“Let’s Talk about Racism …” Tackling Racism and Promoting Equality in Schools

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On Wednesday, The Independent newspaper ran with the cover story that ChildLine has seen a 69% increase in young people contacting them because of racial bullying. The statistic comes from ChildLine’s report “Can I tell you something?” which provides a breakdown of the reasons why young people have contacted the service. The report adds that:

“A common theme was for young people to be called a “terrorist” or a “bomber”, and to “go back to where they came from”

Sue Minto, Head of ChildLine, added:

“This kind of bullying seems to be happening much more at school and on the way to school than on social media. Some of the children who’ve spoken to us say that they’ve told a teacher and they didn’t do anything.”

The day before the Independent’s story, Race on the Agenda (ROTA) published their latest report, ‘Shaping the Future’, which presented the findings from a series of seminars attended by over 500 representatives of London’s Black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities and leading experts in the field of race equality. One of their key findings was that:

“The persistence of racism and race inequality is a particular concern, with a denial of racism and emerging forms of racism running in tandem. There is a sense that ‘race’ is disappearing from the policy agenda, along with a disinclination to confront, or even talk about racism.”

These findings echo our experience of working with hundreds of schools on these issues. Lack of awareness and an unwillingness to engage with issues of racism and openly talk about it with young people, together with the lack of engagement from education policymakers, is creating a climate where racist bullying is able to occur without adequate challenge in schools. Where the support structures within schools are inadequate, young people who are targeted are having to turn away from those who should be protecting them and are forced to go to external organisations such as ChildLine for help.

Racist bullying causes very real damage to young people; targeted individuals may become scared, depressed and lacking in self-confidence and this can impact heavily on their progress at school. Racism is not only damaging to the targets of racism, but also to the perpetrator who is carrying around the burden of anger and hatred. Young people need to be educated about racism and to learn how to think critically about the information that they receive, to reject stereotypes, prejudice and misinformation. However, the capacity of schools to adequately address the issue of racist bullying is diminishing.

In recent years the ring-fenced Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant (EMAG) has been abandoned and the once strong network of Local Authority services which supported schools with these issues has been decimated, with many councils losing the entire department. The result means that many schools are unaware of their legal duties with regards to promoting equality, eliminating discrimination and fostering good relations. Research published by ROTA in October 2013 found that 39.7% of free schools are failing to identify prejudice-related bullying and/or derogatory language in their anti-bullying or behaviour policies and fewer than a quarter reference The Equality Act 2010 in key policies and documents.

In my own research conducted in 2011, I found that only 61% of teachers had received any training in tackling racism and promoting equality and of those who had, most though that it was cursory and had not equipped them to adequately challenge racism and promote equality in the classroom. Because of this lack of training, many teachers adopt a “colour-blind” position where they try to ignore difference and treat everybody the same. Many are worried about discussing issues of racism with young people for fear of “opening up a can of worms” and have a perception that left alone, young people will be naturally anti-racist.

However, young people are not growing up in a bubble. They are subject to a huge array of influences. In the current climate, where politicians and the media are barraging us all with never-ending anti-immigrant rhetoric and talk of white-British people – as though people of colour are less British and less deserving of being here – it is not surprising that these attitudes are influencing young people.

It is really important that schools record details of the racist incidents which are occurring within the school. Not, as The Daily Mail might have us think, so that they can label young people as bigots, but in order to identify patterns and training needs, implement effective strategies and create a school environment where young people know that they will be taken seriously if they report racist bullying, where they feel valued and where racism and discrimination are not accepted.

However, the government has made it clear that there is no statutory duty for schools to record prejudice-related incidents, and have even removed guidance aimed at helping schools with these issues. Due to this lack of training and support, and a fear of engaging with these issues*, most incidents are left unrecorded and possibly ignored altogether. This appear to have been the experience of many of the young people approaching ChildLine.

So, what needs to happen? There is a need for a consistent and concerted effort to address issues of racism and promote race equality to ensure that schools provide an inclusive, safe environment for all young people and where pupils are equipped with an education which allows them to value and understand the rich diversity of the UK. Schools which take a proactive approach to creating inclusive classrooms, who educate young people about why racism is wrong and who ensure that they deal effectively with every racist incident, are able to virtually eradicate racist bullying and create a positive school environment where every pupil feels safe and able to achieve. However, for this to occur there needs to be strong support for these initiatives from the school leaders and governors, who in turn need training, guidance and positive reinforcement from external agencies, including local authorities, Ofsted and the Department for Education.

Ultimately the government needs to adopt policy which is underpinned by social justice and does not allow negative, false media discourse to dominate public debate. There needs to be a move to recognise the realities of structural racism in British society, an understanding that equality issues are not peripheral, but core to teaching and a move from the belief that race equality is an issue for black, Asian and other minority ethnic people, to an understanding that equality is an issue for everybody.
Sarah Soyei, Head of Partnerships: sarah@equaliteach.co.uk

*A version of this guidance is available in Wales: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/12028/1/Bullying_around_race,_religion_and_culture.pdf

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