Are schools institutionally racist?

Based on available research evidence I would conclude that schools are not institutionally racist

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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…

A disproportionate number of GRT and Black Caribbean students are excluded from schools

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) children are 5 times more likely to be excluded from school than white children, while Black Caribbean and Mixed White and Black Caribbean students are three times more likely 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).

Source: Pupil Exclusions, published January 2020

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.

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. )

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.

Source: Find out more details at this blog post here.

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.

Source: Permanent and Fixed Period Exclusions, DFE, July 2019.

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

Conclusion: Are schools ‘institutionally racist’?

The above is only a small selection of evidence, but based on what I’ve found I’ve got to conclude that they are not.

Sources, find out more

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pupil subcultures

Pupil subcultures are groups of students who share some values, norms and behaviour, which give them a sense of identify, and provide them with status through peer-group affirmation.

Pupil subcultures take a variety of forms, ranging from pro-school to anti-school subcultures, with a variety of other responses in-between.

Pupil subcultures are often based on social class, gender and ethnicity, and much research on this topic has focused on the educational significance of working-class subcultures, male subcultures and ethnic minority subcultures especially.

There is significant theoretical debate concerning the formation of pupil subcultures (i.e. the question of where they come from). Some commentators (mainly from the AQA) seem to think that pupil subcultures are a ‘response’ to in-school processes such as teacher labelling, however, some sociologists, such as Tony Sewell, argue that it’s more complex than this because the kind of students who join anti-school subcultures get their anti-school attitude from outside of school, so the subculture cannot simply be a response to processes within school.

Differentiation and Polarization

Lacey’s (1970) study of a middle class grammar school found that there were two related processes at work in schools – differentiation and polarization. Most schools generally placed a high value on things such as hard work, good behaviour and exam success, and teacher judge students and rank and categorise them into different groups – streams or sets – according to such criteria. This is what Lacey called differentiation.

One of the consequences of differentiation through streaming, setting and labelling is polarization. This refers to the way students become divided into two opposing groups, or ‘poles’: those in the top streams who achieve highly, who more or less conform, and therefore achieve high status in the terms of the values and aims of the school, and those in the bottoms sets who are labelled as failures and therefor deprived of status.

Varies studies, such as that by Hargreaves (1967, 1976), Ball (1981) and Abraham (1989), have found that teachers’ perception of students’ academic ability and the process of differentiation and polarization influenced how students behaved, and led to the formation of pro- and anti-school subcultures.

The Pro-School Subculture

Pro-school subcultures are those which accept the values and ethos of the school and willingly conform to its rules. They tend to be those students in higher sets who aspire to high academic achievement and are prepared to work hard, and work ‘with the teachers’ to achieve these goals.

Pro-school subcultures are typically comprised of children from middle class backgrounds, although not in all cases: Mac An Ghaill’s (1994) found examples of two different types of pro-school subculture in his participant observation study:

The academic achievers who were mostly from skilled manual working-class backgrounds and sought to achieve academic success by focusing on traditional academic subjects such as English, maths and the sciences.

The New Enterprisers – who were typically from working class backgrounds and rejected the traditional academic curriculum, which they saw as a waste of time, but were motivated to study subjects such as business and computing and were able to achieve upward mobility by exploiting school-industry links to their advantage.

The anti-school subculture

The anti-school subculture, (sometimes called the counter school culture), consist of groups of students who rebel against the school for various reasons, and develop and alternative set of delinquent values, attitudes and behaviours in opposition to the academic aims, ethos and rules of a school.

In the anti-school subculture, truancy, playing up to teachers, messing about, breaking the rules, avoiding doing school work and generally disrupting the smooth running of the school day become a way of getting back at the system and gaining status among peers.

Counter-school cultures are cultures of resistance, or anti-learning cultures, and participation in can be a means of gaining status among one’s peers – the more deviant an act, the more status you gain.

The classic study of the counter-school culture is Paul Willis’ 1977 study ‘Learning to Labour’ in which he observed 12 working class lads who saw school and academic learning as pointless to their future lives as factory workers. They therefor resented school, and spent their time messing around and resisting any attempt to learn anything. Status was earned within the group by disrupting lessons and doing as little work as possible.

The ‘lads’ in Willis’ study were very much a traditional, working-class macho subculture, and they defined the typically middle class students who obeyed the school rules as ‘earoles’ because they were always listening to the teacher, they also saw these students as a bit cissy, in contrast to their identification with ‘proper’ masculine working class manual-labour.

