William Stewart investigates
The penny dropped for Sarah Pearce when she had to introduce the Anglo-Saxons to a class of eight-year-olds, more than 90 per cent of whom were from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds.
"One of them put their hand up and said, 'Were they Muslim?' I explained that they were Pagan and then Christian," said Ms Pearce. "But the children kept asking about Muslims.
"They hijacked my lesson and there was nothing I could say. They had made a link between history and identity and said 'What about us?'. At that point I thought: this is crazy - the curriculum is not serving the needs of some communities."
That moment of clarity, said Ms Pearce, who is white and born in Devon, was the culmination of a "dawning realisation that I was part, unwittingly, of an institutionally racist education system".
A Department for Education Skills report revealed its officials had come to a similar conclusion. They left it up to ministers to decide whether the term institutional racism should actually be used. The report's starting point was 2005 figures showing Afro-Caribbean pupils were three times more likely to be excluded than their white counterparts.
It considered whether the behaviour of Afro-Caribbean children was generally worse than white pupils or whether higher exclusion rates were a result of unwitting teacher prejudice. Were out-of-school influences such as street culture causing black pupils to behave more aggressively or were they were being punished more harshly and for less serious offences than other pupils?
"While a compelling case can be made for the existence of institutional racism in schools," the authors wrote, "there is a comparatively weak basis for arguing that street culture has a more persuasive influence on black young people than it has on others."
In other words, there is justification for the charge of institutional racism should ministers choose to use it. Their reluctance to do so is understandable. Since the Macpherson report in 1999 - which examined police handling of the Stephen Lawrence case - the term has become highly controversial. It caused offence among the police rank and file who have never seen themselves as racist and resented being labelled as such.
That, of course, is the point. It is about unwitting racism. Or, as Sarah Pearce, who now researches equity in education at Goldsmiths college, London, said: "A lot of people just think racism is about being a member of the National Front, it is not."
Opposition to the concept in the wake of Macpherson has not prevented it from being applied to everything from Premiership football, the NHS, the prison system, British theatres and the media.
So should England's schools be the next to receive the label? Tony Sewell, an educationist who has specialised in underachievement among black boys, believes such generalisations are unhelpful.
"I don't think there are groups of teachers out to get black students," he said, "but a lot of the time teachers may just not have the people skills.
"More white teachers need to understand that Afro-Caribbean students are very bright and intelligent. They may have got themselves in a situation where they only see these groups as failing. They need to improve their expectations." But he does not believe that exclusion levels are exclusively to do with teacher racism. "The cultural background of students also has a part to play - their behaviour in the home, on the street and with their peers."
To support his case, Dr Sewell points out that latest DfES figures show that, while Afro-Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be excluded, permanent exclusions for black Africans are virtually the same as for white pupils.
"Is this because teachers are making that distinction between black African and Afro-Caribbean?" he said. "I don't think so. I think it is that Afro-Caribbean students bring a distinct culture to the school."
Dr Sewell also makes the comparison with white working-class boys who, he says, are more likely to commit offences such as truancy and vandalism but are better at avoiding confrontation with teachers and other pupils than Afro-Caribbean boys. He said: "With black students there is perhaps a feeling that if you don't deal with an injustice immediately, and in a manner that you have to confront, then you are not satisfied.
"Too many Afro-Caribbean students are in that situation. For schools, they have committed the most deadly of sins because the institution can't handle confrontation in its most violent form." Gloria Hyatt, Liverpool's first black head, offers a different perspective on the classroom experience for black pupils.
She set up the independent Elimu academy in the city to cater for black and mixed-race pupils excluded from mainstream schools or who were significantly underachieving.
"With black boys, we were finding that teachers were actually telling them off for putting up their hand because they wanted to answer a question,"
she said. "It was seen as them being aggressive rather than them trying to do well in class."
Ms Hyatt is quite clear that institutional racism exists in schools. She cites the white European background of most staff, a lack of specialist teacher training about other cultures, appropriate resources and curriculum materials and stereotyping from teachers.
"My own child lives in the suburbs," she said, "but was told by a teacher 'You don't need to behave like that just because you come from the ghetto'."
But the experience of Peter Downey illustrates how difficult it can be to pin down institutional racism. Excluded from a church secondary in Liverpool where he was the only British-born black pupil, the former Elimu student was described by Ms Hyatt as having experienced "extreme racism".
But Peter, 18, went on to succeed in mainstream education and is now hoping to read philosophy at university. He is much more reluctant to use the term "racism" to describe his time at school.
He said: "The facts and figures about GCSE pass rates speak for themselves and I do think the teachers had low expectations of me. Whether that was to do with racism I can't be sure.
"It is done in such a discreet way. I thought some teachers were racist, but you can't back it up without proof."
FIND OUT MORE
Tony Sewell runs Generating Genius a charity aimed at raising the aspirations of Afro-Caribbean boys.www.generatinggenius.org.uk
Gloria Hyatt now works as a consultant offering advice on, among other things, teaching ethnic minority pupils. www.teachconsultancy.com
'You Wouldn't Understand: White teachers in multi-ethnic classrooms,' by Sarah Pearce is published by Trentham Books (pound;15.99).