Tackling Racism and Discrimination in Schools

Despite the world evolving faster than ever before, racism and discrimination are still prevalent across the globe; these issues exist within our society, corporate organisations and even the education system.

The problems have existed for decades and are not a new phenomenon, but the first step in combating racism in schools is to acknowledge that it exists and the different types of racism:

  • institutionalised, structural or systemic racism - unequal access to education, housing and employment;
  • internalised racism - where a person begins believing that their skin colour and what they are born with is inferior to others;
  • personal racism - where a person believes that their skin colour has an effect on the way they're perceived by others. 

It's not as simple as fighting against one form of discrimination, it takes action in many different forms to eradicate institutionalised and internalised racism. 

It is also important to recognise the routes of racism. Race discrimination stems from both the historical and current systems that are in place:

Historical roots of racism

The first wave of racism was British colonialism, which resulted in a large disparity between the races; this created structural racism because it affected access to education and employment.

Individuals can be racist by judging a person for their skin colour or ethnicity, making assumptions about someone based on stereotypes that they have learned.

How current systems provoke racism

The second wave is now globalisation. With people from different continents meeting each other for the first time, we find prejudices and judgements around cultural traditions and behaviour. 

We also find an increase in xenophobia - fear or hatred of foreigners that leads to irrational or prejudiced behaviour. This is because many people struggle to achieve cultural relativism, the ability to understand a culture on its own terms and not to make judgments using the standards of one's own culture.

We also see issues due to the rise of the internet and social media, where people are able to connect with each other as never before - this has led to an increase in cyber racism. Despite the potential of the internet in diversifying social circles, accessing content from other cultures and furthering learning, it is still a highly risky medium for people who are targeted by racism.

This article will explore racism, the routes of racism, peer-on-peer bullying and what staff, students and parents can do to eradicate racism.

Racism in schools

The UK is seen as a multicultural society and yet the figures for discrimination in education are staggering.

In March 2021, The Guardian revealed that exclusion rates are five times higher for black Caribbean pupils in some parts of England.

The lost time in education due to exclusions is no doubt a contributing factor in the growing attainment gap between white and ethnic minority students which is now at its greatest level in a decade.

As well as this, the BBC reported that black pupils are three times more likely to be excluded from schools.

Young black student works in isolation after school exclusion

They continued to state that "over the past decade, there has been a drop in the proportion of black pupils given temporary exclusions nationally, but in every year since 2007, pupils from black and mixed backgrounds have had the highest rates."

This is a worrying trend that has the potential to worsen if we do not act now.

Forms of racism in schools

Combating racism in education is no mean feat, with racism disguised in many forms and often going unnoticed.

We commonly see peer-to-peer bullying as a form of racism amongst students. A recent survey shows that 95% of young Black British people have witnessed racist language in education, with 51% of black boys revealing that they hear racist language 'all the time'.

Graph from YMCA

This has led many young people to believe that schools are not safe spaces for children from different races and ethnicities, because they may face discrimination or racist behaviour in school by other students or teachers, in a variety of forms.

Perhaps the most damaging form of racism is micro-aggression. Microaggressions can be covert, and even unintentional; they may not always mean harm but the effects are detrimental nonetheless.

For example, a YMCA survey showed that 70% of Black students feel under pressure because of Afro hair – the rigid policies try to conform students to the status quo leading to ‘cultural erasure’.

But it's not just pupils who have experienced racism. Research shows that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff are still disproportionately reflected in senior roles, with senior leadership teams being predominantly white. 

Not only this, DfE data from 2016 shows that while 27% of pupils in state-funded schools are ‘from a BME background’, only 13% of teachers are.

There are also many cases where black teachers have been victimised because of their skin colour, with some even forced out of their positions. The Guardian recently released stories of teachers who not only faced racial abuse from their students but also their colleagues.

So, what can we do to eliminate racism in educational settings?

