Racism: admit it, counter it, set targets

"I have a dream," said poet Benjamin Zephaniah, "and in my dream all black people willI play golf." A simple joke, but it tells us a good deal about the state of racism. Most governors like to believe that we have cracked racial prejudice. Sadly, this is not the case but it takes something like the inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence to bring it home.

The law is clear. The Race Relations Act of 1976 makes it illegal for any school governing body to discriminate directly or indirectly or to permit discrimination on grounds of race, colour, nationality or ethnic origin. "Discriminate" means to treat an individual less fairly than someone from a different group or to set conditions that are difficult for a particular group to meet. This applies to applicants for admission to the school, candidates for jobs or promotion and to the way education is provided in the school.

Complaints that cannot be settled at school level go first to the Secretary of State but can be taken to the county court if the minister has not acted after two months. Members of the governing body could themselves be liable if the courts held that the law had been broken.

What can governors do about racism?

* Admit that it exists: Look at the high proportion of ethnic-minority exclusions and the reasons for exclusion showing clear discrimination against some pupils; the low proportion of ethnic-minority teachers in responsible posts; the high rate of unemployment among ethnic-minority school-leavers.

Very few governors want to break the law or have a complaint brought against them. But it is not so easy to understand how unconscious prejudice creeps into our decisions and our institutions. We all have our own deeply ingrained prejudices - we don't like the way some people talk, the way some people dress, the beliefs some people hold; sometimes past history counts against them. We need to be aware that these feelings can distort our judgment and to allow for that distortion when we are making choices.

l But don't patronise: Don't let racial prejudice be used as an alibi for poor performance. How many governors have hesitated to take action against a poor teacher or a troublesome pupil just because of their race? This is just as prejudicial as overt discrimination. Why? Because it makes the assumption that people of other races won't have or want high standards. It is extraordinarily irritating for members of a minority group when one of their number plays the race card to get out of trouble. It also reinforces any existing prejudice. Jump down hard on any hint of that condescending and profoundly disabling expression "but what can you expect from our sort of pupil?".

* Don't shrug off verbal abuse and bullying: Have a vigorous policy to combat any kind of bullying. Don't believe a school which says that no one is bullied there. Send an anonymous questionnaire to parents and pupils and a separate one to staff asking them what they think about behaviour in the school. Compare the two and listen to what they say. A policy that is imposed from above will not go very far. It is essential to get everyone behind it - and that includes support staff and parents.

If pupils are harassed on the way to or from school, get together with the police and local community groups to see what can be done about it. After all, if we can punish pupils for bad behaviour outside school, surely we also have a duty to protect them from the bad behaviour of others?

l Be a good example: We all know that good role models are important. We have to look out for and cherish good teachers from ethnic minorities. If our school is mono-cultural, and teachers from other cultures hard to come by, we must try to make sure that a stream of high achievers from all groups are invited in to talk about their roles in business, the arts, sport and politics.

Mentoring schemes where people in the community come into school to work with under-achieving students can be very successful. We can do our share by showing that we are interested in other cultures and by encouraging the school to do so through its displays and resources.

l Set targets: In an age when target-setting seems to be the be-all and end-all, why not some targets for anti-racism? For example: cutting the number of exclusions so that the statistics for ethnic minorities match the profile of the whole population; doubling the number of black and Asian headteachers and heads of department and the number with posts of responsibility; making sure that governing body membership represents the whole local community You cannot change attitudes overnight, but with commitment, consistency and persistence, schools can make a difference.

Felicity Taylor is a co-director of the Institute of School and College Governors. There is a useful reference list in the Department for Education and Employment's Governor's Guide to the Law.

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