Stop this name-calling;Talkback

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Sarah Golding is offended at being branded a racist

I am racist, an accusation levelled at me by the media and their use of the term "institutional racism" in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.

Teaching's a tough job. We deal with conflict on a daily basis, battle with often abusive, unco-operative people and feel unappreciated and underpaid. So we are an easy mark for politicians and journalists looking to create a sensation or scapegoat. But this latest slur against myself and my profession makes me angry. It is not enough to assume that we're all lazy and incompetent until proven otherwise by the Office for Standards in Education. Now, it seems, I am the purveyor of institutional racism, too.

Some parts of the media conjure up images of black boys in bottom sets, with expectations of themselves as low as those of their educators. We are told that we ignore racist name-calling and bullying in the playground, thus tacitly condoning the behaviour. Since the days of the Greater London Council, "equal opportunities" has been a buzzword in local government and schools, quickly spreading to charities and some corporations. It was an ideal we all aspired to; policies were written, appeared prominently in publicity materials and classrooms and we all felt better. Perhaps we assumed that merely unfurling the banner was enough. But rhetoric alone will not stop racism.

There is no one right way: different approaches can and do work - as shown by two north London comprehensives. School A, for example, has an equal opportunities policy, voluntary working group and a teacher with paid responsibility as equal opportunities officer. This teacher is in charge of monitoring verbal abuse - racist, sexist or homophobic. Whenever teachers see this, they record it and pass it to the education officer. Serious or persistent offenders are picked up and reprimanded.

A clear message is sent out that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The pupils take it seriously. The school reinforces similar messages during personal and social education on prejudice and bullying.

In school B, a group of key staff has formed a working party to raise boys' achievement. (Ironically, it was publishing league tables which forced schools to look more closely at achievement - or the lack of it in certain ethnic and gender groups.) These key staff observed all lessons over two days for eight black boys in Years 9 and 10 and published findings to the whole staff. A more active approach to learning has been recommended. The boys concentrated and produced better results in lessons when they were more involved in collecting their own results and making their own conclusions.

The equal opportunities working party in School A has also discussed teaching and learning styles in terms of results. They have looked at research on the issue, and both individual teachers and departments have piloted new ideas in the classroom. But it's more than results. Discipline needs to be improved too, which means reward and motivation must be examined. Boys are largely responsible for disrupting lessons and black boys are frequent offenders. The fact that they are also underachieving is no coincidence.

So are schools institutionally racist? Mere condemnation drives the problem underground - and encourages teachers to treat children unequally as they fear being labelled racist.

Calling my school institutionally racist made me question how I do my job. But labelling and name-calling is about as helpful and positive here as it is in the playground.

Sarah Golding is a teacher and freelance writer.

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