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Teaching equality: unconscious bias in education

Updated Thursday, 10 November 2022
How deep is systemic racism in the classroom? Christina Collins reflects on her
experiences as a teacher and what needs to change.

Let me introduce you to a mentoring vignette. It is 2010. I am an eye-poppingly keen Newly Qualified Teacher. I have recently been observed by my mentor Brian with my favourite class. We smashed it, I love them and this meeting is going well.


‘And what about Ellen?’

Brian is looking at me, tapping her name on my planner with the end of his pencil. Ellen Wang (not her real name). I frown.

‘Well, what about her? She’s one of the highest achievers in the class. They’re all brilliant, it’s a top set.’

He nods slowly, but the tapping doesn’t stop. ‘Perhaps, but she’s an EAL student. Can you show me what you’re doing to support her progress?’

I’m stumped. ‘Er, I refer you to the aforementioned …’ I mumble to a halt. Then I try again, saying something more definite about looking into it and reporting back by our next meeting.

Afterwards, I felt a bit cross. As a new teacher, I was fully committed to the ‘Every Child Matters’ principle. All my students were individuals to me – labels be damned! A lot of what I had read in the previous five years convinced me that label culture was limiting, and I would see my student as Ellen Wang first, and Chinese second.

By my second school, I realised that naively hopeful as my principles were, it isn’t that simple. Now at a much more multicultural school in Buckinghamshire, I had plenty of multicoloured labels on my seating plans to designate the Department for Education’s ‘targeted groups;’ English as an Additional Language, Pupil Premium, Special Educational Needs, School Action. All of which categorically avoided identifying Black and brown students and the need to scrutinise their progress against their white counterparts. Perhaps the policy had similar intentions as my younger self – remove labels of race which could reduce pupils to simply a colour and provoke racist preconceptions. But perhaps not.

Teacher helping a student

Advance HE’s Equality and Higher Education Report from 2021 identifies that only 64% of Black male students graduate with a first- or second-class degree compared to 84.5% of white male students. To remove gender, only 26% of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students achieve a first degree compared to 73% of white students. Two things are clear to me from these figures. Firstly, that the awarding gap is undeniably there. Secondly, if higher institutions agree it is necessary to track and report this data, why doesn’t the Department for Education?

But it goes deeper. After reading lots of books about Islam in 2016 to try and better understand my Muslim students, I tried to ‘get down with the kids’ by listening to Camden-based rap artist Akala. I couldn’t get along with the music, but I read his book Natives.

I haven’t been totally ignorant of Britain’s colonial past. I’m a literature student; Rushdie taught me about partition, I know about China’s Opium Wars, even Jane Austen hints at the slave trade. But apart from Akala’s painfully detailed exposition of the real extent of colonialism, I was appalled to realise how much systemic prejudice had slipped into my thinking.

Akala references the OFSTED commissioned ‘Educational Inequality – mapping race, class and gender’ report by David Gillborn and Heidi Safia Mirza from 2000. They examined data from six Local Authorities’ baseline assessments that gauge student intelligence when entering the school system aged five. They found, that in the country’s largest Local Education Agency, Black students entered the school twenty points above the national average as the highest performing ethic group but left school as the lowest performing; twenty-one points below the national average.

And I started to notice it in me. Why did I think it was more critical to engage my Gifted and Talented Black student at GCSE – did I really think he would otherwise end up in a drug gang? When I hovered my pen over grade boundaries for that critical Grade 4, why did I not have the courage to give my Asian student – who honestly, really tried on this one – the next grade up? And was I honest enough to admit to myself my half-felt sense of relief when I got to a Harry or a Sarah in the register, and interrogate that?

Systemic racism is so deep that while we may be convinced we are not racist, we may not be ready to admit our assumptions about what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘other’. My experience in education is that schools are squeamish about approaching this, operating an approach of not ‘seeing colour’ by using alternative labels. Anti-racism is not on INSET agendas; it is not an explicit part of teacher training; the curriculum is still white and relevant data is ignored.

The Department for Education published a report in 2021 on a longitudinal study into ethnic, socio-economic and sex inequalities in educational achievement. It found the most disadvantaged pupils are working class white males. However, this disadvantage is not reflected in economic, health and employment outcomes of this cohort as they grow up. The methodology was also interesting: the study collected data from a recruited representative sample. It is significant that the Department for Education chooses not to use and report on data about progress against ethnicity that it already has, to give a fuller picture. Higher Education does.

Not engaging with the problem of unconscious bias in mainstream education is devastating for both young people and the higher education sector as HE access is not even considered by these excluded cohorts. Universities lead the way in education. Could there be a way that they can use their research to lead the way in calling for change?


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