Skip to main content

Prejudice is in the hands of the beholder

The issue of police prejudice can always be guaranteed to raise the temperature of debate in school staff rooms, particularly in inner-city areas. Few teachers in multi-ethnic secondary schools will be unable to relate stories of how black pupils, mainly boys, have received undue attention from the police.

The fires of grievance were again ignited by Sir Paul Condon's recent remarks about the preponderance of black youths (Afro-Caribbean) involved in mugging. The main question being asked by teachers was why Sir Paul had chosen to highlight the 2 per cent of total crime in London, which he attributes to mainly black youths, when 22 per cent of crime is burglary, and whites are the main offenders.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of these debates, I am always struck by the assumption among many teachers that our profession is largely prejudice-free. Unfortunately, the research evidence shows that teachers, as a group, are as likely to show prejudicial attitudes as the population at large.

West Indian boys appear to be particularly ill-favoured when it comes to being negatively stereotyped by teachers. There is substantial evidence to suggest that the relationship between teachers and many West Indian boys is antagonistic, and that this adversely influences the teachers' professional judgments about ability, group placing and examination entry. On the other hand, being of Asian origin seems an advantage in our schools. Teachers have been shown to have positive stereotypes of Asian pupils whom they see as industrious, polite, well-behaved and keen to learn.

However much we try to deny the fact, prejudice, although varying in its extent, is common among teachers. Many do approach their pupils with pre-conceived ideas based on sketchy and inadequate facts with the likelihood, that discriminatory behaviour will follow.

Teacher prejudice is not just restricted to racial origin. Sexual prejudice is rife in primary schools and boys are the ones to suffer. Teachers tend to see boys as less hard-working, less able to concentrate and less willing to submit to discipline than the girls. There is constant criticism of boys. Although the boys get much more of the teacher's attention they get nearly twice as much criticism as the girls. This prejudice has long been known to affect teacher judgments of boys' abilities. As long ago as the early 1960s, it was shown that although the boys achieved nearly as high scores as the girls in the 11-plus examinations, teachers thought that many more of the girls than the boys should be given grammar school places. Their assessment of the boys' abilities was most unfavourable in the manual working classes where they would have given 39 per cent more grammar school places to the girls.

Probably the most insidious form of teacher prejudice is that associated with social class. There is much evidence pointing to the fact that teachers greatly favour children from middle-class families. Investigations show that teachers overestimate the influence of a pupil's home background when it comes to learning. Right from the very beginning in infant schools, teachers have been frequently found to categorise pupils as coming from "good" or "poor" homes. They do this with little first-hand knowledge since few homes are ever visited. As one researcher pointed out ". . . teachers tend to think of the 'good' home as one which facilitates their task . . . teachers of young children may be equating the 'good' home with middle-class values, and therefore discriminating against working-class children and their parents".

Closely connected with the social class prejudice of teachers was a remarkable study which showed that some teachers were actually prepared to estimate school achievement and ability of pupils on the basis of photographs. Bright-looking children with low measured IQs were consistently categorised as being bright, while less smart dull-looking children with high IQs were rated as dull. Working-class children came out worse, especially if they were black. The most depressing aspect of this particular study was the fact that the teachers who were firmest in their opinions were the most experienced. Apparently they based their judgments on the similarity with pupils they had taught in the past and on facial expressions.

If teachers don't rely on appearance to make judgments of their pupils' abilities there is a good chance that they might well be influenced by the sound of their voices. In one experiment conducted with student teachers, it was shown that unseen pupils who had speech characteristics most aligned to Standard English were far more likely to receive a favourable academic ability rating than those who spoke with regional or West Indian accents. There was much evidence of stereotyping and again it was the West Indians who came out on the bottom of the pile.

Parents expecting new babies ought to think long and hard about the names they choose for their children because it could affect what happens later on in school. Teachers even show stereotype bias to certain first names. Researchers in America gave short essays written by 10-year-old pupils to teachers for evaluation. Authorship of the essays was randomly linked with boys and girls with common, popular and attractive names, as well as with rare, unpopular and unattractive names. The attributed quality of each essay was higher when the essays were authored by names associated with positive stereotypes. The Davids, Michaels, Lisas and Karens consistently scored higher marks than the Elmers, Huberts and Berthas. The effect was clearer for boys' names than girls and once again it was the more experienced teachers who were the worst offenders.

So, teachers do not occupy the high ground when it comes to prejudice and Sir Paul Condon can rest easily in his bed if he comes under fire from the teacher unions. All the policies in the world are unlikely to alter significantly what goes on in classrooms unless teachers are prepared to face up to the possibility that, despite their education, they may be as prejudiced as the next person.

In the meantime, I just worry about the educational prospects of a working-class, West Indian boy called Oscar who is brought up in Birmingham.

Tony Mooney is the head of Rutlish School in the London borough of Merton

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you