Tackling racism in schools: Three starting points

Written by: Peter Radford | Published:
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How is your school tackling racism? Is it working? How do you know? Ahead of September’s inaugural National Schools’ Human Rights Conference, Peter Radford looks at three principles that should underpin your school’s anti-racism work

The past year has exposed in alarming ways just how much racism still pervades society and remains inherent in the national consciousness, institutions and systems.

Racial inequality is undeniable, and the Black Lives Matter campaign has brought this fact to the fore for a new generation of students. The power of social media to inform about and expose injustice has galvanised a generation. However, its power to misinform and exacerbate echo-chambers which undermine meaningful dialogue and engagement has the potential to nullify calls for change and create further division.

As schools we have a responsibility to educate students on this matter and to find ways to model and facilitate change in attitudes and systems. But how on earth do we go about doing this? In a year when schools have been stretched to the max just keeping up with Covid, this essential social and moral education has fallen by the wayside, though it was never exactly front and centre in the first place. The danger is that as we get back to “normal” and focus on “catch-up”, the momentum and will for systemic change could be lost.

Society is arguably the consequence and extension of the education we deliver. We have an opportunity – or rather a duty – at this juncture of history to think about the kinds of schools we want to build and, by extension, the kind of world we want to live in.

We don’t have racism here

Racism in most schools sits as a subsection of the anti-bullying or behaviour policy; in other words, we recognise that it is a negative behaviour that requires a sanction. When a racist incident occurs, it is logged. If you ask most schools whether they have problems with racism, they will answer no. What they usually mean is that they think this number of “racist incidents” is low or at an acceptable level. But this is to miss the point, and especially to miss the point about systemic racism. What we must recognise is that...

The majority of racist incidents go unreported: I found this to be true in one of the schools I worked in where I sought to address this issue. The racist incident count was low but when I carried out a survey of minority ethnic groups in the school their anonymous responses revealed a shocking picture of daily comments and exclusion that they readily admitted were “normal”.

Racist ‘incidents’ are not the whole story: So-called racist incidents do not account for the myriad of ways in which a person of colour is overlooked, ignored or excluded in our schools and classrooms every day due to both conscious and unconscious bias. These are not “incidents” because nothing actually happened – but that is exactly the point. Many people of colour or minority ethnic students miss out on opportunities, or feel they have to work twice as hard or live with the fact that they or their people are not represented on a daily basis (whether in the curriculum or in leadership or on school councils etc). For many there is a resigned acceptance that it will always be so.

Achieving equity will never happen without proactive intent: When a system is inherently biased in favour of a white privileged majority (even if that bias is not intended or knowingly malicious), change has to be a deliberate agenda item. We cannot be reactive. Addressing racism cannot be about simply responding decisively to “racist incidents”. We must educate for change. Starting with an understanding of equity itself.

Achieving equity

We have made great strides in achieving equity where disability is concerned. This is not to discount that there is still a long way to go, but I would suggest that we at least understand the concept. Equity acknowledges that we are not all equal and to treat everyone “equally” makes no sense. To require the person in the wheelchair to battle along the corridors and up the stairs to get to class on time is ridiculous. I do not know anyone who thinks it is “unfair” that the disabled student gets to leave the class five minutes early to avoid crowds or has all classes on the ground floor.

We get this. In order to achieve true equality we deliberately treat people unequally. This is equity. This is a fairer society. For this reason most schools now have robust accessibility plans – many of which have cost a significant amount of money.

But we have not, in the main, applied the same principle to racial inequality. We have not proactively sought to address inequalities by changing our systems, changing our curriculum, changing our school structures in order to promote fairness and celebrate difference.

So how can we do this? Below I suggest three starting points – that are both challenging and inspiring – to help us begin to transform our schools into beacons of hope for a fairer world.

Valuing difference: At every level

As human beings we have a soft spot for sameness. Sameness makes us feel comfortable and safe. The unknown is just that – unknown, and therefore we are by nature a little less sure about things or people we don’t know.

The problem is that this tendency to “flock together” with people like us impoverishes us and undermines progress. A study at Columbia Business School gave teams the task of solving a murder mystery. In half the cases the groups were composed of four friends. The other half were composed of three friends and a stranger.

The result? The teams with a stranger consistently and significantly outperformed the teams without one. They also found the task more cognitively demanding as they were forced to engage with different perspectives and think carefully in order to justify their own perspectives. They were enabled to see their own blindspots which in turn helped them collectively to find more effective solutions (Syed, 2019).

Difference is good for us. Making sure that difference is represented at every level of school is essential if we are going to grow effective schools. This approach has often been dismissed as “tokenism” or as undermining meritocracy. The phrase “positive discrimination” has been unhelpfully used to refer to this which in many people’s minds seems to legitimise unfair treatment.