How schools can combat racism and race discrimination

For schools, tackling prejudice starts by making sure that there are no incidents of discrimination or bullying and then embracing the opportunity to talk openly with pupils about equality, diversity and what it might be like to experience different types of discrimination.

Schools might also choose to partner with organisations such as Show Racism The Red Card in order to provide training programmes for staff and students.

Schools should also have policies that outline strategies for tackling racism such as creating an atmosphere of openness where students feel comfortable reporting incidents of racial bullying and discrimination, and a clear behaviour management so that incidents are handled in an appropriate manner. In January 2020, the BBC reported that exclusions for racism in primary schools in England was up more than 40%. 

Although this shows that racism is being tackled head on with punishment, it begs the question of whether punishment is the right response - surely, we should be educating these individuals about their behaviour and why it is morally and ethically unacceptable?

Inappropriate jokes and slurs by teaching staff and students are going unnoticed by those in power and more needs to be done to reprimand this type of behaviour, an inclusion or detention does not eradicate the problem.

A lot of the time, we do not think about how our behaviour affects others - after all, it's just words right? Well, no. Words can be very powerful and when they're racist or discriminatory towards someone else because of their race, then this has an adverse effect.

You may ask: "How do I know if my words are racist?" Well, if your entire statement is based around a person's race or ethnicity then that would be considered discriminatory and racially prejudiced language.

From here, we can encourage more positive intercultural relationships between people of different backgrounds and we can ensure that every student feels valued and is accepted in the classroom.

Positive intercultural relationships in the classroom

A prominent barrier to this is how schools are funded; if a school has pupils from an economically disadvantaged background then it's going to be very difficult for them to offer opportunities and training that are on par with their more advantaged counterparts.

As an institution, schools cannot tackle racism and race discrimination alone - they need to have the support of staff, parents and students, working in harmony to treat each other with fairness and equality.

The role of educators in tackling racism

Staff in schools should take responsibility for their behaviour and attitudes to ensure that racism is addressed when it occurs, especially school leaders who occupy a position of power. This involves creating a safe environment with robust policies that are enforced consistently.

Teachers should also be aware of their own biases and how these might influence the way they teach, particularly in relation to black and minority ethnic pupils. A YMCA report shows that a staggering 50% of the 500 black young people interviewed felt that the stereotypical views potentially held by some teachers could be a barrier to their academic attainment.

Graph from YMCA

Staff have an important role as educators to counter racism by helping children recognise it for what it is while providing alternative perspectives on diversity.

It is vital that staff confront racist incidents when they occur and take the time to discuss how pupils can be helped to deal with such situations.

It's easier said than done, however.

Many teachers and members of staff in educational settings are not confident in the way they recognise incidents of discrimination and are unsure how to react. Training can be an important tool for staff development, enabling them to identify racist behaviours such as bullying or name-calling while equipping them with skills on how best to intervene when these happen.

The fear of retaliation from parents or students may also discourage teachers from responding in the most appropriate way, so equipping educators with the skills and support to do this well is paramount.

Education providers need a concrete strategy that includes regular monitoring of the environment, thorough staff development and a clear policy on how to deal with racist incidents when they happen.

Parents' responsibilities in the fight to end racism

Parents have been demanding more from educational institutions in order for racism to be tackled. But change starts at home, where young people spend the majority of their time.

Attitudes, perspectives and mindsets that form at home will have an impact on the way that children behave at school. Parents should be mindful of their own biases (albeit a potentially unconscious bias), actions, language and prejudices to ensure they are not inadvertently promoting racial stereotypes in their child's mind.

This is a delicate balance, but parents can promote empathy for everyone by discussing racism with their children. This could be as both victims or perpetrators.

Although these conversations may feel difficult to have, they are vital in equipping children with the tools to tackle racism in their own lives. 

Mum discusses racism with young daughter at home

In 2019/20, Childline delivered 547 counselling sessions where racist bullying, racism or being bullied for spiritual, cultural or religious reasons were mentioned. It's important that parents are aware of how they can play a significant role in tackling discrimination at school simply by opening up a conversation with the child. 

