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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