Racist incidents inside English schools remain a topical and contentious issue. Last year, a Freedom of information (FOI) request was sent to over 200 councils. Courtesy of the Guardian Newspaper, the information stipulated that approximately 40.2 (a fifth) of England’s academy trusts unravelled 60,177 racist incidents for the duration of five years. As of 2012, the coalition government consisting of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party advised schools that it is no longer a requirement to report racist incidents to their respective Local Authorities (LA).
Consequently, the true figure for racist incidents is inaccurate and masks the arguably heightened cases of racist incidents in English schools. In the last several years, Scotland introduced a new system where all forms of bullying were reported and as a result, a significant increase in racist incidents has been highlighted. Data collected from the Scottish Democrats suggested that in 2019/2020, 230 racist incidents occurred in Glasgow alone. This figure is said to be an escalation of 226 racist incidents than that of the preceding year and an increase of 186 the year prior. Many educational practitioners and organisations such as the director of The Black Nursery Manager, Liz Pemberton and The Red Card have spoken extensively about the racism that penetrates the education sector. YMCA issued the YMCA’s Young and Black report in late 2020 that claimed 95% of young Black people had observed or heard racist language at schools in the UK. The organisation has called for rigorous reporting of racist incidents and bullying inside schools.
A ticking box exercise and children’s learnt behaviour
Patricia, a Designated Safeguarding Lead at a state-maintained school just on the edge of London said: ‘’Unfortunately, people who don’t really understand the impact of racism or bullying adopt a tick box approach to the issues. They often use strategic wording that diminishes the concern allowing minimal acknowledgement and or sanctions.’’ The school staff member said that she herself had been a victim of what she describes as ‘’racially institutionalised bullying.’’
The Safeguarding Lead puts much of her treatment as condemnation for her being outspoken about the racism that she witnessed children enduring. She argues that her treatment is a method to silence and ostracise her. ‘’It is most definitely an issue that is disguised as educational establishments do not wish to be seen as anything other than inclusive’’ affirms Patricia.
Headteacher Adebiyi came to England when he was fifteen after completing his GCSE equivalent qualifications a year early. He is candid in his articulation of racism within English schools. Hailing from Nigeria, Adebiyi believes systemic changes need to occur in schools but is pessimistic about any significant changes transpiring in English schools if left to policymakers. He argues that schools are only a reflection of society at large. Adebiyi claims children inherent racist attitudes from an early age.
‘’The African teachers with accents or Asian or Caribbean teachers with accents are looked down on. They [school children] want to challenge them because they see foreign as bad because they have been trained that way. I mean look how they treated the Windrush generation. If you keep p****ng on people that come from somewhere else, then you can’t blame the kids” says the History graduate.
A lack of global majority teachers
In late 2020 researchers at University College London’s Institute of Education published ‘The Making Progress?’ report revealing that nearly half (46%) of English schools had no teachers from global majority backgrounds. According to an Ethnicity and Figures: School Teacher Workforce report issued by the Department For Education [DfE] in 2021, 0.1% of classroom teachers were said to be from Mixed White and Black African backgrounds, and 0.1 of deputy and assistant headteachers were said to be from mixed white and Black African, and Chinese groups. This is said to be the lowest figure across all global majority teachers within English schools.
Speaking at the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) conference last October, former education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “I really do think that it’s critical that teaching is an inclusive profession. Schools and their leadership teams should reflect their communities and their pupils, and I’m absolutely determined to see improvements.’’ Despite Octobers’ open commitment to address representation within schools, during Zahawi’s relatively short reign, there was no clarity on how Zahawi intended to make tangible improvements.
Although Adebiyi is very cynical about the predicament of racism in English schools, he postulates pragmatic solutions to mitigating racism inside schools. One suggestion is to tackle the lack of ethnic minority school governors. ‘’..It is down to the governing body. Governing bodies are still white-dominated. Black people are not governors and if governors are the employers who run the schools because we [headteachers] run the school’s corporation, but strategically the governors do and they are uneducated. You don’t need a qualification to be a governor, think about that’’ says the headteacher.
Adebiyi is adamant that financial incentives should be given to school governors to increase diversity. ‘’Let’s say I am a single mother; I am 40 years old. If I can pay for a babysitter, then I can commit’’ contests Adebiyi. ‘’Remember a school has got a budget of £8 million maybe 9 million pounds and you’re telling me they can’t budget £20 grand a year towards the expenses for the governors? If you do that, then you broaden the field, because you could say for every meeting you attend it’s £100. Suddenly, you get a diverse intake. All my governors are white, that’s the problem’’ he adds.
Retention of teachers and career progression
It has been suggested that since 2011, the number of teachers has not sustained the rate of increasing pupil numbers within schools. Despite recruitment for Initial Teacher Trainees (ITT) being 15% above the target for secondary schools and 30% above the target for primary schools in the 2020/21 year, this is said to unlikely remedy the shortage of teachers. This is particularly the case for subjects such as Maths and Physics. The retention of teachers in the UK has been an ongoing impassioned issue. A report by Robert Long and Shadi Danechi in late 2021 highlighted the dismal retention rates in recent years. 21.7% of Newly Qualified Teachers (NQT) in the sector were no longer working in the state sector just two years later.
