UK reports on discrimination in schools open up debate on deprivation

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This article is part of our special report Discrimination in Europe’s schools.

The question of whether the UK’s education systems discriminate against ethnic minorities has become highly politically charged and divisive, reflecting tensions that exist across much of the European Union.

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests last year, the UK government tasked a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities to report on race relations and discrimination in the country’s institutions.

One of the commission’s findings when it reported in March was that children belonging to ethnic minorities did as well or better than white pupils in compulsory education, up to the age of 16, with the exception of black Caribbean students, but overt racism within society still remained.

Even so, the report argued that curbing discrimination in school had “transformed British society over the last 50 years into one offering far greater opportunities for all.”

It concluded that family structure and social class had a bigger impact than race on how people’s lives turned out.

Education consultant Tony Sewell, who chaired the commission, said in the report’s foreword that “we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities.”

Conducting similar studies in the European Union is challenging since many European countries do not break down data along racial or ethnic lines out of concern over privacy or discrimination.

Last month, a second row that erupted over a separate report by the UK parliament’s Education Committee, which warned that white pupils from poorer backgrounds had been “neglected” by the education system for decades.

In 2019, just 17.7% of white British pupils eligible for free school meals, one of the definitions of deprivation used by the UK government, achieved at least a strong pass in English and maths at GCSE, compared with 28% for black pupils eligible for free school meals.

The committee also found that just 16% of white pupils on free school meals went on to university, compared to 59% of Black African and Bangladeshi children on free school meals.

The committee’s findings have been seized upon by some ministers in the Conservative government as proof that more focus should be given to white children from deprived backgrounds, and to downplaying the notion that minority disadvantage should be viewed through the prism of white discrimination.

In response to the report, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that ministers should consider its recommendations and assess “the implications for future government policy.”

Education committee chairman, Robert Halfon, a Conservative lawmaker, said that concepts such as “white privilege” were “alienating to disadvantaged white communities.”

Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, herself born to Nigerian parents, said on Saturday (26 June) that schools should not teach about white privilege, arguing that the phrase “reinforces the notion that everyone and everything around ethnic minorities is racist,” and makes the majority white population of the UK “more conscious about their race […] creating a less cohesive society.”

The reports have prompted an angry backlash from opposition lawmakers and civil society groups.

The opposition Labour party disowned the Education Committee report, with lawmaker Kim Johnson, accusing Conservative MPs, who have a majority on the committee, of “cherry-picking data” to “create a bit of a culture war”.

Meanwhile, Sam Kasumu resigned as Boris Johnson’s adviser for civil society and communities days ahead of the Sewell report’s launch, claiming that the government was taking a direction towards “politics steeped in division.”

In the meantime, the perception of racial discrimination in education remains high. A survey published last October by the YMCA, based on interviews with 557 people of Black or mixed ethnicity aged between 16 and 30 years, found that 49% feel that racism is the largest hurdle to academic attainment. Half of those interviewed also said that teacher perceptions are the biggest barrier to educational success.

The YMCA research also suggested that these experiences continue beyond education, with 86% saying they had experienced racist language in the workplace and more than 54% believing that bias or prejudice – such as their name on a CV – is the main barrier to getting into employment.

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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