Education for All? The Impact of Discriminatory School Exclusions

By Laura Schrier 

 Human Rights for All

Today marks the 70th anniversary of International Human Rights Day, observed globally every year to mark the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This day offers us an opportunity to not only reflect on the profound contributions to the fight for human rights around the world, but also invites a critical reflection on the significant work that remains to ensure human rights are fully protected for every human being.

In the UK and many other Western countries, we are often quick to cite the human rights abuses of other countries, without reflecting inward on the unjust practices and conditions within our own borders. One key area where we can cite significant shortcomings in the protection of human rights for all is in the education system.

In the UK, human rights are further protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, which sets forth the fundamental rights and freedoms that every person in the UK is entitled to. Article 2 of The First Protocol outlines the right to education, proclaiming “no one can be denied the right to education. This encompasses a right to an effective education (that is adequate and appropriate) and access to existing educational institutions.” However, upon examination of the exclusionary practices and discrimination in the UK education system, a trend of repeated violations to this protocol becomes apparent.

Racialised School Exclusion

In the autumn of 2017, Chikayzea Flanders, a 12-year-old student arrived on his first day of school at The Fulham Boy’s school in West London. However, his learning was cut short when he was pulled aside and informed that his hairstyle breached the school’s uniform policy. He was told that he could either cut his dreadlocks off or face suspension. Chikayzea’s mother, who had tied her son’s hair so it did not violate the school’s policy on hair length, cited the school’s demand as religious discrimination and an attack on her family’s Rastafarian culture. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHCR) supported Flanders in taking legal action against The Fulham Boy’s School on the basis of religious discrimination.

The legal case ended in an agreement between both parties that acknowledged the school’s enforcement of its uniform policy resulted in indirect discrimination. The family was informed that Chikayzea was welcome to return to The Fulham Boy’s School “provided that his dreadlocks are tied up so that they do not touch the top of his collar or covered with a cloth of colour to be agreed by the school.”  However, Chikayzea had switched schools soon after the incident and has no intention of returning.  According to his mother, Chikayzea is now at a school that “accepts him for who he is.”

Institutional Racism and the School to Prison Pipeline

An incident like this is not an isolated case and must be understood as endemic of a much wider issue of institutional racism that permeates into the educational system. Through processes of harsh disciplinary procedures, suspensions, and the utilisation of pupil referral units, school exclusion is racialised and classed, disproportionately rendering students of colour out of the classroom without access to quality education. Statistics show that Black pupils from Caribbean backgrounds are vastly overrepresented in school exclusions.

Research shows that Black pupils are less likely to be praised and are disciplined more frequently and more harshly for less serious misbehaviour than other pupils. This differential treatment starts very early on in a child’s education and follows them throughout their educational experience.

The Institute of Race Relations describes institutional racism as “that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions – reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn.” Discriminatory exclusion from schools is an extremely harmful manifestation of institutional racism that violates a student’s basic right to an education and severely deprives them of the opportunity to achieve and thrive.

According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, each day in the UK, 35 students are permanently excluded from school. Only 1% of those excluded will obtain the GCSE benchmark essential for opportunities like acceptance in post-16 training and apprenticeships.

The school to prison pipeline is a well-documented phenomenon by which students are pushed out of schools primarily through harsh disciplinary procedures, increasing their likelihood of involvement in crime, juvenile justice, and incarceration. And indeed, research by the University of Edinburgh found that students who are excluded from school at age 12 are four times more likely than other children to be jailed as an adult. Over a half of UK prisoners were excluded from school at some juncture in their education.

Stories like Chikayzea’s and statistics that show us the vast number of students excluded from schools demonstrate how discriminatory disciplinary procedures operate on racial lines and can severely jeopardise a student’s chances at educational success. An educational system that discriminates against students, while pushing some of the most vulnerable children out of the classroom, is inherently flawed.  In accordance with the protection of human rights for all, schools must treat all students equally and serve as inclusive learning spaces with equal opportunity for all pupils to thrive, regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, national or social origin, and other status.

Schools can and should examine their policies and practices. Equality and Diversity Policies, Anti-Bullying Policies and Uniform Policies should be scrutinised for unconscious bias and inequalities. Schools should analyse their monitoring data by ethnicity and act on any discrepancies in sanctions and rewards, attendance, achievement and attainment.  Beyond this, schools can work to ensure that curriculum is inclusive (see our blog about Black History Month and embedding this into the curriculum year-round). Introducing students to a range of ethnically and racially diverse authors, artists, scientists, and role models can create a more inclusive learning experience that is richer for all students. Schools can embed values into the institution that honour diversity meaningfully, rather than performatively, while ensuring all teachers and staff receive ample training in anti-racism pedagogy. Through this, rather than perpetuating the very discriminatory practices that contribute to a world of racism and inequality, schools can be exemplary models of equality, teaching future generations about tolerance, radical compassion, and respect for all beings.

EqualiTeach runs the Equalities Award (, an online audit tool which allows schools to scrutinise their current practices with regards to equality, diversity and inclusion and work towards achieving Bronze, Silver and Gold Awards, showcasing their commitment to equality. For more information, please contact Rachel Elgy, Programme Manager (Education):


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