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Racism In Schools : Why Unconscious Bias Training Isn’t Enough.

Why is racism so hard to eradicate in our schools? Venessa Joshua shows how Critical Race Theory can explain its nuanced and persistent nature and is the key to fighting it

Education is key to the anti-racist fight. Alas, research suggests that racism is still deeply embedded in our school systems.[1]

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, many organisations, including schools, are looking for ways to address, or to be seen as addressing, racism. The drive to stamp out racism has seen charities, corporate firms and even the Labour Party turn to unconscious bias training.[2] However, if unconscious bias training is treated as a panacea for tackling racism in our education system, we will fail to address the system-level causes and consequences that result in:

  • Black Caribbean students being excluded from school at a three times higher rate than white British students;[3]
  • Widespread racist bullying, with 61% of school staff and 32% of students under 15 witnessing such incidents;[4]
  • A lack of diversity in teaching staff, with white teachers accounting for 92% of teachers, and only 3% of headteachers coming from an ‘ethnic minority background’.[5]

This article therefore uses Critical Race Theory to argue that by ignoring structural racism, unconscious bias training misses the root cause of racism and does not go far enough as a solution.

While Critical Race Theory (CRT) is not a programme, or training session, that can fit neatly into an inset day, it provides a piece of the puzzle to help us understand how far we have to go in tackling racism in education, and why unconscious bias training alone, will never be enough.

What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical race theory (CRT) broadly is a way of explaining how race has been constructed and transformed into racial inequality. The intellectual movement began in the 1970s, headed by legal scholars in the US seeking to understand why racism persisted despite the passing of civil rights legislation. CRT arrived in the UK a little later, gaining prominence within the field of educational research in the early 2000s.[6]

The most prominent thinkers in the UK are David Gilborn and Paul Warmington who both have an interest in CRT and its implications for education in the UK. Both have written extensively on the topic. Although it has roots in legal theory, it has become important in understanding how racism impacts education, specifically framing peoples understanding around academic testing, classroom dynamics, exclusions, and the lack of diversity in the curriculum.

While there is no single statement that defines CRT, there are a few basic tenets.

A core tenet of CRT posits that racism is so deeply entrenched that it is not abnormal, rather it has become the ‘norm’.[7] It emphasises that often racism does not happen in explicit forms, rather it is more nuanced and subtle, and built into our structures. It emphasises that often, racism is not explicit or easy to spot and point out, racism is not just slurs and abuse hurled in the street. Rather, racism is built into our structures and institutions, which is why we see system level disparities between BAME people and white people in many aspects of society. In the UK, the term ‘institutional racism’ first entered popular discourse following the 1999 Macpherson report which defined it as:

‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’.[8]

Unfortunately, over twenty years later institutional racism in the UK continues, this is evident in the fact that:

  • Young BAME people are more likely to be registered on ‘gang’ lists by police;[9]
  • Black people are still nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people;[10]
  • People in all minority ethnic groups have a higher proportion of people living in overcrowded homes compared to white British people.[11]

The list goes on and on.

Unconscious bias doesn’t go far enough…

Because unconscious bias training aims to tackle discrimination and prejudice by making people more aware of the impact their biases have on individual decisions and actions, it fails to help people understand or address structural racism. This is not to say that unconscious bias does not exist or that it is not an important component of understanding racism: unconscious bias is grounded in CRT, as racism is so embedded in society it also permeates our ideas thinking and influences our actions.

Two primary school girls in class, close up

However, by focusing on the impact of people’s individual thoughts and biases when trying to racism, the influence that structures have is ignored and frames racism as something that happens ‘unconsciously’ in our minds. Unconscious bias training doesn’t question or address where these ideas come from nor does it frame them within the power structures that allow them to exist. In order to be impactful, real anti-racist work must acknowledge the influence that structural racism has on our ideas and material realities and it cannot frame discussions around biases and individual actions.

What should schools do?

The struggle against racism will have to be multifaceted. The pervasive nature of racism means there is no ‘magic bullet’ that will solve it, and those that want to embed an anti-racist agenda are in for a protracted fight. Critical race theorists suggest that schools must take several steps to tackle racism, relying on multiple sources of information and going beyond training which focuses on individuals’ biases. Suggested steps schools can take include:

  • Use your data: if the data starts to highlight that certain groups are overrepresented in undesirable categories, the next step is to enact change.[12]
  • Increase racial literacy of school staff:[13]Currently the majority of our teaching workforce is white, and many go into teaching feeling they are not ‘racially literate’. In their report on racism in secondary schools, Runnymede argue that the racial literacy should developed on an ongoing basis. This depends on teachers being given the time and resources to begin this journey.[14] Suggested readings can be found here.
  • Diversify your curriculum to increase racial diversity: Our current curriculum fails to reflect the racial diversity of British society. Schools should use the curriculum to teach students about the history of structural racism and use lessons too
  • Embed clear, anti-racist policies and think of the impact that guidelines on ‘neutral’ policies such as uniform and hair have on BAME students: It is important that when trying to tackle racism, schools create explicit, anti-racist policies. Additionally, schools should think about the impact that policies in seemingly ‘neutral’ areas such as hair have on BAME students. In recent years there have been numerous cases of Black students being excluded because their hair was not deemed to be ‘appropriate’ for schools. Schools should therefore think about such policies, and ensure students are not inadvertently impacted by them.

Focusing change on policies and practice and monitoring patterns and change using data leads to more sustainable change, avoids placing the blame for structural inequality on individuals and demonstrates a schools’ explicit commitment to addressing racism.

Venessa Joshua is a researcher (and former excluded student ) at the Centre for Education and Youth

In our upcoming session at the InclusiveEd conference, we use Critical Race Theory as an analytical tool to understand how racism is embedded in our education system, exploring topics such as exclusions, attainment, leading onto a discussion on the more nuanced ways it impacts BAME students and teachers. The session will explore, in more depth, the ways in which schools can begin to develop an anti-racist agenda. You can find out more details about the conference and sign up here!












[12] 1606632.

[13] Runnymede’s definition of ‘racial literacy’ is used here, which refers to “the capacity of teachers to understand the ways in which race and racisms work in society, and to have the skills, knowledge and confidence to implement that understanding in teaching practice.”


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