But all of this misses the point. We need difference represented not as a token gesture, not because we “need to be seen to be inclusive”, but because we need difference (when I use the word ‘we’ here I mean we all… not “we white people”).

We need female leaders and headteachers because females provide a different perspective to males and they can speak for women and girls in a way that men will never be able to.

In the same way we need people of colour in leadership because people of colour can speak for people for whom white people cannot speak and bring a perspective without which schools are impoverished.

And, of course, the idea that our “meritocracy” is fair in the first place anyway is an absurdity. As we know full well, a disadvantaged start in life translates to significantly poorer life chances on every measure we know.

Hence the Pupil Premium and its admirable though so far inadequate attempt to “level the playing field” and pursue equity.

So, is difference represented in your governing body? In your senior leadership team? In your middle leadership? In your teaching staff? In your support staff? In your student council? Change starts here: we need to begin listening to people who have a different experience, different context and different perspective. Without this we are just navel-gazing.

Engaging with difference: In and beyond school

At one school I worked at in the South West I arranged an exchange with a school in Tower Hamlets in east London. We took 15 students from Poole (96 per cent white) to visit a comprehensive state school which, due to its catchment, is 99 per cent non-white and 97 per cent Muslim. My students joined in with their lessons and took part in a collaborative session with 15 of their students to work on producing a charter for creating a more harmonious society. A few weeks later, they came and visited us in return. Both days were moving and striking.

As our students got out of the minibus and mixed with the students in Tower Hamlets, the vast majority wearing the school uniform hijab, they were essentially mobbed. The London students gathered around them asking about their uniform, exchanging Instagram addresses, wanting to know about Dorset and their lives there. Our students were visibly taken aback by the friendliness of the welcome they received.

As the day progressed, it was as if stereotypes and prejudices perceptibly crumbled as our students recognised that the presentation of Muslims they had encountered in the media was wrong. They quickly realised what they had in common with their new friends and that what unites us is far greater and stronger than what divides us. I came home feeling that this was the most important day of my life.

Engaging with difference is life-transforming. We are enriched mentally and spiritually when we set aside our preconceived ideas, listen to each other and work together.

Our schools, however, are incredibly tribal. Students form into groups very quickly and become entrenched in them. It is our job as schools to facilitate engagement both in the classroom as well as in “free time”.

What are you doing to challenge this tribalism? The recent Channel 4 series The School That Tried to End Racism (2020) is a fascinating and inspiring look into proactively educating about racism and providing opportunities for dialogue and greater understanding. I urge you to watch it – it is a brilliant place to start.

Challenging indifference: Promoting justice

Inertia is the greatest barrier to change. A movement for change requires clarity of purpose and a coherent message that galvanises action and generates momentum. Two questions:

  • How much focus and attention do you give to the ethos and values of your school?
  • Are your values in need of an update? In other words, do they firmly and unequivocally affirm the value of every human person and do they translate into the everyday living reality of school life?

Many school mottos focus disproportionately on academic success, as if the social and moral impact of education is by-the-by. Yet the educational project should be all-encompassing. What is the end product? What are we trying to achieve? Surely producing outstanding global citizens equipped to make their best contribution to the world has to be about more than gaining a set of qualifications?

On this point, I know no better vehicle for whole school transformation than the Unicef UK Rights Respecting School Award. This is not an additional extra. Rather, it proposes that the rights of every child (as enshrined in law in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) should underpin everything we do and thereby means that we adopt an outcome-focused, children’s rights-based approach to education. It aims to “create safe and inspiring places to learn, where children are respected, their talents are nurtured and they are able to thrive”.

Having led two schools to become Rights Respecting I have seen first-hand how firmly, deliberately, routinely and consistently affirming, defending and promoting the rights of all can create a lasting foundation for a fairer education system and greater inclusivity.

  • Peter Radford, founder of Beyond This, is a speaker, teacher and writer. This September he is hosting the first National Schools’ Human Rights Conference addressing racial inequality. Peter is an Amnesty school speaker and assessor for the Unicef Right Respecting Schools Award.

Further information & resources

  • National Schools’ Human Rights Conference: Entitled ‘FREE & EQUAL?’, the event takes place in September 2021 and is an opportunity to start educating proactively about the reality of inequality and how we each have a part to play in building a fairer world. The event will be streamed live to schools across the UK and is sponsored by The Young People Index. Visit www.beyondthis.co.uk/stand-up-conference
  • Channel 4: The School That Tried to End Racism, June 2020: https://bit.ly/3t8doUp
  • Syed: Rebel Ideas: The power of diverse thinking, John Murray, 2019.
  • Unicef UK Rights Respecting Schools: www.unicef.org.uk/rights-respecting-schools/


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