Nicholas is assistant head at a large, East London secondary school. After a career of work in areas such as underachievement, he is currently working on a PhD in race and education.
Do schools take the understanding of why certain groups underachieve seriously enough?
Nicholas believe we generally take it as a ‘given’ that certain types of children underachieve and out job is to do something about this rather than considering why these children are underachieving in the first place.
Is the underachievement of ethnic minority children due to a racist school system?
Nicholas believes this is true but it’s only part of the answer. When we speak about underachievement, people are happier to engage when it’s bases on a ‘deficit model’ – there’s something wrong with the child, the family, the background, the culture or the community. However, when you try and talk about the education system being institutionally racist, it gets closed down pretty quickly. This is the part of the problem that the education system hasn’t been brave enough to tackle yet in any meaningful way.
How do we facilitate and encourage these conversations?
However odd it sounds, Nicholas believes we need to create an environment in which it is safe to have these conversations. Governments starting the process to legislate against institutional racism in schools would be a very difficult thing to do (but it does need to happen). However, we can start by asking ‘what can schools do?’ They can start to consider what they should be doing in their training sessions, in their environments, in their policies.
We can start to point to the instances of institutional racism in our own institutions and begin to invite staff to question their role in it. For example, does the way we set children in our own school reflect a notion of the potential of different groups?
Is the act of defining any minority group – fuelling the problem at he same time as trying to solve it?
There is a danger of this, according to Nicholas but what it does do is bring to light phenomena which are already taking place. A large part of the responsibility of underachievement amongst minorities is down to the system itself. Pointing this out might be criticised as labelling other students who are going through the system. However, this kind of inequality needs to be brought to the attention of government and it’s already being done by researchers and academics. It’s better, according to Nicholas to accept that there is a risk to highlighting what’s going on in order to try and redress the situation.
Should we be targetting underachieving groups who aren’t ethnic minorities in the same way?
Nicholas believes we should. It’s most important to find out why they are underachieving in the first place but he does warn against just using raw information like progress data on its own. It is possible to hide underachievement by just focussing on the achievement data and not taking other factors into consideration. However important data is, we must not lose the element of humanity.
What can we do about recruiting more ethnic minority teachers?
Nicholas agrees that targetting ethnic minority children might be part of the solution and he points out that getting a more ethnically diverse teaching population is helpful but it’s more important to have a staff who are prepared to communicate and collaborate with the local community. Also, there aren’t enough black and minority leaders in the system – and Nicholas sees this as a real problem.
Nicholas’ Top Tips for making progress:
- Have an open and honest debate in your school about why certain groups are underachieving and define the systems and processes which work to the disadvantage of these groups
- Challenge practice
- Find out what the impact is of the changes you make – make sure you review