Institutional racism. If your only response to those two sticks of verbal dynamite is to think of London's police and the Macpherson report, then look a little closer to home. The same charge can be laid against many of our schools, according to a senior Oftsed official. And institutional racism, however unwitting, may be a root cause of underachievement in four ethnic groups - black Caribbean, Gypsy, Bangladeshi and Pakistani - according to a recent Ofsted report.
The report shows Caribbean and Gypsy children well behind other groups by the end of secondary school, with half of all Gypsy children in the survey having special educational needs. Bangladeshi and Pakistani pupils trailed at primary level.
The authors say schools are not only failing to combat the problems but, in many cases, are unaware they exist. Cliff Gould, head of Ofsted's secondary division, believes many schools are institutionally racist. "The vast majority of teachers in our schools are not intentionally racist, but there are clearly features of our schools that unwittingly disadvantage some ethnic-minority pupils."
One obvious answer is to recruit more teachers from minority ethnic groups, putting role models into the classroom to inspire achievement and black faces into the staffroom to raise awareness. But an immediate stumbling block is the fact that the Government doesn't know how many teachers we currently have from minority ethnic groups. Local education authorities monitor the situation in different ways and, until this year, no figures were collected centrally.
In Birmingham, however, the figures are revealing. The overall minority ethnic population is 21.5 per cent of the total and the school minority ethnic population is 41 per cent of the total. Yet the proportion of minority ethnic group teachers is only 7.8 per cent, and that figure falls to 3.4 per cent for heads.
"It's clearly a problem," says Paul Goddard-Patel, who works on teacher recruitment issues in Wolverhampton. "But it's no worse than in other areas of life."
Minority ethnic groups make up a third of Wolverhampton's school population, but only 4 per cent of teachers come from the ethnic minorities and fewer than 2 per cent of heads. But to put those figures in perspective, consider the West Midlands fire service. It takes just 3.1 per cent of its workforce from the ethnic minorities. And in further education, minority groups account for just 4,000 of 130,000 lecturers and two out of 428 principals.
Goddard-Patel works for the Wolverhampton Race Equality Council, which has been funded by the Teacher Training Agency to look into teacher recruitment. "Our research found the problems are complex and deep-seated," he says. "Over and over again, the perceived status of the profession was seen to be a problem for those people thinking of going into teaching - along with fear of racist behaviour, Ofsted and pay. In particular, the absence of role models leads to a cycle of under-representation."
The TTA funding has allowed Goddard-Patel and his team to go into the community to raise the status of teaching as a career. He has followed up a group of more than 200 people who expressed an interest in teaching.
One problem is getting qualifications recognised. "We had a couple of people with a degree, a teaching qualification and teaching experience, but they have been refused entry on to ITT courses," says Goddard-Patel. Overseas qualifications are not always recognised by the TTA's strict entry standards, a problem the training institutions themselves acknowledge. "The TTA and DfEE quality standards are looking for a degree of 2:1 or above," says Denise Gilchrist, principal lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University. "This may eliminate individuals you would want in the classroom. A 2:1 doesn't take into account the applicant's life experience, their work history, vocational qualifications - none of those things seem to count."
Leeds Met is part of a consortium of teacher-training providers in Yorkshire and Humberside working to open access routes for minority ethnic applicants. But it's not a simple task. "Last year, we had 582 applications for 23 places on our early-years' course," says Gilchrist. "That makes it difficult to target ethnic-minority applicants." And the process is complicated by the fact that universities do not know their applicants' ethnic backgrounds until they meet them. Ethnic monitoring information on the UCAS form is stripped out before the universities see it - to prevent discrimination.
But there are some things providers can do. Leeds Met has decided to treat minority ethnic languages in the same way as an additional modern language - as an extra qualification. And students rejected by the institution are told why, so that feedback allows people to know where they went wrong.
Yinka Olusoje is the project officer for TC21 - Teaching in the Twenty-First Century, the TTA-funded initiative which has brought 10 teacher-training institutions together in the region. A primary teacher with experience as a teacher mentor, she is optimistic about the project. "We're working with the community to raise the status of teaching," she says. "We're trying to undo some of the damage done over the past 20 years. We talk about the breadth of opportunities, the management roles and the other jobs that a teaching qualification can prepare you for."
Racism is an issue raised by some of the people Olusoje has spoken to. "Everyone recognises that there is racism," she says. "The key thing is the way incidents are dealt with and what support is available. When people have left courses, it's often because they were disappointed in the support they were offered."
She points out that many minority ethnic applicants come to the process with little background knowledge. "If you don't have access to the inside story, it can be difficult. In my case, my aunt was a teacher so I had a lot of support. I knew the process. I was prepared for the questions that would come up. But a lot of minority ethnic students are pioneers. They are doing it the hard way, on their own. The mentoring we offer is to support them through that process."
Mentoring is another of the TTA initiatives, this time delivered through the Windsor fellowship. This is a two-year programme for undergraduates and graduates thinking about a career in teaching, and is based on a series of vacation seminars. All participants are required to find a place on a PGCE course for the second year of the teacher-training fellowships programme. The seminars for the programme's second year are planned to fit around the PGCE course timetable.
There is an opportunity to meet current PGCE students, teachers and headteachers. "It focuses on personal development skills," says the fellowship's Catherine Willis. The initiative has been very successful, with a full programme of teaching fellowships this year.
But some familiar problems have cropped up. "We had a lot of people with ample experience but the wrong pieces of paper," says Willis.
The TTA is upbeat about prospects for the future. The organisation set itself a target of 7 per cent minority ethnic recruitment this year, which it expects to hit quite easily.
"For the future of the teaching profession, we need high-quality candidates from all parts of society," says TTA chief executive Ralph Tabberer. "If a group is under-represented then, by definition, we will have a diminished pool of high quality potential new entrants. We do need to understand the barriers, real or perceived, that exist within our schools."
Information about TTA projects to improve the recruitment from minority ethnic communities can be found at: www.canteach.gov.ukaboutequalopsem.htm
Nasreen Mirza (pictured above) is following a part-time PGCE at Liverpool Hope where Kathy Hodgkinson, dean of education, describes her as a "wonderful student". This is what Nasreen has to say...
"Becoming a teacher has been a long-held ambition. Eight or nine years ago I was a bilingual assistant at two primary schools. Lancashire LEA supported me through a two-year part time BTEC. Then I got a job at Sherburn special school in Preston. I asked Martin Moss, the head, whether I could do a degree course. He gave me all the help I needed. I took a degree in education and community studies at Edge Hill, which involved an afternoon off for four years.
"Then I started on the part-time PGCE. It's a two-year course. Liverpool Hope has been wonderful, there's been excellent support. It had to be part-time because I needed to keep my job at Sherburn. I would not have been able to do it without the support of the head and governors - it's involved nearly 90 days of teaching practice. Teaching needs people from the ethnic minorities. What are children to think if they never see any black or Asian teachers? I've never had any problems with racism, either in my job or on teaching practice. Maybe I've just been lucky. I have come across instances of prejudice outside school.
"I love the job. It's fantastic what children come out with. I just hope I carry on enjoying the career I've chosen. I should qualify at Easter. I'm specialising in early years. I've now started an eight-week school placement. Wish me luck!"