Punishment for black pupils appears harsher

Watchdog’s report points to inconsistency over exclusions

Special report: race issues in the UK

Rebecca Smithers, education correspondent

Guardian

Thursday March 1, 2001

Black pupils appear to be disciplined by teachers more harshly than their white counterparts for similar offences, the government’s schools watchdog claimed yesterday.

Publishing the results of a detailed study of behaviour and attendance in secondary schools, the chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson, said there was no firm evidence of racism in schools but further investigation was needed to get to the root of the problem.

Inspectors from the office for standards in education (Ofsted) visited 10 secondary schools across the country with higher than average levels of bad behaviour and poor attendance and concluded in their report: “The length of fixed-period exclusions varied considerably in some schools between black and white pupils for what were described as the same or similar incidents”.

Some schools treated black pupils more harshly than white in a way which seemed “inconsistent”.

The report, Improving Attendance and Behaviour, claims that while it does not follow that schools treated pupils differently because of their ethnicity, “they certainly could leave both pupils and parents with the impression that they had done so”.

Mr Tomlinson said black pupils were typically suspended for a five-day period for bad or “challenging” behaviour, while their white classmates were removed for only three days. But it was impossible to say how much of the inconsistent treatment was due to racism on the part of teachers.

“I would want to have much more evidence before I would want to say categorically that was the case,” he said.

Mr Tomlinson’s predecessor, Chris Woodhead, was last year criticised by the commission for racial equality for failing to cooperate with a research study into racism.

Earlier this week, the home secretary, Jack Straw, announced new powers giving statutory force to the official campaign to tackle institutional racism in the public sector.

One explanation for the tough action against black pupils, the Ofsted report said, was because teachers felt intimidated. Yet there were also cases where teachers appeared to be reluctant to discipline black Caribbean boys for minor misdemeanours out of fear of accusations of racism, “thus allowing bad behaviour to escalate and be dealt with through the severe sanction of exclusion”.

Overall, the rate of exclusions has fallen from the all-time high of 12,668 four years ago, with black pupils six times more likely to be excluded from school than their white peers. The report concludes that good teaching is the key to getting pupils to school and in meeting the needs of those most at risk of disaffection.

In addition, boys were four times more likely to be expelled than girls, although girls were largely responsible for sustained bullying. And 66% of permanent exclusions in the schools surveyed involved pupils aged 13 to 15.

Attendance was still a cause of concern, with national average levels in secondary schools edging up over the past four years from 92.6% to 93%. Generally, schools in “leafy suburbs” had better attendance, but even these were affected by parents taking pupils for holidays in school time.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: “It is no coincidence that Ofsted is drawing attention to behaviour problems at a time of teacher shortage. Pupils like stability and in many schools that stability has disappeared as one supply teacher after another takes their classes.”

The shadow education secretary, Theresa May, said: “These findings show the importance of schools having well-defined discipline policies and the freedom to stick to them.”

Improving Attendance and Behaviour in Secondary Schools is available at Ofsted

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