feel excluded from mainstream education
Professor Kalwant Bhopal has conducted research with GRT children and found that they don’t feel represented in the school curriculum: parents believed that their histories were not adequately represented, and were uncomfortable with sex education being done in school, as this was something usually done within the family in their culture. In short, it sounds as if they are experiencing the mainstream school curriculum as being ethnocentric.
Parents and pupils also claimed that they had experienced racism from both children and teachers within schools, however, when they reported incidents of racism this tended not to be taken seriously as they were white.
Conclusion: Are schools ‘institutionally racist’?
There is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting that institutional racism does exist in schools today, starting with some overtly discrimantory policies such as PREVENT and the failure of government to even collect data on racist incidents.
The strongest evidence lies in student perceptions of racism, with over 70% of Black British students feeling as if they are discriminated against in education.
This material is mainly relevant to the sociology of education, usually taught in the first year of A-level Sociology.
Institutional Racism is one ‘in-school factor’ covered in more depth in this post: In school factors and institutional racism.
Other in-school factors include teacher labelling and pupil subcultures, neither of which are necessarily indicators of racism existing in school at an institutional level!
Sources, find out more
- Anthony Walker Foundation (Resources)
- Worth a follow: https://twitter.com/Muna_Abdi_Phd
- (1) The Guardian (2021) UK schools report more than 60 000 racist incidents in five years.
- (2) GOV UK (Accessed January 2023) Permanent Exclusions.
- (3) The Guardian (2020) Most Black British Children Report Experiencing Racism at School.
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