Socialist Worker

Schools report shows young people’s lives are blighted by racism

A leaked government report shows that our school system is institutionally racist. Terry Wrigley looks at how this affects school students

Issue No. 2031

Britain’s schools are institutionally racist against black pupils – that is the clear conclusion of a recent report from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES).

The report was leaked to the Independent newspaper last weekend. It shows that black pupils are three times as likely as white pupils to be excluded from schools.

They also stand only a fifth the chance of being identified as “gifted and talented”.

Needless to say, schools minister Lord Adonis has ducked the issue and, it appears, has tried to get the report shelved. Perhaps he feels he has too much to do privatising schools to care much about social justice.

Each year 1,000 black pupils are permanently excluded from school, and 30,000 are temporarily excluded.

As always, there are those who argue that the victims are themselves to blame – that they are too loud or rude or aggressive.

This is doubtless true of some adolescents, black and white, but doesn’t explain what is happening.

Many cultural stereotypes affect teachers’ perceptions of black pupils – unless they are aware of the danger of prejudice.

One interesting piece of evidence from the report shows the extent of prejudice in our society.

Blind

When teachers mark exam papers “blind”, black pupils “significantly outperform” their white peers. The opposite occurs when teachers can see who they are assessing.

This is not inevitable. Anti-racism went high up the policy agenda in the 1980s, but has since been submerged.

All that matters now is test results. How many teachers have sufficient training about racism? How many teachers have read the books that show how they can come to the wrong conclusions about black pupils’ actions and attitudes?

But it is no use just blaming teachers either. The whole school system creates pressures that lead to exclusions. Schools are set in competition against one another. Important social values are sidelined.

Children are being labelled “less able” from the age of five. Schools are driven to get rid of pupils with problems, in case they worsen the school’s position in the league tables.

Teachers are constantly under pressure. This is the institutional foundation on which racial prejudice now operates. “Institutional racism” means more than attitudes – it includes how institutions work and the impact of government policies.

It should not surprise us if some black teenagers look to macho aggression as a way to salvage some dignity and respect. Youngsters who feel alienated at school are enticed by violent media images of black masculinity.

It should be a priority for teachers to work with young people on these questions of identity and culture, and on their hopes and fears for the future. Sadly it isn’t!

Government policies that identify a minority of pupils as “gifted and talented” are another source of prejudice.

If your family is poor and struggling to survive, they are less likely to develop your “gifts and talents”. Or maybe your school simply doesn’t value your way of telling your life story or your taste in music. It’s much easier if your parents have taught you French or the violin.

Gifts

Schools should promote all pupils’ gifts and talents to the utmost. Individuals differ in their skills and interests. Uniformity and mediocrity are not the answer.

But as socialists we should be demanding opportunities for children to discover gifts and talents they never knew they had.

We should be campaigning for weekend and holiday courses – to climb a mountain or sail a boat, to master French or Bengali, to play violin or bass guitar, sing reggae or rap or make a video.

It is shocking, but no surprise, that the present “gifted and talented” programmes exclude black and white working class pupils.

This is the “institutional racism” and institutional class prejudice at the heart of New Labour policies.

Terry Wrigley is a contributor to Tell It Like It Is: How our schools fail black children which is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com


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Sat 16 Dec 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2031
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