The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Dr Karamat Iqbal

Whatever happened to equalities?

What have changes to government policies meant for equalities? Dr Karamat Iqbal looks at racism in schools, and the steps that need to be taken to achieve equality.

In the post-war education system, there have been a variety of education policy approaches to equalities. It is an area that is constantly being reviewed and reformulated, depending upon who is in government or heads up the DfE or Ofsted.

When Michael Gove became secretary of state for education in 2010, one of his first decisions was to narrow the focus of Ofsted inspections to just four areas:

  • pupils’ achievement
  • quality of teaching
  • leadership and management
  • pupils’ behaviour and safety.

This meant a de-prioritisation of areas such as community cohesion. Through the same 'streamlining' process of Ofsted, the Coalition had, albeit indirectly, indicated that schools did not need to focus on equalities, including the monitoring of racist incidents.

Unlike the previous government who had developed several ‘centrally driven, targeted interventions for black and minority ethnic pupils’, the new, ‘colour-blind’, approach involved moving away from 'treating people as groups or "equality strands" in need of special treatment'.   

It is generally the case that as soon as such policy change takes place, the related systems and infrastructure are dismantled. In this case all the official guidance and case studies on community cohesion were shelved.

How long before we admit that this was a mistake? 

Teaching standards

Teaching standards were also reviewed to bring them in line with the current education philosophy. The previous standards stressed that the teaching workforce should be ‘representative of society as a whole, and providers should review how their recruitment practice positively promotes equality of access to initial teacher training (ITT) for underrepresented groups’.

There was also a specific focus on teachers’ understanding of diversity, inclusion and children’s ‘religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic influences’.

In the current standards there is no such emphasis, which mainly focuses on the ‘technical’ aspects of the role such as teaching and learning.

And yet, the problems persist.

‘Mutation’ of racism in the workplace

Binna Kandola, an authority on diversity, points to the continued ‘mutation’ of racism in the workplace.

60% of black and 42% of Asian people have experienced racism at work. The discrimination took a variety of forms, including:

  • verbal or physical abuse
  • being excluded from work or social events
  • being falsely accused or criticised by their colleagues or co-workers making assumptions about their ability, character or behaviour based on their ethnicity.

In the context of education, BAMEed, has reported that racism continues to be a reality for minority staff.

Whatever politicians or government agencies decide, the need to address equalities will continue to be with us. Leicester, Luton and Birmingham are already areas where the majority of the population is made up of minorities, and an increasing number of schools are finding their pupil population becoming diverse.

There is plenty of research that recommends that staff in schools should reflect their pupil population and the general diversity of society. 

The DfE’s recent statement of intent on the diversity of the teaching workforce however points out that women and ethnic minority teachers remain under-represented at senior levels, including governors and trustees. Only 4% of governors and trustees were reported to be from an ethnic minority background.

Dealing with racism through teacher training

The increasingly diverse pupil population also has implications for teachers' understanding and competence, especially their capacity for dealing with racism.

This requires a three-pronged approach.

  • Before candidates are given a place on teacher education courses they should be expected to have a basic awareness of multicultural issues.
  • They should be given appropriate training on their teacher education course.
  • This should then be followed up by continuing professional development.

Towards a truly colour-blind world 

Like Martin Luther King Jr, I also look forward to a time when one’s colour or race does not matter. But that time is not yet.

60% of black and 42% of Asian people have experienced racism at work

In Colour-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World, Ellis Cose states that steps need to be taken to take racial inequalities seriously, including taking positive action to deal with the impact of past discrimination.

Public Sector Equality Duty

Schools are still covered by the Public Sector Equality Duty. This expects them to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations amongst different groups.

The duty is also designed to focus on needs of underachieving children, the largest of which are children from disadvantaged homes. For such children the school may respond through:

  • providing study skills support
  • mentoring
  • additional classes
  • higher education visits.

According to the guidance, the duty can help schools in providing good education for all children. When they consider adopting a new policy, for example, they may find it useful to pose the following questions.

  • Does this policy remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by pupils concerned?
  • Do we need to adopt different approaches for different groups of pupils?
  • Is there any way we can encourage these groups of pupils to become more involved with the school or provide opportunities for them that they wouldn't otherwise enjoy? 

Steps to equality

For schools to address equalities seriously, they need to:

  • Identify an equality champion in the senior leadership team and amongst the governors.
  • Ensure there is an up to date strategic equality plan, produced after full consultation amongst the stakeholders.
  • Provide training for all staff and governors which should be reinforced through the staff appraisal system.
  • Monitor regularly, report findings and review processes and systems as necessary.

Remembering Stephen Lawrence

It’s been 20 years since the publication of the Macpherson Report, an inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence.

This report required the national curriculum to value cultural diversity and prevent racism. It asked schools to record and publish all racist incidents, and asked Ofsted to ensure that this was being done.

Another publication from the same period, the Parekh Report (2000) made a number of similar recommendations, including that ‘race equality and cultural diversity should be properly covered in ITT.’ In many ways, they were reiterating messages from the government’s own reports such as the Swann Report (1985), which said that ‘all schools should adopt clear policies to combat racism.’

More needs to be done

Last year, The Guardian reported that there had been a record number of pupils excluded for racist bullying, with experts linking this rise to ‘increased hate crimes and bigotry in society at large’.  

Teachers need to be fully equipped to address racism and prejudice, and every racist incident needs to be closely investigated.

If our education system wishes to honour Stephen’s memory, it needs to look back at, and implement, the Macpherson Report’s recommendations.

Clearly, there is still much work to be done.

Further reading


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