Institutional racial discrimination in schools

In Britain, racial discrimination starts early. Black children are more likely than white peers to be excluded from school and face in-class discrimination.

The Black Lives Matter movement has focussed attention on the way many different institutions and services treat people from ethnic minorities.  Education should be part of that process of re-evaluation, and policymakers should be thinking hard about racism in schools.

Questions of race and teaching have been extensively debated, with widespread calls to modernise the school curriculum, diversifying its remit to address power relations and notions of justice. To separate schooling from colonial legacy would be to separate society from the racial thinking associated with it, interrogating our fundamental assumptions of the world and how it is hierarchised. It may also guide us to think more about Black British identity, exactly as the Black Curriculum would maintain.[i]The Macpherson Report, published after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, demonstrated in 1999 that a more diverse curriculum can help to prevent racism and improve social cohesion.[ii]

Improving the content taught in schools is important. But there should also be a look beyond the teaching in schools, as discrimination in education frequently takes place outside of the syllabus. There are a range of institutional practices that underpin Black students’ exclusion and, ultimately, their educational attainment.

Discrimination in schools

Punishment in UK schools disproportionately affects Black children.  It is frequently argued that there is a racial aspect to disciplinary decisions. Black students have reported facing disciplinary action for their uniform, because of stereotypical perceptions that they are more disruptive, even because of their hair.[iii] Hair is significant here. Though race is a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010, the act does not recognise hair as marker of race.  The result is that hair that a student considers in inherent expression of their race can still be grounds for disciplinary action, beyond the scope of the act.[iv]  Evidence has suggested that the disproportionate exclusion of Black students often arises from labelling, stigmatisation, and problematic teacher assessments.[v]

In May 2019, the independent Timpson Review of school exclusion, commissioned by the Department for Education, concluded that institutional racism in schools results in discriminatory practices and shapes teachers’ expectations of acceptable behaviour. The review calculated that Black Caribbean children  are around 1.7 times more likely to be permanently excluded compared to White British children.

Timpson also highlights research that schools are ‘white spaces’ in the classroom and in school practices, shows that teachers use negative language labelling Black children as problematic, and finds that certain teachers are more ready to exclude Black boys than other pupils. The review refers directly to case studies undertaken by the IPPR (2017), which suggest that racist stereotyping of Black pupils’ behaviour may explain the higher exclusion rates of Black pupils.[vi] In terms of attainment, Timpson finds that Black Caribbean pupils are generally 2.2 months behind their White British peers.[vii]

Timpson found that Black Caribbean (0.28%) and Mixed White and Black Caribbean (0.24%) pupils were more likely to be permanently excluded from school than white pupils (0.10%).[viii] This is supported by Education Policy Institute data, which show Black Caribbean students are 1.7 times more likely to be permanently excluded than White British children. Gypsies and Irish Travellers are even more likely to face expulsion. The chart below shows that temporary figures are much higher, and give a more concise impression of scale. A disproportionate numbers of pupils from certain ethnic minority groups are more affected by school exclusions, compounding preconceptions of race, behaviour, and attainment. As exclusion can also result in a lack of education altogether, this can create lasting disadvantage and lead to poor later-life outcomes – including involvement in crime.[ix]

Source: The Department for Education, pupil exclusions 2017 to 2018

An Equalities Impact Assessment preceding the 2011 Education Act highlighted the problem of exclusions, of low attainment, and that “exclusion from school does not mean exclusion from education”.[x] However,  neither race nor discrimination are  mentioned explicitly in the paper. In the Education Act itself there is no reference to race or to racial discrimination. Although reference to education is made to the Equality Act, this is reserved only for the treatment of disabled or SEN pupils.[xi]

There is a lack of Black teachers in schools, especially amongst senior staff. 85.9% of all teachers in state-funded schools in England are White British, compared to 78.5% of the working age population (2011 census). Some 92.9% of headteachers are White British.[xii] Research by the RSA has suggested that the teaching workforce currently does not include enough teachers from diverse backgrounds and that they do not represent the ethnic make-up of the pupil population.  The most recent official data, published on 25th June 2020 show that  in primary schools, 33.9% of pupils are of minority ethnic backgrounds (up from 33.5% in January 2019). In secondary schools, 32.3% of pupils are of minority ethnic backgrounds (up from 31.3%).[xiii]

Not only are children from Black backgrounds more likely to be excluded from school, to be underrepresented by schools and schoolteachers, and to have their abilities, behaviours, and grades undervalued, but they are also unable to access justice should they seek it. The First Tier Tribunal (FTT) reviews exclusions in cases of discrimination; however, much like the Education Act and its somewhat limited considerations of equality, it only considers appeals on the basis of disability discrimination. This means pupils who believe they have been excluded as a result of racial discrimination has no recourse to justice without going to court, at the risk of paying legal costs.[xiv]

Policy solutions and examples of good practice

While there are both in-house and out-of-school explanations for the exclusions gap, out-of-school factors are far more difficult to address.[xv] And it is not always pupils with ethnic minority backgrounds who experience discrimination during their education. Discriminatory practices are also made against pupils on the basis of social class, gender and special educational needs. Exclusions may well occur irrespective of a child’s ethnicity, but racial discrimination is far too common a factor, and policy should aim to reduce it as much as possible. Education should liberate. It should not entrench racial inequality.

Common-sense solutions ways of upending discrimination might include policies that help with teacher training and race equality training, improved teacher-student relationships and respect of the individual, and diverse role models, and consistent approach to behaviour. [xvi][xvii] But these approaches are obvious and do not necessarily address the essence of institutional discrimination.

Three approaches policymakers should consider

  1. Apply the Equality Act so that afro hairstyles and other expressions of Black identity are protected from discrimination. The Equality and Human Rights Commission should provide guidance on this, outlining the circumstances hairstyles can be considered an expression of race and therefore be protected under the Act. If the Commission does not consider the current provisions of the Act to extend to hair in this way, Parliament should amend the Act.
  2. Action should be taken to implement the recommendation of the Timpson Review on holding schools accountable for the educational outcomes of excluded pupils.
  3. Rename the ‘FTT for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities’ to the ‘FTT for Schools’ extending its jurisdiction across all disrcrimination and schools appeals, including racial discrimination as grounds for a valid appeal.


[i] The Black Curriculum is an education social enterprise that looks to deliver Black British history in schools.


[iii] Sue, D.W. (2003) Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation. Kindle Edition.


[v] Cecile Wright, Young Black People Finding Paths to Success: Transforming School Exclusion/Marginalization,












[xvii] Ofsted, Reducing exclusions of Black pupils from secondary schools: examples of good practice, March 2008.



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