VIEWPOINT: Education, policy making and white privilege

VIEWPOINT: Education, policy making and white privilege

Kalwant Bhopal

From an early age unequal participation and access to education shapes the lives of young people and affects the decisions they make in relation to higher education and transitions into the labour market. School experiences are crucial in the transition to further and higher education and access to the labour market, yet black and minority ethnic (BME) groups continue to remain disadvantaged in these transitions.

BME groups continue to experience racism, exclusion and marginalisation in education. Whilst there are differences within and between different BME groups, Black children are more likely to be excluded from school and less likely to achieve 5 A* – C GCSEs (or equivalent) compared to white groups (DfE, 2015). They are also less likely to leave university with a 2:1 or first class degree and are more likely to drop out of university compared to their white peers. In my new book, White Privilege: the myth of a post-racial society I explore how whiteness and white privilege perpetuate systems of inequality in which BME groups remain marginalised. In this article, I discuss how policy making in schools works to disadvantage BME groups to reinforce a system of whiteness and white privilege.

Policy making on the face of it paints a positive picture of inclusion, but in reality inequalities in educational experiences continue to persist for BME groups. The Race Relations Amendment Act which was introduced after the Sir William Macpherson Report, made public bodies accountable for race equality. Public bodies (including schools) had a duty to promote race equality and implement policies that demonstrated this (Macpherson, 1999). Schools were expected to record and monitor racist incidents and send these to their local educational authority in order that ethnic monitoring of such incidents could take place. However, subsequent governments have removed this duty and replaced it within the Equality Act (2010). The Equality Act introduced a public sector equality duty (PSED), which came into effect in 2011. The PSED ‘… applies to public bodies, including maintained schools and academies, and extends to certain protected characteristics – race, disability, sex, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity and gender reassignment’ (DfE, 2014: 30). Public bodies such as schools are required to: eliminate discrimination and other conduct that is prohibited by the Act; advance equality of opportunity; and foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not. Schools are expected to have ‘due regard’ for these elements in the following ways:

  1. ‘Due regard’ must be taken into consideration when decisions are made, and an assessment must be made as to the impact this may or may not have on those with protected characteristics.
  2. Schools should consider equality implications when they make policy decisions and these must be reviewed on a regular basis.
  3. The PSED must be integrated into the carrying out of the school’s functions; it cannot be just a tick box exercise or follow a particular process.
  4. Schools cannot delegate responsibility for this duty to anyone else.

Schools are not required to keep records of how they have been actively addressing their equality duties, though the Department for Education does recommend it is good practice to do so. Schools are however, expected to publish information to demonstrate how they are complying with the PSED and to prepare and publish equality objectives. Previously, schools were required to publish separate equality schemes in relation to race, gender and disability, however under the PSED they are no longer required to do so. Consequently, the attention given to racial inequalities as a single significant determiner of social inequality has been eroded. As a result, schools have no legal obligation to ensure that equality based on race is addressed and consequently, a race equality agenda has been pushed into insignificance.

Whilst schools are not legally required to address issues of race equality, racism remains an everyday reality for many pupils. There is evidence to suggest that children are more likely to be bullied because of their race, religion or ethnicity and there is a plethora of research evidence to show that being bullied has significant impacts on children’s school experiences, particularly in relation to educational achievement, confidence and self-esteem. Children who experience bullying are less likely to be engaged in positive friendship networks, which can have a negative impact on their well-being and lead to mental health problems in later life. A recent report by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED, 2012) indicated that racist language in schools is commonplace. There has also been evidence to suggest an increase in requests for counselling for racist and religiously motivated bullying from school children. Over the period 2012 to 2013 a total of 1,400 young people across Britain contacted ChildLine to report racist bullying (NSPCC, 2015); a 69% increase within one year.

A further example of policy making which has marginalised BME groups is the introduction of the Prevent Duty; ‘Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 places a duty on certain bodies (“specified authorities” listed in schedule 6 to the Act), in the exercise of their functions, to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. The Act states that ‘authorities subject to the provisions must have due regard to this guidance when carrying out the duty’ (DfE, 2015: 7). Schools, colleges and higher education institutions are all expected to comply with the Prevent duty. For schools, this means it is essential that staff are able to identify children who may be vulnerable to radicalisation and know what to do when they are identified. Recent figures suggest that 900 children were identified as being ‘at risk of radicalisation’ this included 84 children under the age of 12 and one as young as three (Wheatstone, 2015).

Clearly there are issues as to how ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’ are defined and whether it is the role of teachers to identify children and young people whom they perceive to be displaying these traits. Furthermore, how can teachers be trained to identify such traits? The introduction of the Prevent duty suggests that the narrative and rhetoric of race has been pushed into a new direction – one that is associated with terrorism, fear and othering.

These two examples of policy making suggest a shift from addressing the underachievement of BME groups and challenging how BME groups are marginalised (particularly in relation to bullying and racism in schools) – to a discourse based on a ‘blame culture’ in which BME groups are seen as posing a threat to the social order of UK society. This blame discourse reinforces ‘otherness’ in which the predominance of whiteness and white privilege dictate that those who do not hold ‘British values’, those who are ‘different’ and those who do not conform to ‘Britishness’ pose a threat. Policy making in schools, in its attempts to address issues of inclusion, has failed to achieve its aims; instead it has marginalised and alienated BME communities. The introduction of the Prevent agenda is an example of racial policies designed to alienate those who do not identify with notions of Britishness. At its core is a privileging of white ethnocentric identity, designed to marginalise and exclude BME groups.

Education is a space in which the norms of whiteness are reinforced and reproduced. Outsiders who do not identify with these norms (‘British values’) are seen as a threat. The school space is used to maintain and privilege whiteness at the same time as asserting its dominance over BME groups. Policy making has shifted from a discourse that challenges the failures of the education system to meet the needs of BME students (based on their under achievements, experiences of racism from pupils and teachers, and high rates of exclusion) to one replaced by a rhetoric that blames the ‘other’.

Department for Education (2014) The Equality Act and schools. London: DfE.
Department for Education (2015) GCSE and equivalent attainment by pupil characteristics 2013-2014. London: DfE.
MacPherson, W (1999) Report of the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry. London: The Stationery Office.
National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (2015) Bullying and cyberbullying: facts and statistics. London: NSPCC.
OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education) (2012) No Place for Bullying. London: OFSTED.
Wheatstone, R (2015) ‘More than 900 British children identified as potential extremists ar risk of radicalisation’. The Mirror.


Kalwant Bhopal is professor of education and social justice in the Centre for Research in Race and Education, University of Birmingham. Her new book, White Privilege: the myth of a post-racial society was recently published by Policy press.