Updated: May 24
Hussein Hussein - CAPE Mentors - August 12th 2019
I am Black, British and Somali. I was raised in a single parent household on a council estate in London. I was fortunate enough to have a mother knowledgeable about the education system and how to best navigate it where many of my friends did not. To be poor, young and black in inner-city London is a unique and challenging experience, and one that many would struggle to fully understand or comprehend.
When I started my business, aimed at mentoring young people most in need, I did so with the belief that the many children growing up in an environment similar to mine, need people who understand their world and approach them without bias. People who can reach them and pull them out.
I have been fortunate enough to work alongside many well intentioned and talented teachers during my career. However, the severe lack of diversity in the profession (only 2% of teachers are black) and marked difference in the ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds of senior teachers and pupils, allows for unconscious biases to impact upon the treatment of children most at need.
So, while my students are enjoying their summer holidays, I thought I’d take time between planning lessons to investigate just how significant underrepresentation is on the outcomes of students, and what impact unconscious bias is having on teaching. Here I share my thoughts and findings.
How do different ethnic groups perform within their secondary schooling?
Research suggests that Chinese, Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and ‘Asian Other’) and Black African students achieve positive outcomes at school. They are not frequently excluded (DfE 2018a) and perform well: widely attaining a grade 5 or above in English and Maths GCSEs (DfE 2018b). On the other hand, students of Caribbean heritage fare significantly worse: they perform less favourably than any other ethnic group (excluding Gypsy/Roma and Irish Traveler communities who face their own significant challenges within education).
For many, the negative outcomes experienced by Caribbean students is linked to factors including but not limited to poverty, special educational needs, parental engagement and mental health. However, what is not discussed nearly enough is how the lack of representation within the teaching profession negatively affects these students. Government data reveals that 86% of the professional teaching workforce is white (this figure increasing to 93% for headteachers) compared to a 79% overall white working age population (DfE 2018c). While, of course, all teachers are invested in the lives of their students irrespective of race, we know that in all walks of life direct representation is a vital measure to redress discrimination. Yet, as aforementioned, within the education sector, only 2% of our teachers are black (DfE 2018c)
Before we begin, I want to address a few significant points:
1. Black Caribbean students are also English.
It is 2019 and our Black Caribbean classification is becoming increasingly problematic. Many of these children were born here in the England, have parents that were born here, have not travelled to the Caribbean and most importantly view themselves as English when asked. Classifying these students as Black Caribbean subtly moves the challenges they face away from Britain/England, as stressed by Akala during his keynote at the Festival of Education this year. So, I ask, when we reflect on the negative outcomes experienced by Black Caribbean students, should we not acknowledge that their challenges are born here in England? They were not carried over from the Caribbean and passed down from generation to generation.
Obviously, this contention is also true for many Chinese, Asian and Black African students too. However, I wanted to stress this for our Caribbean community. Since they are experiencing negative outcomes within the British education system, it is essential that we do not tag their educational exclusion or performance to some inherited notion of ‘Caribbeanness’ - as Dr Bernard Coard warned many years ago (Coard 1971).
2. Other ethnic minority groups also experience bias despite achieving positive outcomes.
The performance of other ethnic minority groups does not evidence a schooling experience free from bias or discrimination. For reasons unbeknown to me, other ethnic groups manage to better survive within school. Many arguments have been put forward to explain their positive outcomes such as differing ‘cultural appreciations’ of education, a ‘will to learn’ (Telegraph 2016) and parental aspirations (DFE 2015). However, I try to steer clear of these notions, as I feel they often lead to dangerous generalisations being made about particular ethnic groups, thus portraying educational attainment as a matter of individual choice or cultural essence, rather than structural exclusion.
3. I am not suggesting that knife-crime is ‘a Black problem’.
Firstly, let me clarify that although I am going to focus on knife possession, I am not suggesting it is a problem exclusive to the Black Caribbean English community. Data from the Guardian’s recent ‘Behind the Blade’ freedom of information request to the Home Office (Younge 2017) reveals that the primary drivers of knife crime are mental health concerns, poverty, school exclusion and limited economic opportunity. Unfortunately, these indicators disproportionately affect Black Caribbean English families and herein lies the link.
How can a lack of representation translate into exclusion?
Within London, young black and minority ethnic teenage boys and men are disproportionately affected as both victims and perpetrators of knife crime (BBC News 2018) and I would argue this partly contributes to Black Caribbean English students being excluded at roughly three times the rate of their white peers (DfE 2018a). As a young man raised on an inner London council estate, I can attest that knife crime is an ever-present part of your experience growing up. Individuals who carry or use knives often inspire fear in the imaginations of members of society who only encounter them through the irresponsible news coverage of mainstream media outlets. Our sensationalist views of these young people allow us to dehumanise and demonise them. Individuals raised in more affluent neighbourhoods are less likely to accept that these traumatised young people are often riddled with fear, angst and hopelessness themselves.
The diverging ethnic/cultural backgrounds of senior school leaders and pupils most vulnerable to exclusion creates a perfect storm for unconscious bias to govern our management of knife possession in school. This is an urgent problem as decisions to permanently exclude are based upon a headteacher’s discretion since there are no standardised rules as to which behaviours do and do not warrant permanent exclusion. This discretion, or ‘benefit of the doubt’ if you will, may less frequently fall in favour of Black Caribbean English children found in possession of a knife. When our current pool of non-representative school leaders look at these children, their circumstances and actions it is quite likely that they see ‘others’ and treat them as such (Schrier 2018). ‘Others’ who inhabit a reality they are not accustomed to understand. School leaders lacking a well-developed perspective on the experience of growing up Black in inner London or living with the social issues that many children of this demographic do, may find it easy to respond with punitive measures. Discipline blind of empathy.