Parents can also monitor what programmes children watch on television and which websites they visit, as these may have an impact on attitudes towards race. The Internet is a vast and sometimes scary place and child content filters exist for a reason!

Not only can parents take a stand by talking openly about racism with their children, but they should discuss incidents in school as soon as possible with staff. Often, incidents go unreported until they escalate to a level that becomes extremely difficult for schools to address without involving outside authorities.

Children and young people’s roles in eradicating racism

Perhaps the most significant group of all; children and young people themselves.

The younger generation is becoming more and more influential in changing legislation, trends, outlooks and attitudes. The opinions of today's youth shape the future of our society.

Teachers therefore have a responsibility to provide children and young people with an education that embraces diversity in its curriculum. It's vital to expose children to different cultures and heritages to widen their perspectives.

Educating our younger generation about racism empowers them by giving them knowledge for when they encounter prejudice or discrimination. Children are more likely to stand up and fight for what they believe in if they are educated and aware.

A recent study found that many children have never been taught about racism or had any opportunity to learn what it is, how it affects people's lives and why we should all be working hard not only to stop but also reverse its effects.

Educating the next generation of adults may just lead to a more tolerant society and a fairer future for all of us.

With news stories around incidents like George Floyd's racially motivated murder storming social media, issues around racial discrimination have never been so prevalent or in the public domain.

The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in incidents of racist behaviour and attacks, fuelled by what appears to be an increased acceptance of racism as socially acceptable behaviour.

It is important that young people are encouraged to think about the consequences of their actions and how they may affect others' lives, including those they have not even met yet.

We want our children educated in a safe environment where racism is reported as unacceptable behaviour in all forms.

Combating racism as a society

It is imperative that schools play an active role in ensuring equality among students. And it is equally as important that parents support this by speaking about racism at home.

Educators can also work towards tackling prejudice by providing lesson content that challenges stereotypes and encourages students to explore different perspectives on race.

But most of all, we need a societal change in attitudes and behaviour.

We need individuals to take responsibility for their actions, actively challenging prejudice where it is found and resisting complacency.

Although the UK's education system will be pivotal in tackling racism in schools, we should be taking collective responsibility for society. As individuals, we should strive towards a society free from racism.

How Learning Hive is promoting racial equality

Between June 2020 and March 2021, Learning Hive supported over 3,500 BAME children and young people in reintegrating into education as part of Barnardos’ See, Hear, Respond programme.

Alongside 86 other partner organisations, we focused specifically on helping disadvantaged families from ethnic minority backgrounds who were hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Racism revelations from the SHR programme

A shared forum with Barnardo’s was delivered online in April 2021, as requested by the Department for Education, to tease out some of the problems faced by children and young people.

It was an open discussion to ask partners to share their experiences and examples on whether racism in schools exists and, if so, how does it manifest in a school environment and what is the impact on children and young people.

Sadly, many of the families felt that racism in schools was evident for their communities and that schools were not able to adequately deal with these problems causing lasting damage. This was a particular problem in Somali and Bangladeshi communities. 

So, how do we tackle racism in schools?

The experiences and effects of racism are vast and far-reaching and more needs to be done by schools, government and communities if this problem is to be tackled from the root causes.

As we have explored, there are many routes to racism. In order to break down these barriers and create a more inclusive education system for all of our students, it is important that the adults in schools take responsibility for teaching their children about tolerance and respect. 

Staff should be mindful of how they speak to students (and each other) on an individual level as well as institutional level so that people do not feel like outsiders or second-class citizens within the school setting. 

Students must also step up by speaking out against racist bullying when they see it happening around them and reporting any instances of discrimination at school without fear of retribution from staff members who might retaliate against those reports with punishment. 

Parents can help, too, by encouraging empathy and discussions among friends and family members.

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