Published:

Tim Clark was a secondary school Head for eighteen years, firstly of a Lincolnshire grammar school which he led to “outstanding” and secondly of an academy in Hackney. He now runs his own consultancy, specialising in school improvement.

In March of this year, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, chaired by Dr Tony Sewell, published its long- awaited report. The report considered four main themes: education and training; employment; crime and policing; health. In terms of education, what should have been welcomed as an encouraging and challenging piece of research, was slated by many, not least by the National Association of Headteachers, which denounced it as “an insult”. It feels that for some, unless the report damned Britain as country of institutionalised racism and “white privilege”, it must be a sham with a hidden agenda. How sad. Instead, what we should be doing, is to use this report as a mechanism for improving opportunities for all young people, regardless of background or ethnicity. Despite the many disparities and inequalities that clearly still exist, the report also highlights the many education success stories of which teachers and schools should be proud.

The report acknowledges that overt racism remains “a real force” in the UK. Quite rightly, therefore, the first of its twenty-four recommendations demands that it is incumbent on everyone to challenge racist discrimination wherever it exists. This aspect of the report is largely ignored by its detractors. They appear particularly incensed by the conclusion that rather than racism, many issues of inequality are the result of a variety of other factors including family circumstances, socio-economic background, geography and the degree of integration. It is simply wrong, not to say unhelpful and even dangerous, to glibly dismiss all issues of inequality as the result of racism.

Crucially, the report identifies education as, “The passport to a brighter future” and to creating a fairer and prosperous country for everyone. This last point is crucial – poverty, underachievement and deprivation apply to groups within the majority white population just as much, and in some cases, even more, than to ethnic minorities. “Strong early years support”, however, “Good schools and evidence based interventions can improve educational outcomes across all groups and partly overcome other factors”. Put more prosaically, “A rising tide really can raise all boats”.

Five educational issues raised by the report.

Leadership, teachers and governors:

It is crucial that we attract and retain the best teachers and school leaders. They must be appointed on merit and ability – any other grounds for appointment disadvantages all pupils. Obviously, we must attract more teachers from ethnic minority groups, not least as good role models are so essential. The statistics, however, are improving: the report states that 86 per cent of teachers are white and 14 per cent from ethnic minorities, not very different from the findings of the 2011 census. The situation is, sadly, much less encouraging when considering governance, where only siex per cent of governors are non-white. It is essential, therefore, that schools do much more to attract governors from the communities which they serve and that, in turn, members of all communities engage with their local schools.

The curriculum:

The report quite rightly dismisses recent attempts to negatively “decolonise” the curriculum, which is both academically suspect and positively damaging in terms of community cohesion. Living in Britain and being British are the two things which unite us all, so it is essential that we all understand the society in which we live. No, that does not mean that we stop teaching about the horrors of the slave trade, the first Passage, the Middle Passage and the wicked practice that was slavery, but that we add to the traditional curriculum the much more positive, “Making of Modern Britain” and show how, “The Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain”.

Equally interestingly, the report calls for much greater emphasis to be placed on traineeships and apprenticeships. For far too long, the 40+ per cent of the population who fail to achieve a good set of GCSE’s appear to have been ignored. Much more meaningful and quality vocational education will enable many more to achieve and, in consequence, to contribute far more to society.

Extending the school day:

The Covid crisis has reminded us all of the importance of school, not just for academic development, but for social development and mental wellbeing. Since the report identifies family circumstances as having far more impact on a young person’s development than his/her ethnicity, it is a logical conclusion that for some of our most deprived children, great benefit can be derived from the extended school day. Such a recommendation raises a host of practical considerations relating to staff workload, contracted hours, the employment of additional staff etc, but if the additional targeted funding highlighted by the report is forthcoming, then an extended day could do much to mitigate the negative factors which lie behind many a child’s underachievement.

Discipline and pupil behaviour:

Every child needs a structured and disciplined environment in which to grow, and especially those youngsters who experience an unhappy and unsettled home life. School must teach pupils right from wrong and this includes sanctioning those who do wrong. The report repeats the phrase from the current Ofsted Inspection Framework that exclusion is a “vital tool” for maintaining a safe and purpose atmosphere in school, but exclusion (suspension or expulsion) is often quoted as proof of institutional racism in schools. Such a claim is absolute nonsense. The reality is that pupils from ethnic minorities are less likely to be excluded, pupils from Chinese and Indian backgrounds being the least likely to face exclusion.

Of course, exclusion remains disproportionately high amongst Black Caribbean children (though not amongst those of Black African heritage). As the 2019 Timpson Review of Exclusions revealed, however, a much wider range of causal factors, other than ethnicity, has an impact on exclusions, including poverty, SEND, family environment and poor mental health.

As in many schools, my own approach to behaviour management was to have clear behaviour expectations which applied to all pupils. We did not, for example permit violence, theft or rudeness to staff. Pupils were excluded if they hit someone, stole something or were rude to a teacher – ethnicity had absolutely nothing to do with it; nor should it. The key question here is not the childish, “how do we reduce exclusions?”, but the much more pertinent (and more difficult), “how do we improve behaviour?”. We must target intervention, not on the grounds of ethnicity but on the grounds of individual need, and this must include significantly improving Alternative Provision for those youngsters who seriously and persistently disrupt the learning of others.

High aspiration:

One of the saddest aspects of the reaction to the report has been the way that many politicians, headteachers and commentators who slammed it so peremptorily, completely ignored the overwhelming evidence of the phenomenal optimism and achievement amongst so many groups in society. Why should they be so upset by the knowledge that in core GCSE subjects, White British children are outperformed by Black African children, and significantly so by Chinese and Indian children? Why do we not shout from the roof tops that, proportionally, more Black African and more Black Caribbean students progress to university than White British students, with the disparity being even more marked when considering students on Free School Meals?

No-one will argue that Britain is perfect, but it has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. What remains true for pupils of all backgrounds, however, is that engagement with education is, “the Passport to a brighter future.”