More years ago than I care to remember, I was sitting on the warm, freshly cut grass of a school playing field watching the kids playing football when a colleague joined me.
“Are you on duty?”
“Yes” (thinking that perhaps I should be standing up)
“Have you noticed the new lad – *Phillip?”
“No – where is he? What’s the problem?”
(nodding covertly) “He’s with that group of girls under the tree over there.”
“Oh right – yep, see him (getting up, reluctantly). Why do you ask? Is there a problem?”
“Well haven’t you noticed anything about him?”
(This was a test – and I was failing)
“Really? You don’t notice anything at all suspicious about him?”
“Err, no. Sorry – you’re going to have to tell me.”
“Well he has a bag. See it? Most of the Year 11s don’t bother with bags. But he does and he always has it with him. Always. It’s never more than two feet away from him.”
(Looking at me to see if the penny has dropped. It hasn’t.)
“Absolutely! Nailed on.”
Within days, rumours were rife and Phillip’s bag was searched. A small plastic packet was found. It was empty save for what was described to me as a ‘couple of grains of something’ in the corner. The police were called and Phillip was permanently excluded – for possession.
Now I’m not going to dwell here on the need for fair and proportionate responses to drug-related incidents – except to signpost the DfE’s drugs advice, written with the Association of Chief Police Officers. which states in language as clear as it is widely ignored that:
Exclusion should not be the automatic response to a drug incident and permanent exclusion should only be used in serious cases.
I want to move on to the focus of this post, which is race. Readers will have guessed already that Phillip was black.
He was in fact one of only a small number of ethnic minority pupils in our school at that time; with us for just a few months before becoming another grim statistic. What I didn’t know back then, at the start of my career, was that the odds were stacked against him the minute he put on his school uniform.
It would be nice to think that there is more awareness now; that my colleague would be alive to the difficult parallels with stop and search policing; that I would call him out for stereotyping. But if we have moved on, if we are now a more enlightened society, then that has not translated into any progress whatsoever in relation to the disproportionate exclusion of Black Caribbean pupils.
England’s rate of exclusion fluctuates between high and extremely high (relative to other countries), but the pernicious pattern captured in the table above, from the FFT Education Data Lab, is constant: Black Caribbean boys are three and a half times more likely to be permanently excluded than their white peers, also much more likely to be fixed term excluded, and it has been ever thus. We have made precisely zero progress in closing the exclusions gap.
Indeed, recent research has shown that a black Caribbean boy, eligible for free school meals and who has SEND is 168 times more likely to be excluded than his white female counterpart, who is not eligible for FSM and who is not identified as having SEND.
Such “burning injustice” (May, 2016) – all too evident within the Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Audit that inspired the prime minister’s speech back then – was the very reason that Edward Timpson’s review of exclusions was commissioned. It is regrettable, therefore, that the recommendations relating to race are notable by their absence. Dr. Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust, comments here that “there was little attempt by the Timpson Review to engage and consult about the recommendations with the race equality sector.”
Instead of shining a light on institutional discrimination, Timpson fudges the issue by arguing that “the causes of exclusions – and therefore the action that should be taken – are complex and wider than just focused on ethnicity.”
Sure, Phillip was complex – there were other factors in his life that heightened his vulnerability. He was subject to an SGO and there was a tragic story behind that involving a house fire, the details of which I can’t recall accurately. He had experienced several school moves and his behaviour was less than impeccable (impact of trauma not understood at all back then, much less cultural trauma).
But ultimately, he was permanently excluded because of one huge great in-school factor; one ‘gotcha’ moment – rooted in racial stereotyping. How many more permanent exclusions would there have been if every single bag had been searched on the day that Phillip was caught?
According to research from Runneymede, black pupils are typically singled out for more harsh treatment than their white peers; their disproportionate exclusion does not simply reflect worse behaviour in any simple way. The reality is much more complex, much more problematic. The evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias seeps into every element of society and it would be naive to believe that our schools are immune.
Brian Richardson’s Tell it like it is (2005) was one of the first texts to demonstrate that black children were being punished at higher rates than their peers.
A year later, the then DfES published ‘Getting It, Getting it Right’, which showed that:
‘Black pupils encounter both conscious and unconscious prejudice from teachers – for example, research has found that throughout their education Black pupils are disciplined more (both in terms of frequency and severity) and often for milder offences than those leading to their White peers being punished.
The same message is reiterated in this 2017 report on Black Caribbean Underachievement in England and many will recall the ‘punishment for rolling eyes and ‘kissing teeth’ story’ that made headlines in 2019. It’s covered in this piece, on the rise of zero tolerance policies and their disproportionate impact on black pupils:
David Gillborn, professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham’s School of Education, said: “When you have zero-tolerance policies the idea is that we are not going to tolerate any infringements, we are going to be tough on everyone – but the problem is it is black students who are disproportionately hit by these policies.
It is not every student in class who is accused of these things. It is black Caribbean students disproportionately,” he added.
The Runneymede Trust has long campaigned on these issues with Behaviour and Discipline in Schools (2010) focussing on the right to appeal unfair exclusion. At that time, ministers were concerned that the Independent Appeals Panel in some way undermined the Headteacher’s much vaunted ‘power to exclude’ – despite the fact that only 2% of all exclusions were overturned by Panel and that 90% of them were never even contested.
Despite this and all of the evidence about the impact of exclusion on protected groups, the Appeal Panel lost its power to reinstate in 2012 to become the toothless “independent Review Panel’ that is is today. Much is made of this change politically, of course, and the fact that ‘backing Heads to use exclusion’ appeared as a populist manifesto pledge was a clear indication that those ‘burning injustices’ would not be informing policy making anytime soon.
The ‘strengthened power’ means that England’s exclusions law offers no checks or balances against discriminatory practice, despite a) the plethora of evidence that we have an enduring problem and b) the catastrophic impact of that problem on the life-chances of black children and young people (See, for example, school to prison pipeline).
Ironically, the DfE’s own review of the schools exclusions literature highlights this iniquitous state of affairs, but without recommending any discontinuation of same:
Some (parents) criticised the IRPs’ lack of powers.
Numerous recommendations were found within the literature, mainly focused on enhancing fairness.
It is not within our gift to change the law – though we can and must lobby parliament. But one thing is absolutely within our power as educators, and that is to examine our own unconscious biases, and to advocate for the marginalised – as I wish I had done as I sat on that warm grass, in all of my complacent white privilege and because of that very education that we were about to take away from Phillip.
Today’s inspiring, peaceful protest at Nottingham