Between Pro and Anti-School Subcultures: A Range of Responses

Peter Woods (1979) suggested that dividing pupil subcultures into simply two poles: pro- and anti-school was too simplistic. Woods also suggested that students don’t easily split into subcultures, instead he suggested that there is a wide variety of responses to school, and pupils can switch between different adaptations as they progress through their school careers:

Peter Woods: Eight ways of adapting to school:

  • Ingratiation – Pupils who are eager to please teachers and have very favourable attitudes towards school. Conformist pro-school.
  • Compliance – Pupils who accept school rules and discipline, and see school as a useful way to gain qualifications, but who don’t have a wholly positive or negative attitude towards school. This is typical of first year students.
  • Opportunism – Pupils who fluctuate between seeking approval of teachers and form their peer groups.
  • Ritualism – Pupils who go through the motions of attending school but withiout great engagement or enthusiasm.
  • Retreatism – Pupils who are indifferent to school values and exam success- messing about in class and daydreaming are common, but such students do not want to challenge the authority of the school.
  • Colonization – Pupils who try to get away with as much as possible. Such students may express hostility to the school but will still try to avoid getting into trouble. More common in the later years of schooling.
  • Intransigence – troublemakers who are indifferent to school and who aren’t that bothered about conformity.
  • Rebellion – the goals of schools are rejected and pupils devote their efforts to achieving deviant goals.

Sources

Brown: Sociology for AS

Chapman et al: Sociology AQA Year 1 and AS Student Book

Teacher Labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy #class notes

Labelling theory holds that if a teacher labels a pupil a certain way, they will accept that label and it will become true.

The labels which teachers give to pupils can influence the construction and development of students’ identities, or self-concepts: how they see and define themselves and how they interact with others. This in turn can affect their attitudes towards school, their behaviour, and ultimately their level of achievement in education.

self fulfilling prophecy

Labelling refers to the process of defining a person or group in a simplified way – narrowing down the complexity of the whole person and fitting them into broad categories. At the simplest level labelling involves that first judgement you make about someone, often based on first-impressions – are they ‘worth making the effort to get to know more’, are you ‘indifferent to them’, or are they to ‘be avoided’.

According to labelling theory, teachers actively judge their pupils over a period of time, making judgments based on their behaviour in class, attitude to learning, previous school reports and interactions with them and their parents, and they eventually classifying their students according to whether they are ‘high’ or ‘low’ ability, ‘hard working’ or ‘lazy’, ‘naughty’ or ‘well-behaved’, ‘in need of support’ or ‘capable of just getting on with it’ (to give just a few possible categories, there are others!). (*See criticism one below).

According to a number of small-scale, interpretivist research studies of teacher labelling, the labels teachers give to students are sometimes based not on their behaviour but on a number of preconceived ideas teachers have about students based on their ethnic, gender or social class background, and thus labelling can be said to be grounded in stereotypes.

A closely related concept to labelling theory is the that of the self-fulfilling prophecy – where an individual accepts their label and the label becomes true in practice – for example, a student labelled as deviant actually becomes deviant as a response to being so-labelled.

Labelling theory is one of the main parts of social action, or interactionist theory, which seeks to understand human action by looking at micro-level processes, looking at social life through a microscope, from the ground-up.

Classic studies on teacher labelling in education 

Most of the work of labelling theory applied to education was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Three classic works, summarised below include:

  • David Hargreaves (1975) Deviance in Classrooms
  • R.C. Rist (1970) Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Ghetto Education
  • Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom (the ‘famous’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment!)

David Hargreaves: Speculation, Elaboration, Stabilization

Hargreaves Deviance in Classrooms

David Hargreaves et al (1975) in their classic book ‘Deviance in Classrooms’ analysed the ways in which students came to by typed, or labelled. Their study was based on interviews with secondary teachers and classroom observation in two secondary schools, focusing on how teachers ‘got to know their students’ entering the first year of the school.

Teachers have only a very limited idea about ‘who their students are’ as individuals when they first enter the school, based mainly on the area where they came from, and they thus have to build up an image of their students as the school year progresses. Hargreaves et al distinguished three stages of of typing or classification:

  1. Speculation
  2. Elaboration
  3. Stabilisation

In the first stage, that of speculation, the teachers make guesses about the types of student they are dealing with. The researchers noted that there were seven main criteria teachers used to type students:

  • their appearance
  • how far they conformed to discipline
  • their ability and enthusiasm for work
  • how likeable they were
  • their relationship with other children
  • their personality
  • whether they were deviant.

Hargreaves et al stress that in the speculation stage, teachers are tentative in their typing, and are willing to amend their views, nevertheless, they do form a working hypothesis, or a theory about with sort of child each student is.