The common zero-tolerance stance on knife-possession within schools has not correlated with a decrease in knife related incidents or homicides. Moreover, outcomes post-exclusion are depressing to say the least (Gill, Quilter-Pinner, Swift 2017). Unfortunately, knife-related deaths have continued to increase year-on-year for the past four years to more than 280 in 2018 (BBC News 2018).
I believe we need to bring people from these communities into the fold so we can better understand these students’ lives without judgement, create policy without bias and sanction beyond stereotypes. I am not suggesting schools avoid sanctioning students found in possession of knives. Sanction is necessary for such behaviour and it is imperative that young people found carrying knives are held accountable for their actions. My contention is that the sanctions deployed today are devoid of empathy and understanding. By choosing a route of exclusion, we isolate these young people and increase the amount of free time they have at a critical juncture in their education and young lives. Particularly, as the Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) and Alternative Provisions (APs) they are sent to typically have shorter days and their rates of attendance are significantly below what is achieved in mainstream schools. Therefore, by excluding children and sending them to PRUs and APs, we are outsourcing and exacerbating the problem.
My desire for us to change our attitude towards sanctioning knife possession is driven by the fact that I can empathise with these children since I grew up in a community where knives were ever present. As a teenager, some of my friends carried knives when we would leave our local area. This was perhaps due to a sense of vulnerability that was anchored in routine experiences of witnessing robberies, attacks and general intimidation. At the time, it just seemed normal. I do not condone knife possession but I feel it is important to emphasise that the experience of carrying a knife need not define a person. As we matured into adults, we understood how reckless our teen years had been and how fortunate we were to come through them unscathed. Consequently, when I teach my students today, two of whom have been either excluded or arrested for knife possession, I see kids similar to those I grew up with. I see kids numb to a bleak reality. I see kids who can grow up to be positive role models for future generations and most importantly I see kids. Kids who need help. Who I want to help.
Would Black Caribbean English students, be supported more compassionately if our pool of senior leaders had similar life-journeys? I certainly think so.
Closing thoughts for fellow teachers
Despite the bleak outlook, I remain optimistic. I believe positive changes are achievable with relatively small steps:
1. The disparity in outcomes for Black Caribbean English children needs to be acknowledged and we need to admit it is a problem. If we admit this, we can begin work to change the story.
2. While rapid change in the background of our teachers is not possible, a shift in the thought process is. We will begin to see changes in exclusion data if teachers are brave enough to honestly reflect on their own practice and unconscious biases and how this affects all ethnic groups, with a particular sensitivity to those most affected.
3. If you are a school leader tackling the issue of knife crime, hold onto the fact that a young person found in possession of a knife is likely to live a life full of angst, fear and hopelessness. As such, their ability to tackle their fear in a reasonable manner is limited. In turn, permanent exclusion often serves to further intensify an already precarious cocktail of social indicators. I would implore you to challenge yourself, as best you can, to lean towards support rather than exclusion.
It is my belief that these small yet deeply impactful changes in our teaching, educational leadership and exclusion practices, will enable us to reduce the disadvantages faced by all ethnic minority students in our schools particularly our Black Caribbean English students.
BBC News (2018) Ten charts on the rise of knife crime in England and Wales. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-42749089 [Accessed 08.08.2019]
Coard, B. 1971. How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system, London: New Beacon Books. https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/the-pioneering-years/gallery-of-publications/how-west-indian-child-made-educationally-sub-normal
Department for Education (DfE) (2015) A compendium of evidence on ethnic minority resilience to the effects of deprivation on attainment. [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/439861/RR439A-Ethnic_minorities_and_attainment_the_effects_of_poverty.pdf [Accessed 08.08.2019]
DfE (2018a) Pupil exclusions. [online] Available at: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/education-skills-and-training/absence-and-exclusions/pupil-exclusions/latest#permanent-exclusions-by-ethnicity [Accessed 08.08.2019]
DfE (2018b) Attainment in English and Maths GCSE at grade 5 or above for children aged 14 to 16 (key stage 4). [online] Available at: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/education-skills-and-training/11-to-16-years-old/a-to-c-in-english-and-maths-gcse-attainment-for-children-aged-14-to-16-key-stage-4/latest#by-ethnicity [Accessed 08.08.2019]
DfE (2018c) School teacher workforce. [online] Available at: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/workforce-and-business/workforce-diversity/school-teacher-workforce/latest#by-ethnicity [Accessed 08.08.2019]
Gill, K. Quilter-Pinner, H. Swift, D. (2017) Making The Difference: Breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion. [online] IPPR. Available at: https://www.ippr.org/publications/making-the-difference [Accessed 08.08.2019]
Schrier, L. (2018) Education for All? The Impact of Discriminatory School Exclusions. [online] Equaliteach. Available at: https://www.equaliteach.co.uk/education-for-all-the-impact-of-discriminatory-school-exclusions/ [Accessed 08.08.2019]
Telegraph (2016) White working class boys perform worst at GCSEs, research shows. [online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/10/white-working-class-boys-perform-worst-at-gcses-research-shows/ [Accessed 08.08.2019]
Younge, G (2017) Beyond the blade: the truth about knife crime in Britain. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/mar/28/beyond-the-blade-the-truth-about-knife-in-britain [Accessed 08.08.2019]