The ‘Teacher Recruitment and retention in England’ report suggested that after five years of qualifying as a teacher, the figure in 2014 was said to be 32.6% which is the highest number since the current series backdating to 1997. It is important to consider people leaving the profession may then re-enter at a later point.
While the retention of teachers is a universal problem in England, for ethnic minorities the issues are exacerbated and the reasons for leaving the professions differ, although there is some overlap. The literature in the report by UCL – Employment and Retention of BAME Teachers in England indicates that, unlike British white teachers, the workload was not the motivational factor for leaving the profession, but racial inequalities were described as a ‘hidden workload’, which materialised into turnover and burnout. Lack of career progression has been cited for the more experienced teachers.
Many global majority heritage teachers in the UK may be leaving the profession due to racism or lack of career progression, Adebiyi was encouraged not only to remain in the profession but had his eyes set on becoming a headteacher. Due to what he describes as a racist incident that he ‘’will never forget’’, he was committed to becoming a headteacher. ‘’Racism drove me to be a head. I never intended to be head. A white deputy headteacher I spoke to about a job offering at the school told me that I am a very good pastoral leader. You should stay at head of year, and he belittled me I felt. I was thinking if you could be a deputy headteacher, what made you think I can’t?’’. Adebiyi admits that this could hinder many other Black people. He places his resilience and perseverance down to the competitiveness he learnt whilst playing basketball professionally.
”I never thought about it as a profession because there weren’t enough of us. In my school, there were hardly any Black people. Cleaners, maybe. Working in the kitchen. If you don’t see people like you, you think that is a white profession’’.
What does a teacher look like?
Adebiyi believes that there is another conversation that is often absent. Whilst retention of global majority teachers remains a concern, the realisation that a person from a global majority heritage background can be a teacher is hindering the figures for those even entering the profession in the first place. Adebiyi himself described his journey into teaching as accidental. ‘’A white headteacher saw something in me and told me I could be a teacher. I never thought about it as a profession because there weren’t enough of us. In my school, there were hardly any black people. Cleaners, maybe. Working in the kitchen. If you don’t see people like you, you think that is a white profession’’. Although the presence of Black teachers has changed since Adebiyi who is now in his late forties was at school, the numbers of Black teachers remain dismal.
Non-essential reporting of racist incidents in English schools have been in place since 2012. Patricia believes that this legalisation impacts the effective reporting of such incidents. In her role as a Safeguarding Lead and the ongoing ordeal of racism and bullying that she is experiencing may only be exacerbated for the school pupils themselves. ‘’If I as an adult am experiencing such treatment, it serves as nothing but a clear indication of how that legislation supports bias within schools’’ she argues.
Another proposal advocated by Adebiyi is to record all job interviews with a salary over a specific threshold. The former headteacher calls for such measures to be implemented beyond the teaching profession. ‘’When Usain Bolt finishes first, he gets the gold medal, right? You don’t go to a board room and have a meeting and discuss and decide you know what I don’t think Usain won that you know because the world is judging’’. Though Adebiyi makes it clear that he believes Lewis Hamilton was side-lined and should have won the Formula 1 (F1) title in Dubai last December, he believes his point is still valid.
Senior Leadership and recording job interviews
Adebiyi who was an aspiring headteacher in 2015 was compelled to take an English local authority to a tribunal after never being invited to an interview. This is despite being well-versed as a deputy headteacher in several schools and two additional roles working in the capacity of an assistant headteacher. At the time Adebiyi had a decade working in Senior Leadership Teams (SLT) and had acquired the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH). He also had a master’s degree. Furthermore, the school for which Adebiyi applied was an inner-city school with a concentration of 90% black pupils.
He asserts that ‘’..when the world judges black people we do really well. But wherever black people are judged in secret; meetings, we never do so well’’. Raising his voice, he asks ‘’Who is going to question that? Why is it we can give policemen video cam recorders that can video evidence police, but when you go for an interview for a 200 or 300 grand job you can’t video the interview so that if I complain, a third party is watching..’’.
Traditional forms of support versus alternative support
Critical of unions, Adebiyi believes unions are ineffective and have let black people down. According to him, their priority is to only mediate and find a settlement rather than address the racial issue. Adebiyi expresses a distrust in the established organisations that are supposed to deal with grievances and racial bullying. He is keen for seasoned black educational professionals to take the initiative to mentor black teachers. He has been consulting with Black teachers for some years, and now intends to enhance this line of work more formally. Adebiyi firmly maintains the view that where there is the threat of one being held accountable for racism and bullying, structural changes can prevail. ‘’The more we challenge, the better things will be for us long term. It will force everybody to do things properly’’ says the headteacher.
Despite being a strong exponent for greater representation in the teaching profession, Adebiyi acknowledges that this is not enough. He is condemnatory of black people who conform to get jobs He asserts that ‘’I probably stand out because people are like wait a minute, he is a headteacher, how is he able to talk like that?’’.
Pseudonyms have been given to interviewees to protect their identities.
The DfE and representatives for the education secretary; the now former education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi; and the NASUWT were approached for comments.
This article has been revised to reflect the promotion of the former education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi who now serves as Chancellor of the Exchequer following the resignation of Rishi Sunak.