After over a year’s delay, Edward Timpson’s long-awaited review of school exclusions was published last week. The review highlighted the controversial practice of off-rolling and made some 30 recommendations including improving the quality of alternative provision (after exclusion) and holding schools “responsible” for the children that they exclude. But, considering the review was commissioned in response to disparities in exclusions highlighted by the Race Disparity Audit, the review failed to confront racial disparities in exclusions. The irony could not have been missed on the prime minister, who vowed to make tackling “burning injustices” of inequalities her legacy in 2016.
The review didn’t wholly ignore racial differences in exclusions; it reinforced existing knowledge on exclusions showing that children from black Caribbean and Gypsy/Roma and Traveller of Irish Heritage (GRT) backgrounds are three to five times more likely to be permanently excluded than other children, and confirmed that even after taking factors such as poverty and special educational needs and disability (SEND) into account, children from black Caribbean and GRT backgrounds were more likely to be excluded from schools.
But rather than exploring the causes of racial disparities in exclusions, the Timpson Review argued that “the causes of exclusions – and therefore the action that should be taken – are complex and wider than just focused on ethnicity”. This was an entirely disingenuous conclusion – given the plethora of evidence showing that the British education system treats black Caribbean, GRT and even white working-class boys differently from other pupils.
The review’s dismissal of racial (and class) discrimination in exclusions not only illustrated its profound lack of understanding of racial inequalities, but also the impact of intersectional disadvantages, such as being black Caribbean, disadvantaged and identified with special educational needs and disability. Research has shown that a black Caribbean boy, eligible for free school meals (FSM) and who has special educational needs and disability is 168 times more likely to be excluded than his white female counterpart, who is not eligible for FSM and who is not identified as having special educational needs and disability.
There is no doubt that reasons for exclusions are “complex” and a result of personal, in-school (eg, policy and practices) and out-of-school (wider community) factors. Where the Timpson Review fails is not recognising the interplay of these factors for black Caribbean and GRT children.
In-school factors are fundamental to a better understanding of why particular groups of children are being excluded more than others. For black Caribbean and GRT children, in particular, we cannot ignore the factor of “institutional racism” – unwitting decisions and policies made by schools that can have the cumulative effect of producing racist outcomes.
Out-of-school factors are also important, and we have to consider the impact of long-standing negative portrayals of black men as threatening and aggressive. These damaging stereotypes not only have an impact on teachers (and other pupils) within schools, but they also affect how black boys perceive themselves and behave in schools. It’s also difficult to disentangle the message or threat of exclusions for black boys from stop-and-search policing on the streets.
More importantly, the Timpson Review ignores the context in which black Caribbean and GRT children experience schooling up to the point of exclusion. Exclusions are only part of the story and research has shown that black and GRT children experience considerable racist abuse and bullying in schools. There are also problems with some teachers’ unconscious biases: unwittingly stereotyping black children in a way that can have long-lasting effects on their behaviour, self-esteem and attainment results. Moreover, the review only touches on the issue of the impact of low proportions of BAME teachers (around 7.5 per cent) in primary and secondary schools (given that one-third of primary school pupils are from BAME backgrounds) and does not address the importance of curricula reflecting children from diverse backgrounds.
Racial disparities in exclusions has been a long-term issue and arguably is getting worse, with deep cuts in the education sector around behavioural, mental-health and learning support. There was little attempt by the Timpson Review to engage and consult about the recommendations with the race equality sector and this is clear from the absence of recommendations on closing the racial disparities in school exclusions. There is, for instance, nothing about mandatory training on race equality and exclusions for teachers, schools being held accountable for racial disparities in exclusions by Ofsted or the involvement of children and black parents in shaping the disciplinary rules and school exclusion’s process – all of which would make a significant difference to the racial exclusion gap.
The Timpson Review of exclusions not only failed to address the issue it was commissioned for, it has enabled racial inequalities to be perpetuated by arguing that the disproportionate exclusions of black Caribbean and GRT children are more than “just about ethnicity”. This not only sends a strong message to teachers and pupils that reasons for differential exclusion rates probably rest with pupils (eg, black and GRT boys are worse behaved), it absolves the education system of its responsibilities.
As a result, the “burning injustice” of racial inequalities in education remain entrenched.