Implicit racism hardest to handle

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Schools must end low expectations and discrimination against black staff and pupils. Phil Revell reports.

LAST week's report on the future for multi-ethnic Britain by the Runnymede Trust will have raised eyebrows in many schools across Britain. The suggestion that education is the home of institutional racism is repugnant to many heads.

Yet figures on black under-achievement and exclusion rates and reports on teachers' preconceptions about pupil potential, suggest schools do not always give blacks a fair deal.

African-Caribbean children fall behind in primary school and by the age of 16 the proportion gaining good GCSE grades is less than half the national average. Black pupils of Caribben origin are almost four times more likely to be excluded than white pupils. Under the definition worked out by the Macpherson report on the killing of Stephen Lawrence that amounts to institutional racism.

"It has always been there," says Gilroy Brown, a former primary headteacher who now works as an adviser in Birmingham. "It's not a new phenomenon, but people were afraid to talk about it.

"I was the first male African-Caribbean head in Birmingham," he said. Mr Brown argues that explicit racism is easier to deal with. The worst thing about institutional racism was its implicit nature.

"Prejudice is like an iceberg, nine-tenths underwater," he says. "Why should the burden of proof be on our shoulders? Look at the figures for black people in prison, in management posts, excluded from schools - explain those to me."

The Department for Education and Employment does not even collect figures on ethnic-

minority teachers or heads and is unable to say how many of those signed up for the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers are black.

Some local authorities do collect figures. In Birmingham, which has an ethnic-minority population of 21.5 per cent, only 7.8 per cent of teachers and 3.4 per cent of heads come from minority groups.

Brown argues that efforts to overcome discrimination in other areas of society have not been matched in education.He would like to see campaigns to encourage black people into teaching alongside real efforts made to seek out and identify talented black people for advancement - not positive discrimination, but targets for recruitment.

"Let's target young Afro-

Caribbeans with potential. We don't need to give them special treatment or a leg up, but we do need to find them."

Across the city, Beverley Thomas represents a minor success story. Appointed last year as head of one of the toughest primary schools in the city, the 35-year-old has beaten the odds to arrive at her current position.

"The whole education package needs to support blacks going through the system and it doesn't," she says.

Ms Thomas is working on a project to identify instittional racism in education, but "the difficulties are in defining that and proving it".

Her own childhood in Sheffield gives examples of the low expectations teachers had of black children. She was quite happy at school. But: "Years later speaking to my mum I learnt that the teachers didn't want me to do O-levels. Friends said the same thing."

At college in Liverpool she encountered overt racism for the first time. "People shouted at me in the street and it was a shock."

But she also faced racism from lecturers who assumed that she would struggle academically, and in her first teaching posts, where black children were dealt with aggressively by some staff.

"I felt the children could pick up this hatred," she said. When a black colleague joined the staff the deputy head warned her against becoming too close. "One of them came to us and said that our friendship was sending out the wrong signals."

She feels that teachers are too ready to make assumptions about the potential of children on the basis of class and colour.

But she recognises that implicit racism is, by its very nature, a slippery subject to pin down.

"It could be no more than a look. Or a head could say 'I don't think you should be going for promotion because you aren't ready for it.' And the question becomes, 'Are they saying that to me because I'm black?'."

In Birmingham, black heads have set up a support group which will pair heads for mutual support and encourage more young black and Asian teachers to consider moving on to headship. The project has the support of Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's director of education, but is still at an development stage.

Gilroy Brown says Birmingham is beginning to take the issue seriously and others need to do the same. Schools should have to account for their exclusion and appointment policies.

Last year, the Office for Standards in Education reinforced criticisms made by the Macpherson report about the educational opportunities for children from ethnic minorities. "If schools do not take a stand, what hope is there for breaking the vicious circle of these corrosive forces which exist in society at large?" saidCliff Gould, head of OFSTED's secondary division. He believed many schools were 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."

David Gillborn, whose research underpinned some of the thinking behind the Runnymede report, argues that the "A-C economy" in schools is itself an example of institutionalised racism.

"Schools can get away with underachievement by ethnic minorities as long as their overall league table position is good. They're not being pushed to take the problem seriously."

FE Focus, 31, 35

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