Language is powerful. We don’t always think about the words we use and the impact they might have. When it comes to describing or addressing people of different race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality, we might not always understand what those words convey to others.
A recent story in the Daily Mail got me thinking about how race is perceived in schools. The article focused on a seven-year-old boy who was allegedly labelled racist after asking if a younger pupil was brown because he lived in Africa. His mother was summoned to the school and asked to sign a report that was to be filed with the local authority.
So – political correctness gone mad or a very real problem in schools?
First of all, it appears the school was following out-dated government policy. The policy was well-intentioned as it drew to the attention of pupils and parents what is and isn’t acceptable language to use to describe race and ethnicity. However, this kind of policy can lead to teachers unthinkingly following procedures without always considering the age of pupils or the context of incidents. Such policies can then lead to bureaucratic enactments that school staff feel they have to follow.
Whether the boy meant to be racist or not, it shows there is a real need in finding a balance in preventing stereotyping – whether it’s racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia or sexism – and marginalising particular groups of people.
Rather than rushing to call in the parents and filling out a form, this kind of incident could have been used as a valuable education opportunity. It should be a chance to talk to the students involved, talk to their parents, and have an assembly with the whole year or school about the topic, to help educate young people and help them to understand what these words mean, how they can offend, and why. A more punitive response should come only if a child continues to use this language and refuses to recognise the impact this has and the offence it causes.
Some people don’t appreciate the impact of certain derogatory or discriminatory words because of personal, sometimes subconscious or cultural prejudices. There certainly needs to be some balance and judgement employed. The age of the child, peer pressure and familial situations and the fact children repeat things can all contribute to the use of inappropriate language. In secondary schools, it can be harder; there are a large number of people and break-time banter and managing teenagers can be very difficult.
However, schools must also be aware of the wide range of consequences of using inappropriate language. This kind of bullying can lead to self-harm in girls who may internalise the pain or boys who act out physically. It can lead to misbehaviour, fuel gang culture or lead to serious issues like depression and anxiety.
Teachers work hard to spot and support mental health issues among students and need support from senior leaders to continue to do so. Equally, when people are growing up, they are doing just that – growing up – so if they make a misdemeanour do we have to exclude them immediately? How does this help them understand and develop their life-skills?
As a father of three sons, I learned that when imposing sanctions you cannot immediately jump to extremes because you will have nowhere left to go and can look foolish if you need to back-track.
Schools must have clear guidelines in their school policy about how students and teachers report racism within the school gates and parents must be encouraged to pull their children up on it. Learning to live together and cope with difference is a core skill that schools are charged with imparting to their students, in addition to knowledge and passing exams.
- Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).