Visible and Invisible Barriers: Racism in teaching

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To mark the launch of Runnymede’s latest report Visible and Invisible Barriers: the impact of racism on BME teachers, co-author Sian Elliott looks into the role that school senior management teams have to play

In a post-Brexit, austerity Britain, an increasingly hostile environment is emerging for those positioned as racially ‘other’. Racist and xenophobic attacks are increasing. The vicious attack on 17-year-old Kurdish refugee Reker Ahmed in Croydon received national attention but many more racist attacks, verbal and physical, go by unnoticed each day.

Black and minority ethnic (BME) teachers see themselves as playing a pivotal role in this context, as we found in our report Visible and Invisible Barriers: the impact of racism on BME teachers. In schools, they feel they can help protect BME pupils from discrimination and bias and challenge stereotypes of BME groups and be visible ‘role models’ for all students. As our classrooms become increasingly diverse, the need for a diverse workforce grows more urgent. However, the number of BME teachers, already low, is dwindling with disproportionately low recruitment rates of individuals with BME backgrounds into teaching.

As well as low recruitment rates, our research, which was conducted for the Runnymede Trust on behalf of NUT, found that 60% of existing BME teachers surveyed expressed a desire to leave the workforce, despite a passionate commitment to the vocation.

A diverse teaching workforce is not only important for BME pupils but all of those in teaching and learning in our schools. The Barriers report shows a clear need for senior leaders in our schools to tackle internal issues that perpetuate racial and ethnic inequalities.

Assumptions from predominantly white senior leadership teams (SLT) towards their BME staff based on racial and ethnic stereotypes were considered to negatively impact all aspects of BME teachers’ worklives: from interactions in the staffroom; teaching and learning responsibilities and workload; to overall career progression, contributing towards their low retention rates.

97% of Headteachers are white (DfE)

Statistical data from the Department for Education (DfE) supports BME teachers’ claims that there is an invisible glass ceiling for them, and a widespread perception among SLT that BME teachers “have a certain level and don’t go beyond it”.

The concerns expressed in the Barriers report resonate with findings of others studies, such as that by Clare et al (2016), which found that BME teachers are more likely than their white counterparts to be turned down for a promotion.

BME teachers’ workloads also differ from their white colleagues. They are more likely to be tasked with behaviour responsibilities or black history month as opposed to more challenging teaching and learning responsibilities. Regardless of their professional preference:

"I’ve been given additional responsibilities for behaviour management in Key Stage 4 and for Year 11s re-sitting their GCSEs. Both these groups are difficult groups, but I was given these responsibilities despite telling them that I didn’t want them…I think it stems from stereotypes [the school] has of black men as more intimidating - KS4 is the toughest year group. But it is subtly reinforcing stereotypes. We get given the tough behavioural jobs, but not the intellectual challenges and responsibilities." 
(Focus group participant: Black African teacher, male, less than 5 years of teaching, secondary school).

This stereotype existed across both genders, with black female teachers also expressing dissatisfaction with being given “challenging behaviour classes” because it was perceived as ‘their area of expertise’.

Other additional workloads which would take up considerable time, but were not rewarded financially or in terms of career progression included Black History Month and “anything” related to BME students.

"You become the spokesperson for everything BME" 
(Black British teacher, female, supply teacher, secondary school).

While this could be personally rewarding, it often was an additional burden on workloads that were already very full.

The result of this unfair and unequal treatment of BME teachers is to damage their self-esteem, devalue their role in the school and ultimately affect their retention rates within the workforce.

The research found mixed views from respondents as to whether SLT deliberately perpetuated structural inequalities or were unaware of unconscious biases. However, a ‘brush it under the carpet’ attitude from a largely homogenous SLT in relation to BME teachers raising concerns about racism and racist incidences in schools was found to compound existing inequalities.

“The school underplays it saying the incident is not racist but rudeness" 

(Responses in open-ended question from the questionnaire)

Such is the level of discomfort and anxiety around talking about race and racism, that pointing out its existence is often considered an act of racism in and of itself. When BME teachers raise concerns, they are often dismissed and supressed with well-worn tropes framing the individual as aggressive or trouble-making:

Some are more vocal than others, but any 'dissent' as it is seen, is rapidly quashed, which may deter others from speaking out"
(Survey respondent: Female, Indian, 22-35 years, teaching 5-10 years)

"…it’s difficult to always confront and challenge – because you don’t want to seem aggressive. You always feel a conflict between wanting to challenge and wanting to get on and progress…"
(Focus group participant: Black Caribbean teacher, female, more than 16 years of schooling, primary school)

Without the opportunity for safe spaces in which to have honest, open and frank discussion, BME teachers are isolated, rendered impotent and the legitimacy of their experiences is denied.

Furthermore, evidence suggests there are compelling reasons for encouraging everyone, in particular senior management, to confront their discomfort and develop tools and mechanisms for talking about racism. BME teachers that said their schools were very comfortable or extremely open in talking about race and racism often said that their schools had regular, open discussions. In addition, in schools where headteachers took an active and overt zero tolerance to racism, BME teachers were much more likely to report feeling collectively supported by their senior management.

Racism affects not only the experience of BME staff but also impacts on the student experience. Only one third of BME teachers in primary and secondary schools agreed that their school was ‘proactive in identifying and responding to racism affecting pupils in their school.’

If the purpose of education, as argued by Paulo Friere, is to provide hope and possibility for the future, the mechanism enabling social change, schools and those who work within them must be part of the solution. Before the gap grows any wider, urgent attention is needed from SLT to review internal practices that perpetuate racial inequalities so that they can reverse the downward trend seen in recruitment and retention rates of BME teachers. Our schools and our young people deserve a teaching body that reflects the diversity of British life.

Follow Sian on Twitter: @Miss_SCE

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