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The issue - Racism

Schools must demonstrate that they take racist incidents seriously, but how much discretion do they have in how to deal with them?

Schools must demonstrate that they take racist incidents seriously, but how much discretion do they have in how to deal with them?

Damned if you do and damned if you don't: that, perhaps, best sums up the situation facing teachers dealing with racist incidents.

There have been a number of cases in which children have been reprimanded for describing their classmates as "chocolate" or similar name-calling. The press tends to report them as yet more evidence of "political correctness gone mad" and the parents claim that their children are not racist and are being treated too harshly. But government guidelines suggest otherwise.

The Home Office code of practice, which is now ten years old, recommends that schools record all racist incidents. That advice was strengthened in 2004, when the Government stated that "all racist incidents must be monitored and reported to the LEA - there should be no under- reporting".

In addition, Ofsted made it clear in its Race Equality in Education report in 2005 that a coherent reporting policy is essential to a school's overall inspection grade. Since 2005, inspectors have evaluated whether pupils feel safe from racist incidents, bullying or harassment.

Evidence that the school takes such matters seriously - as demonstrated by a robust recording policy - will boost the school's effectiveness in Ofsted's eyes.

Schools should report the total number of racist incidents to their local authority "at least annually", advises Marcus O'Shea from The Key, an information service for heads.

"A report of racist incidents, or an absence of racist incidents, should also be given regularly to the school's governing body," he adds.

But what constitutes a racist incident? Can a five-year-old be racist? Name-calling can be nothing more than playful banter between friends, while some young people have reclaimed traditionally derogatory terms - such as Paki, pikey or nigger - and wear them as a badge of pride.

Again, the law is relatively clear in this respect. Since the inquiry into the murder of schoolboy Stephen Lawrence in 1999, a racist incident is defined by the police as "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person". Or, as one headteacher puts it: "If the child feels the incident is racist, it is."

But headteachers have discretion over how to deal with it, says Robin Richardson, co-author of Racist Incidents and Bullying in Schools. Many schools place incidents into one of four categories of seriousness, from "no offence intended or taken", to substantial hurt or distress.

"Friendly teasing would be considered of low seriousness if, but only if, no offence was taken," Mr Richardson adds. "Though if no hurt is caused, most teachers rightly discourage the use of racist terms, even when spoken in jest."

The definition of racism extends beyond colour. Anti-Muslim or anti- Semitic insults also qualify as racist, according to government guidelines, as does abuse aimed at gypsy or traveller communities.

Recording such incidents is not just an exercise in processing and tracking. Quantitative and qualitative data will help councils and schools to identify trends and evaluate whether incidents have been dealt with satisfactorily. If necessary, extra training could be provided for staff, or the subject could be further explored in lessons.

It is ultimately up to schools and their local authority to decide what to do about a racist incident, Ofsted confirms, plus whether they choose to liaise with other organisations, such as the police.

But do nothing, and the school may be viewed as colluding with the perpetrator. The whole school community is likely to suffer as a result.

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