Black and minority ethnic students are far more likely to drop out of teacher training courses than their white peers, according to new research.
Such students are often placed in the most challenging schools, and are therefore more likely to fail. Many are stereotyped by their pupils, while colleagues automatically assume that they will serve as the school expert in matters of race.
All of this undermines considerable efforts being made to recruit students from ethnic minorities to teacher training courses, according to academics from the University of London's Institute of Education.
In a new book, Professor Heidi Safia Mirza and Veena Meetoo review existing research in order to examine some of the ways in which teacher training colleges can recruit and retain ethnic minority students.
They reveal that many black and Asian teachers are keen to serve as role models for others from their own community. Many cite their own teachers - of any race - as reasons for their decision to go into teaching. However, others say that racism is a significant deterrent from joining the profession.
And research has shown that drop-out rates among trainee teachers from ethnic minorities are much higher than among their white counterparts. More than a quarter say that they needed more moral support, feedback, encouragement and academic support than they were given by their course providers.
"Black and minority ethnic students are often placed in the worst schools, get the most difficult placements, and are therefore most likely to fail," the researchers say. "Students highlight their school mentor and a lack of support as one of the main reasons for their withdrawal."
For example, Kalila, a Muslim trainee, felt that her school mentor was treating her more harshly than the other new teachers in the school. The mentor responded by saying that Muslim women were "too passive and acquiescent to teach effectively".
Indeed, the researchers state that 26 per cent of ethnic minority teachers report incidents of racism in their placement schools, either from pupils or from staff. Some parents also demand that their child should not be taught by a black teacher.
But racism can also come from within the course or college. Course tutor Diana was forced to deal with a white student who announced, emphatically, that black boys were underachieving in his placement school because: "They are just not suited to academic work." He claimed that he had formed his opinion based on observable evidence and added that: "The same genes that affect your IQ affect your skin colour."
Often, trainees work particularly well with pupils from similar backgrounds to their own. For example, Somali graduate Amina worked for a while with Somali pupils new to England and the English language, before going on to qualify as a teacher.
The researchers similarly point out that it is important for course tutors to be aware of particular requirements that trainees from ethnic minority backgrounds may have. For example, when Muslim student Yasmin experienced opposition from her family towards her chosen profession, her course tutor found her a room at the university halls of residence where she could do her marking and preparation.
And when Fatima asked to be placed at a school where she would be allowed to wear the hijab and observe prayer times, her tutor found a school with two designated prayer rooms.
But the researchers point out that not all beliefs and practices are restrictive: cultural, religious and family traditions can affect students in different ways.
They also counsel against assuming that ethnic minority trainees will be - or will want to be - specialists on matters of race. They quote a 2003 piece of research that states: "Black and ethnic minority teachers should not be assigned to curriculum ghettos or expected to specialise in areas of race, because ... then they will either become socially constructed into such roles or they will leave the profession."
The researchers suggest a guiding rule for course tutors: "Have practices, policies and provisions that do not disadvantage or treat any individual less favourably than others because of their (or your own) actual or perceived religion, belief or non-belief.
"A clearly outlined and practised complaints procedure means knowing exactly how complaints should be handled, and ensuring that they are consistently addressed when they arise."
Mirza, H.S. and Meetoo, V. Respecting Difference: race, faith and culture for teacher educators (2012). Institute of Education.
Professor Heidi Safia Mirza.
ENSURING EQUALITY FOR ALL
How to ensure a fair and equal admissions policy
- Run targeted advertising in specialist minority press and media.
- Hold open-access events to attract a broader range of students.
- Offer taster courses for under-represented groups.
- Run workshops to ensure that would-be trainees are prepared for the application and interview processes.
- Train tutors to see where applicants are over-emphasising their weaknesses and under-emphasising their strengths.
- Ask former trainees to act as mentors to current students, either in person or over email.
What to consider when dealing with cultural difference and racism
- Remember that a racist incident is defined by the 1999 Macpherson report as "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person".
- Have policies and provisions that do not disadvantage any individual because of their religion, belief or non-belief.
- Ensure that there is a clear procedure outlining how complaints should be handled when they arise.
- Ensure that potential problems in school placements are discussed and addressed before they arise.
- Attempt to meet the cultural and religious needs of trainees. This can include catering for dietary requirements, accommodating religious leave and providing prayer space.
- Universities should not be afraid of choosing not to work with a school, at least temporarily, in order to encourage a change in behaviour.