Beyond Black History Month

    Published: 22 October 2020

    The Black Lives Matter movement has re-shone a light on the problem our society has with structural racism. Data from the TUC showed that, in 2016,

    • the pay gap between white and black people with education up to GCSE was 11%
    • the pay gap between white and black people with education up to A level was 14%
    • the pay gap between white and black people with education up to degree level was 23%

    As Reni Eddo-Lodge put it, “A cap, gown and degree scroll does nothing to shield black graduates from discrimination.”

    How profoundly depressing to contemplate the discrimination that lies ahead of black students who leave our schools and universities with great qualifications unless we take decisive action. But even more sobering to confront the following facts which reminds us that the discrimination starts much earlier:

    • there is evidence that black learners are marked down in teacher assessments at age 11 (Burgess and Greaves 2009).
    • in the last 8 years for which we have GCSE data (2011 to 2019), the gap between pupils from black and white British backgrounds increased in the order of 60-70 per cent (EPI 2020)
    • DfE data shows that black students are less likely to be accepted into high ranking Russell Group universities than their white peers. 

    Hard as it is for us to hear, we have to accept that we have a problem with structural racism in our schools, as well as in wider society. This is perhaps not a surprise when we consider what we know about unconscious bias, how dominant white staff are in our schools and how few black teachers become leaders; only 3% of our headteachers in Hertfordshire are from BAME backgrounds. As Pragya Agarwal, author of Sway’ explains,

    “Each of us form and carry unconscious biases of some sort. It’s not only the behaviour of bigoted, racist or sexist people but of everyone, including you and me…There is a tendency in the individual to be rigid in their acceptance of the ‘culturally alike’ and in their rejection of the ‘unlike’. This kind of in-group favouritism can be quite explicit (prejudice) or subtle and implicit (bias).”

    At HfL we are devising an audit tool for schools to use to assess where racial inequity exists, where unconscious bias might need to be addressed, to what extent black voices are heard and black student and staff experiences understood, and how well the curriculum represents black achievements. In the meantime, here’s ten big questions as a starter.

    Does your website communicate your commitment to the BLM movement?

    Some schools have declarations from the headteacher, the chair of governors and the student council about what BLM means to them and the action they are taking.

    Do you regularly have BAME role models into school to address and work with the learners?

    Some schools work to ensure that each month an inspiring BAME journalist, doctor, lawyer, scientist, writer, politician, engineer etc. visits/addresses a group of learners at the school to educate them, challenge stereotypes and widen horizons.

    Can your BAME learners see themselves represented in the visual displays in every classroom?

    Do you have a system in place to ensure that BAME images are included in every learning space and that proactive screening eliminates any stereotypical and negative images?

    Do your BAME leaders have a strong voice?

    Do you have BAME representation on your school/year councils? Your SLT? Your governing body? Do you invite BAME learners, staff and governors to discuss issues of equality, discrimination and systemic racism?

    Does your school library stock promote black authors and BAME heroes?

    Do you regularly audit the number of books by authors of different ethnic backgrounds and ensure a balance? Do you screen books and novels by the ethnicity and character of the protagonists/heroes/villains? Do you discuss your findings with the learners?  Do you actively purchase and promote world literature and books by local BAME authors?

    Does EVERY curriculum area include examples of inspiring black role models and influencers?

    In most schools key black historical characters are studied (though often not British BAME characters). But what about BAME classical composers? BAME scientists? BAME mathematicians? Designers? Dramatists?

    Do you monitor the ‘presence’ of black students in all groups, events and activities in the school and strive to eliminate any inequality? 

    Do you know whether your BAME students are under or over-represented in higher or lower attaining sets? Those who go on school trips? Those who receive awards or commendations? Those chosen to be tour guides? Those who are made prefects? Those who get detentions? Those in the school band/choir/football team/art club/debating team? What do you do with this data?

    Does your CEIAG practice tackle underrepresentation of black students in higher education and in prestigious careers?

    Some schools regularly invite BAME ex-students back from university to talk to younger learners. They ensure that those who run mock interviews and career advice talks represent a wide range of ethnicities. Some schools track the retention rates of BAME students at each university and share their findings with sixth formers considering which university to apply to.

    Do you regularly seek and act on feedback from black parents, governors and staff about their experience and perception of discrimination and bias in the school community?

    How do you collect this information and what do you do with it?

    Does your School Improvement Plan contain actions to address unconscious bias and structural racism?

    How many of these questions can you say a fulsome ‘yes’ to?

    Hopefully the exercise will have given you some ideas of areas that your school might focus on. As Black History Month draws to a close, we have to ensure that there are robust action plans in place in our schools to ensure that

    1. across our curriculum black stories are told, black achievements are celebrated and black voices are heard
    2. black under-representation is assessed, targets set and actions taken to elevate black presence  
    3. racism is discussed at all levels and tackled robustly wherever and whenever it manifests itself.   

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