Race and Racism in English Schools

I have spent much time with white working class people, working class folk from other ethnic groups and, of course, have belonged to the working class in my own ethnic group, the Kashmiri/Pakistani community (before becoming middle class). Through most of my adult life I have had a left-leaning political tendency. So, I have been of the general view that white working class, black working class, Kashmiri working class and indeed any other working class have much in common in terms of their problems and needs which result from their structural and systemic disadvantages. We should whatever we can to remind working class people (black, white, whatever) of their commonalities and encourage them to resist being divided on grounds of colour.

In my education work I have focused on underachievement amongst black students, white working-class students, and latterly Pakistani students.

I recently read the report, for the Runnymede Trust, by Joseph-Salisbury . This covered many issues facing our education system. It stated, “racism is an enduring and fundamental problem for our times” thus reiterating Dubois – “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line”.

Using the examples of Shukri Abdi and Caleb Hills, the report reminded us of situations when schools fail our children. It also reminded us of the misguided advice from Katherine Birbalsingh who said:  

If [a] child says [a] teacher is being racist, back the teacher. Whatever the child says, back the teacher … If you don’t, you are letting the child down and allowing them to play you for a fool’.

I would say: ignore such advice and stick to what Macpherson Report said: “an incident is racist if the victim says so”. This article from a victim of such abuse should remove any doubts you might have on this.

The author lists a number of areas where the education system continues to fail and concludes with “there is evidence of deep-rooted institutional issues that do not so easily make the headlines” and “Two decades on from the Macpherson Report, and almost half a century on from Bernard Coard’s report (1971), evidence suggests that racism still plagues our society and our schools.”

It is worth remembering here the Rampton Report (whose chair was replaced because he identified racism)  and its successor the Swann Report; both commissioned and dismissed by the then Tory government.

We are also reminded that “education as an enterprise that is far greater than student attainment….. the purpose of schooling has to be about more than metrics, attainment, examinations and the production of a future workforce.”

Representative diversity in the school workforce

The report found teachers speaking of “schools where the teaching force was ‘mostly white’, and in some cases exclusively white.”

This reminded me of two quotes where the Department for Education had made its position quite clear:

“School workforce should reflect the diversity of the school population”

“Minority teachers affirm a positive sense of identity among ethnic minority children” (Blair & Bourne 2000).

Here, it is worth considering what the advantages might be. In my doctoral thesis and later book, I pointed out that minority teachers provide role models, act as cultural brokers/experts, advocate for minority students and act as a ‘bridge’ between, and ‘translators’ of, minority and dominant cultures. Here is an earlier blog on the subject.

Joseph-Salisbury points out: “it is vital that hiring more BME staff is not seen as a panacea for solving all of the issues of deep-seated institutional racisms in our schools. There is a danger that such ideas place the burden on individual BME people, while absolving white staff of their duty.” He reminds us that “it is not enough for the teacher to be someone of the same colour, but it needs to be someone that does not believe the stereotypes”.

He also points to the importance of teachers becoming racially literate, which refers to them understanding the ways in which race and racisms work in society. “It also involves having the language, skills and confidence to utilise that knowledge in teacher practice.”

“Racial literacy and anti-racism should not be left to the volition of individual teachers but need to be part of a whole-school, institutionalised approach.” Equipped with such literacy means all the staff (not just teachers) can own the issues pertaining to race and racism.

He reminds us that to understand racism “as institutional (and structural) is to recognise the ways in which racism is woven into the fabric of society’s institutions.”

The report draws attention to the failings of teacher training as the main cause of low levels of racial literacy. The teachers who were committed to acquiring such literacy “drew on a range of resources, particularly contemporary literature on race and racism written by popular authors”. Maybe we can encourage a whole school approach on this: Every Staff (not just teachers) member a Reader on Race

In terms of curriculum, the report points out that an “anti-racist curriculum would involve showing how the history of modernity is shaped by racism, coloniality and white supremacy” and that anti-racist education “should be based on an understanding of racism as a structural and historical phenomenon as well as an interpersonal one.”

Finally, I noticed the report saying “School policies play a significant role in how schools operate. This extends to the context of racism and anti-racism.” Why is it necessary to make such a statement? We have known this since at least the 1970s.