General, Students, Trends in Publishing

Is the British education system racially prejudiced?

This is a delicate topic, but as it’s so much in the news at the moment, we thought we ought not to ignore it.

There is, of course, a mountain of statistics to support the assertion that our education system is stacked against people from BAME communities, but also other evidence to illustrate that black and Asian students often go on to be spectacular achievers if they succeed in being admitted to tertiary education. Usually, but not always, these students encounter less prejudice at university – probably because many universities exercise a different kind of prejudice: they are meritocracies. This may be accompanied by the strong feeling in some of the older generation of academics that all that has to be overcome is the same kind of prejudice as that of working-class undergraduates that they themselves triumphed against in the 1970s and 1980s. To muddy the waters even further, white working-class boys emerged some time ago as the group least likely to succeed academically.

It is an unquestionable fact that to get to university you have to succeed at school. If there is racial prejudice, therefore, it seems likely that this is where the problem may lie. Is racial prejudice institutionalised, perhaps covertly, in our schools?

We interviewed a senior teacher who has worked for many years in one of the UK’s largest and most successful comprehensive schools. For obvious reasons, he wishes to remain anonymous, but he spoke to us with passion about this issue.

The school in question was created by the amalgamation of two grammar schools in the 1970s, after which the combined institution became comprehensive. Although the two schools had always educated pupils of different nationalities and creeds, they had been mainly white and predominantly European, as well as academically able in the conventional sense. The school immediately at that point began to enrol pupils from BAME (though this collective term had not been coined then) backgrounds as well, until eventually the school’s population represented over thirty-five different home languages.

There were many difficulties at first which, although the school recognised them, were difficult to resolve. Some teachers were undoubtedly racially prejudiced or old-fashioned meritocrats who were suspicious of or impatient with people from different cultures. As time went on and these older teachers retired, the school was able to develop robust recruitment techniques which ensured that all the staff – including a growing army of non-teaching and support staff, from caretakers to teaching assistants to specialists in the education of children with identified needs to attendance and home liaison officers – were much more representative of the school’s population make-up, shared the same values and agreed on how they would work with students from all backgrounds to provide each child with the support and personal resources to progress well educationally. The school considered it vital to have transparency and clarity through policies carefully constructed by consultation that embraced governors, staff, parents, children and other relevant stakeholders.  

Cultural stereotyping was a more subtle problem. Well-meaning teachers and external influencers might, for example, think it a good idea to set up a steel band for black students and in fact the school experimented with this, but discovered that such a move immediately set participating pupils apart and formed them into a kind of elite. To be properly egalitarian and truly non-racist, the school needed, perhaps by deliberately accommodating particular cultural needs, to encourage BAME students to feel able, by choice, to participate in any school activity. Celebration of individual achievement became central to the approach.

Addressing behavioural issues was another important factor and the students themselves had to understand that, when they were being asked to modify their behaviour, this wasn’t a reflection on their culture, but simply a request to act with courtesy and consideration for others. “At any one time, black students never formed more than five per cent of the school’s total numbers – there were many more Asians – but the black students seemed to be everywhere. The lads in particular were strapping and noisily extrovert. If someone slipped and fell in the corridor, they would find it hilarious and laugh and shout and point. They had to learn to be more aware of the effect they were having on others. It was vital to develop in all pupils the capacity for empathy, rather than simply applying behavioural sanctions.”

Some of these same black pupils proved to be very academically capable indeed once they understood they were valued for themselves and settled down to work. However, over time the school’s own attitude towards what constituted success changed dramatically. Its roots were in the traditional grammar school system of hothousing high academic achievers and rewarding academic success, but by the 1990s its guiding principle was that every student was of equal importance and that each could achieve things which all could celebrate. Mutual kindness and mutual appreciation of talents of all kinds became its mantra. The emphasis was firmly on individual and personal needs and how those should best be met, whether they be educational, medical, cultural, religious, gender-related, social or even financial. It was clear that the school’s internal communication of pupil-specific information must be first-rate, confidential and effectively applied.

Both BAME and ‘Caucasian’ students who attended this school are now doctors, teachers, scientists, academics, members of the police or armed forces and politicians. Some are actors, artists and singers. Others are plumbers, bricklayers, secretaries and hairdressers. Across all walks of life, many have kept in touch with each other. Some return to the school to encourage those studying there today, when the students come from even more diverse backgrounds than previously. The school is now one of the most successful comprehensive schools in the country.  It is, however, the painful truth that not all UK schools have taken a similar approach. Schools with less mixed populations perhaps have not developed the expertise or felt the need to pay so much attention to the preparation of their pupils for the multi-cultural world they will enter as employees; such institutions may not have the resources, both human and material, to reflect the rich mixture of British society. Yet they have a duty to prepare their pupils not just with academic skills, but with the social capability that comes from knowledge and understanding of others and with values that will prevent any inclination to stereotype those who may seem different. As I was writing this, the announcement was made that this year’s British Bookseller Awards were dominated by black female authors. Candace Carty-Williams won overall book of the year with her debut novel Queenie; Oyinkan Braithwaite won crime and thriller book of the year with My Sister the Serial Killer; and Bernardine Evaristo, joint Booker winner for Girl, Woman, Other was named Author of the Year.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

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