Scotland’s schools have recorded over 3,000 racist incidents in the past five years, according to figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats through Freedom of Information requests. While this may seem shocking to some, we’re confident that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In 2012, CRER undertook detailed research into racist incident recording practices and policies in Scotland’s schools. What we found was a patchy, problematic range of approaches. Based on research carried out by Respectme and LGBT Youth Scotland for the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2015, little appears to have changed since then.
In our experience, two key problems make racist incident recording in Scotland’s schools ineffective. Firstly, a lack of understanding of the nature of racism and its impact in schools beyond direct cases of bullying; and secondly, disjointed recording processes and practices within schools.
Scotland’s education departments have had plenty of time to develop effective policy and practice in this area. Recording of all racist incidents in schools was a key recommendation of the Macpherson Report, the publication which cemented the definition of a racist incident as ‘Any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’ in 1999.
That understanding seems to have rolled back, replaced by a defensive arrogance which both misinterprets what racism means and puts more emphasis on pandering to white sensitivities about ‘being called racist’ than it does on protecting children from racism. This attitude persists despite the clear fact that it’s the incident (not the child or the school) which is being recorded as ‘racist’.
However, our 2012 research did find some examples of good policy making in local authority education departments on racist incident recording. This should be capitalised on at a national level so that children in all areas can benefit, putting an end to the current ‘post code lottery’ approach which makes it so difficult for parents in some areas to challenge schools’ failure to deal with racism.
In our experience, racism in schools is still a serious problem and we are not convinced that current approaches to tackling it are working. Even although we aren’t funded to provide advice services, CRER regularly hears from parents whose children have faced serious harassment, physical violence and psychological torment at the hands of their classmates. In many cases, these parents report being dismissed, belittled and (somewhat ironically) even bullied when they try to seek help for their children. And it’s not just school children who are affected. The majority of perpetrators of racist hate crimes in Scotland are young men who have recently been through the school system. If the system was working properly, they would know better.
In an interview with the Times Educational Supplement, Louis Kushnick (race equality activist and Professor Emeritus at Manchester University) put forward a strong argument for mandatory incident reporting as a tool for social change: “Do we want a society characterised by stupidity, bigotry and ignorance? Or do we want our children to be at ease with the world? ...If we don’t raise our children to be decent human beings, they’ll bring into school what they’re consuming elsewhere and no one will challenge it... If you don’t have monitoring you have no way of identifying the scale of the problem. And if you leave it up to schools, there’s no reward for flagging it up.” Our research supports that view.
The EHRC’s research from 2015 also demonstrated that while practice on race is mixed, most other forms of prejudice based incident aren’t recorded at all. But with no central guidance or collation of statistics to give momentum to this work, it’s perhaps little wonder that practice is often so poor. It’s time for Scotland to develop a national strategy on recording and responding to all forms of prejudice based incidents in schools. Our children’s wellbeing depends on it.