In the elaboration phase, each hypothesis is tested and either confirmed or contradicted, and through this process the typing of each student is refined.

When the third stage, stabilisation, is reached, the teacher feels that ‘he knows’ the students and finds little difficulty in making sense of their actions, which will be interpreted in light of the general type of student the teacher thinks they are. Some students will be regarded as deviant and it will be difficult for any of their future actions to be regarded in a positive light.

Labelling and Social Class

A lot of the early, classic studies on labelling focused on how teachers label according to indicators of social class background, not the actual ability of the student. 

Research in one American Kindergarten by Ray C. Rist (1970) suggested that the process of labelling is not only much more abrupt than suggested by Hargreaves et al, but also that it is heavily influenced by social class.

Rist found that new students coming into the Kindergarten were grouped onto three tables – one for the ‘more able’, and the other two for the ‘less able’, and that students had been split into their respective tables by day eight of their early-school career. He also found that teachers made their judgments not necessarily on any evidence of ability, but on appearance (whether they were neat and tidy) and whether they were known to have come from an educated, middle class family (or not).

Labelling Theory and the Self Fulfilling Prophecy 

Self Fulling Prophecy Theory argues that predictions made by teachers about the future success or failure of a student will tend to come true because that prediction has been made. Thus if a student is labelled a success, they will succeed, if they are labelled a failure, the will fail.

The reasons for this are as follows (you might call these the positive effects of labelling):

  • teachers will push students they think are brighter harder, and not expect as much from students they have labelled as less-able.
  • Building on the above point, a positive label is more likely to result in a good student being put into a higher band, and vice versa for a student pre-judged to be less able.
  • Positively labelled students are more likely to develop positive attitude towards studying, those negatively labelled an anti-school attitude.
  • The above may be reinforced by peer-group identification.

It follows that in labelling theory, the students attainment level is, at least to some degree,  a result of the interaction between the teacher and the pupil, rather than just being about their ability.

A classic study which supports the self fulfilling prophecy theory was Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) study of an elementary school in California. They selected a random sample of 20% of the student population and informed teachers that these students could be expected to achieve rapid intellectual development.

They tested all students at the beginning of the experiment for IQ, and again after one year, and found that the RANDOMLY SELECTED ‘spurter’ group had, on average, gained more IQ than the other 80%, who the teachers believed to be ‘average’. They also found that the report cards for the 20% group showed that the teachers believed this group had made greater advances in reading.

Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that the teachers had passed on their higher expectations to students which had produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Criticisms of the labelling theory of education

  1. Negative labelling can sometimes have the opposite effect – Margaret Fuller’s (1984) research on black girls in a London comprehensive school found that the black girls she researched were labelled as low-achievers, but their response to this negative labelling was to knuckle down and study hard to prove their teachers and the school wrong.
  2. Given the above findings it should be no surprise that the Rosenthal and Jacobson research has been proved unreliable – other similar experimental studies reveal no significant effects.
  3. Labelling theory attributes too much importance to ‘teacher agency’ (the autonomous power of teachers to influence and affect pupils) – structural sociologists might point out that schools themselves encourage teachers to label students – in some cases entry tests, over which teachers have no control, pre-label students into ability groups anyway, and the school will require the teacher to demonstrate that they are providing ‘extra support’ for the ‘low ability’ students as judged by the entry tes.
  4. One has to question whether teachers today actually label along social class lines. Surely teachers are among the most sensitively trained professionals in the world, and in the current ‘aspirational culture’ of education, it’s difficult to see how teachers would either label in such a way, or get away with it if they did.

More Recent Research on Labelling Theory 

Waterhouse (2004), in case studies of four primary and secondary schools, suggests that teacher labelling of pupils as either normal/ average or deviant types, as a result of impressions formed over time, has implications for the way teachers interact with pupils.

Once these labels are applied and become the dominant categories for pupils, they can become what Waterhouse called a ‘pivotal identity’ for students – a core identity providing a pivot which teachers use to interpret and reinterpret classroom events and student behaviour.

For example, a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘normal’ is likely to have an episode of deviant behaviour interpreted as unusual, or as a ‘temporary phase’ – something which will shortly end, thus requiring no significant action to be taken; whereas as a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘deviant’ will have periods of ‘good behaviour’ treated as unusual, something which is not expected to last, and thus not worthy of recognition.

Sources

  • David Hargreaves (1975) Deviance in Classrooms
  • R.C. Rist (1970) Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Ghetto Education
  • Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom (the ‘famous’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment!)
  • Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives.