Disgrace;Black and Asian teachers

16th April 1999 at 01:00
The Macpherson report on the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence has found the Metropolitan Police guilty of institutionalised racism. Could the same accusation apply to schools and teaching? Elaine Williams talks to black and Asian teachers who believe it can...

A senior Asian teacher, looking to move from London to the north of England, made enquiries with a local education authority. Officials were bemused. Why, they asked, was he looking for jobs in the north-east? Wouldn't he be better off on the other side of the Pennines in West Yorkshire, Bradford or Leeds, where there were lots of ethnic minority children in the schools?

The teacher, who had been working for the London borough of Brent, was astonished and appalled - but powerless to change the system. He has since become a headteacher - in the north-west.

This happened just a couple of years ago, and things have improved a little. The city of York for one, now a unitary authority, has a black director of educational services, Michael Peters, in a largely white city. But when Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, introduces anti-racism programmes into schools in mainly white areas, many black teachers would recommend the attitudes of staff are addressed as well as those of children.

Even in inner-city multi-ethnic areas, the percentage of black or Asian teachers is tiny (in Birmingham it is below 7 per cent ) and those who make it into managerial posts are fewer still. Exact statistics are hard to come by, and black teachers say the lack of monitoring speaks for itself. The Department for Education and Employment, for example, cannot provide figures.

To be British, black and a teacher today is often to experience a sense of isolation and prejudice, either unwitting or malign, leading among other things to drastically curtailed promotion prospects.

is deputy curriculum manager for science at Sarah Bonnell School, a girls' secondary in Newham, London. He is happy there and believes he is valued. Teaching science is the job he wanted from the age of 14. He is now 45 and has taught for the past 20 years.

But he is ambitious and wants promotion. Although he has applied for between 15 and 20 curriculum manager posts and is always called for interview, he has not been successful.

Mr Green has taken his department through a successful OFTSED inspection as acting curriculum manager. He gets good results, he knows how to inspire children, yet he cannot make that step forward. "It's very difficult to ascertain what the reasons are," he says. "On the surface people are fair-minded - they deal with you in a reasonable way. But what's behind it in my view is evident in our representation in teaching. Where are the people like me at senior level?" He fears there is a doubt in people's minds as to whether he will fit in. "They have a concept of the teacher they want, and it's not usually somebody like me."

was a science teacher in London before becoming an education officer in Ealing, assistant education director in Bradford and finally director of educational services in York. He believes school governors should scrutinise the pre-judgments they make about the teachers they want. "Given that the education profession is largely made up of people with a white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class background, recruiters have to work hard not to assume that the person best for the post will be someone like them. If you are black you call it racism."

But Mr Peters - a member of the Government's advisory committee on raising achievement in ethnic minority children - believes much of the practice experienced by black teachers in school is not malign or illegal. "When it is obvious and malign it's easier to address. The problem is when people have unchallenged assumptions. You can see the net effect of it." The absence of black teachers and managers speaks volumes. "We need to attract people from across the range to act as role models. I would expect every school to have an equal opportunities policy, and the race issue should be part of that."

Every school and local authority should look critically at its data, says Mr Peters, and ask the following question: "What steps must we take to involve more people from a range of cultures and races in our work?" was raised in Harrogate, gained a degree in fine art from Manchester and ran a photography business in Scarborough before training as a teacher at the Institute of Education in London.

He was snapped up by The Latymer School, a grant-maintained secondary in Edmonton, north London where he was instrumental in expanding the art department. Before he left to take up a job as head of department at Ferryhill school, County Durham, 17 out of 20 of his A-level pupils gained grade As and he was a GCSE moderator for the Southern Examining Group.

As a black boy growing up in the north-east he had grown used to sexual and racial stereotyping. In Scarborough he was often asked if he had drugs to sell and at school he fended off racist banter by finding his niche as a rugby player.

Nothing, however, prepared him for the racial abuse he suffered from children at Ferryhill, compounded by what he sees as the lack of support from senior management whom he accuses of "wilful misunderstanding".

He believes that children in this all-white school were not prepared for or even told they would be getting a black teacher. On one occasion he was pushed by a boy in class who shouted "fuck off you black bastard". He asked senior management to take disciplinary action but the boy was back in his class the next day.

"Black bastard" has regularly been hurled his way at the school, but when he offered to take an assembly on black awareness he was told by staff "it would not be necessary".

Mr Gittens says he had "massive behaviour problems" with pupils and was criticised by the head for "not having empathy with the students". He is now on long-term sick leave and subject to competency proceedings.

Other Ferryhill teachers have backed Mr Gittens's story, saying they have reported repeated incidents of racial abuse against him but little or nothing has been done.

Steve Gater, the headteacher, said he did not wish to discuss the case, given the competency proceedings. However he said he was aware of problems associated with pupil racism but that his school did not have a policy on the issue.

Mr Gittens says his confidence has been destroyed. "I worked longer and harder at this school than ever before and things just seemed to be getting worse. I went to the school feeling I could take on anything and now I feel crushed."

Audrey Osler, senior lecturer in education at the University of Birmingham, has studied the careers of black teachers and says it is not unusual for black teachers who suffer racial abuse from children to be viewed as having a "control" problem. "Dealing with racist attitudes from children has got to be a whole-school approach. It is not an individual's problem," she says. "But if you are the first black adult in a school you are highlighting things staff have not been aware of."

Black and Asian teachers have better prospects in school posts that are race-related, often in section 11 jobs where they target black disaffected youth or offer language support to pupils with English as a second language. But that route can be a sideways step. Clyde Green's commitment to anti-racism led him to work in white youth clubs in Eltham and Thamesmead, but he is now determined not to drop out of mainstream teaching. "The problem is not just for us. As a black teacher I shouldn't be made to feel that dealing with race is my main role."

is the 50-year-old manager of a section 11 project in the home counties. A psychology graduate from Sussex University, she originally taught sociology and social sciences in schools but gradually moved into ethnic minority support. As a mainstream teacher, she says she often felt the outsider, suffering racial abuse from children and having to listen to comments about "foreigners" from staff. "I felt the children pushed me more than they did other staff, and though most staff were extremely helpful on a personal level, I felt I would not get peer support if I owned up to having problems with the kids.

"In section 11 I felt for the first time that my experience was valued rather than being looked down on. There are more black people in this service, you feel more at home and I had the opportunity of gaining a management post I would never have had in mainstream."

41, teaches sociology to A-level and lower school history in a Yorkshire school which is currently suffering racial tension between white and Asian pupils. Brought up in Sheffield, she always wanted to teach, yet her careers teacher marked her down for nursing.

Throughout her career she has often been the only black teacher in school and says she is sometimes overwhelmed by a sense of isolation, feeling acutely uncomfortable, especially when she hears teachers making racist remarks about pupils in her presence. The school has been subject to racist graffiti, believed to be by a parent. "Keep the village white" is the message daubed across a wall.

Despite all this, teachers have been saying there is no need for a race policy. Jean Roper would like to be managerially involved in drawing up such a policy, if only because she believes having more black teachers with senior responsibility is crucial if racism is to be tackled effectively.

"My students feel that there aren't black teachers in schools and in management because they are stupid. They don't see the role models so they think we are not intelligent."

teaches in a mainly white area in Cheshire. At a conference on race and raising black awareness organised by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, Ms Scire - Jean Roper's sister - called for more black teachers as fundamental to any anti-racist strategy.

She had in mind her own experience and the difference her presence made at an all-white junior school in Leek, Staffordshire. "They were lovely children and they were very open. They once said to me 'Miss, we didn't know anything about black people before you came, and now we know you are just like us.' They had never eaten with a black person, or talked with a black person. I am proud of who I am and what I am and that rubs off."

Subject of the week, page 16.

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