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Racial bias in schools – how common is it, and how can it be tackled?

Gordon Cairns examines the extent to which unconscious racial bias may be affecting students and teachers across the education system...

  • Racial bias in schools – how common is it, and how can it be tackled?

In a different timeline, 2020 might have been seen as the year in which wider British society became more fully conscious of racial bias.

From the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, to the outrage caused by a Black barrister, Alexandra Wilson, at being mistaken for a defendant three times within one day, 2020 has been full of stories showing how the taint of racism can infect all areas of British life, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Even the supposedly liberal profession of teaching isn’t immune. According to a study published earlier this year, levels of subconscious racial bias exhibited by teachers are comparable to to any other sector of society, with three out of four teachers demonstrating implicit bias – just 0.1% less than wider society.

Acting on biases

However, Dr Lasana Harris – senior lecturer in social cognition and experimental psychology at University College London – isn’t surprised that members of an ostensibly liberal profession should display unconscious racial bias. He explains that prejudice is a response, learned from the society in which we live:

“Your profession doesn’t make you exempt. Racism isn’t based on your values, although that flies in the face of how people think about it. If you live in a racist society, you too will be racist. That is not a choice.”

That said, we do have a choice in how we act on those biases: “Teachers who notice these biases are more willing to regulate them.”

Professor Tracey A Benson, co-author of the book Unconscious Bias in Schools, goes further, asserting that racial prejudice is so common throughout the education sector that it would be more accurate to call it ‘normalised’ racial bias, rather than ‘unconscious’.

A former school principal, he thinks it ‘insane’ that educators view the poorer academic performance of Black students as typical behaviour.

“In the everyday work in the classroom, in the school building and in school policy – even in the way that we interact with our students – racial bias is at play all the time,” he says.

“We don’t even see the anomaly that we have an achievement gap based on skin colour. It is so normalised that we just accept it to be so.

“It’s not ‘unconscious’, it’s normalised. Unless we draw attention to it, we don’t realise it’s not normal.”

Professor Benson teaches aspiring school principals at the University of North Carolina, USA, and has, for the past five years, asked his students on placement to record how often students of a different race interact with their teacher, how many are positively praised, and how many are corrected.

Describing the results to date, he says “99% found that white students are redirected less often, interact with the teacher more often, and receive preferential treatment in terms of the rules.

“For example, if there’s a rule that students have to raise their hands to get up, it’s more often that students of colour would be held to that strict standard, whereas white students would have privilege. And that’s how unconscious racial bias takes place unconsciously in the classroom.”

Higher expectations

Benson goes on to cite an experiment which found that teachers would typically mark a white student’s answer paper more harshly than when given the same answer paper from either a Black or Latino student:

“What that study tells us is that teachers have higher expectations of white students, as they are more critical of them and expect them to do better, but think this is the best that Black and brown students can do, so give them a higher grade and more positive comments.”

While the obvious effects of racial bias on students’ post-school career might include lower academic attainment, Benson adds that it can also give rise to a number of other negative psychological outcomes affecting self-esteem.

“People of colour end up believing ‘We are less intelligent’ and can develop imposter syndrome. Though you might be highly successful, you have this internal fear that you’re not good enough, and this harms your psyche.

“When you’re put in a highly stressful situation, your blood pressure goes up. The nervousness caused by imposter syndrome can result in health implications for people who have been on the receiving end of intensive and persistent racism. The list of racism’s negative effects is very long.”

Equal and opposite

One approach to reducing unconscious racial bias in schools could be to positively discriminate when employing teachers in favour of ethnic minority candidates – an approach previously endorsed in 2015 by Ofsted’s then chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Current statistics paint a compelling picture. Over 90% of teachers nationwide are white, while one third of students are not. Professor Benson supports taking such an approach, though warns that even Black teachers – himself included – can be guilty of unconscious racial bias.

“I think we have to be deliberate, and offer an equal and opposite response, if we’re to continue to undo all the harm we’ve done.”

He goes on to add that positive recruitment won’t be enough, however, and that additional methods of tackling prejudice should also be employed, citing blind grading and blind referrals – two strategies known to work, though not, as yet, widely used.

Above all, he stresses that more needs to be done than simply ‘being aware’ of unconscious racial bias: “School principals just think conscious awareness-raising is enough. They think that if they think better and know better, they will do better, but that’s not the case. We have to search out a strategy to interrupt the bias.

“We need to develop the ability to talk about it; to say there are people of different colours, that there is racism, and that this is what it looks like. We need to develop that capacity. The reason we find it so hard to talk about racism is that we spend the majority of our lives being told it’s bad to talk about racism.”

Once we’re able to get our own staff and leadership comfortable in talking about race and racism, it’ll be necessary to identify those areas where there are gaps in student achievement, suspension rates, participation rates and wherever other gaps might exist.

If we fail to pay attention, unconscious racial bias will continue to leave a wide-ranging, negative impact in our schools and classrooms. Having developed a means of measuring that impact, it’s then up to us to formulate effective strategies for mitigating it.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher who works in a unit for secondary pupils with ASD; he also writes about education, society, cycling and football for a number of publications.


Changing the status quo

Natalie Russell, head of delivery and development at social enterprise The Black Curriculum, explains the importance of provoking social change through the teaching of Black history

“Students across the UK are not being taught Black British History consistently as part of the National Curriculum in a committed manner, despite numerous findings demonstrating its importance. When young people are not taught their history within Britain, their sense of identity, belonging and self-esteem is negatively impacted and social relations hindered.

“Self-esteem is directly linked to the associations you make with who you are and the world around you. The curriculum creates a picture in a child’s head as to how the world works and gives them the skills and tools they need to operate in that world. In failing to teach students about Black British history, we are failing to teach British history accurately and failing to provide an empowering learning experience for every student.”

For more details, visit theblackcurriculum.com or follow @curriculumblack.

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