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Are Exclusions Fair? Part 2: Race

October 27, 2018

I have written a couple of posts recently about permanent exclusions and the movement against them.

I also wrote about the ideology behind some of this.

I also wrote about what happens when schools don’t permanently exclude:

There have been a few recurring arguments that exclusions, as they currently happen, are unfair. I wrote one post addressing whether the argument that they are unfair to students with SEND here:

Are Exclusions Fair? Part 1: SEND

Another recurring claim is that permanent exclusions are racist. The argument goes like this:

  1. The rate of permanent exclusions differs between ethnic groups.
  2. It would be racist to claim that there were differences in behaviour between different ethnic groups.
  3. Because of point 2, the only (or the best) explanation for Point 1 is that children are being excluded from school because of some kind of racism.

The thought that one might be accused of racism is actually pretty terrifying for white, middle class people working in education, so this not terribly convincing argument often goes unchallenged. As it is, I’m sure some of the most toxic elements of edutwitter will accuse me of racism just for being a white man talking about race without starting from the premise that I am an oppressor and anyone who isn’t white is the oppressed. But if I feared malicious accusations, I’d probably never post at all.

Going back to the argument above, the first point, i.e. that the rate of exclusions differs between ethnic groups, is actually true, as shown by the figures for 2016/17, but this is still worth looking at in slightly greater detail.What is slightly misleading in the use of percentages in the debate about permanent exclusions, is that you miss how small the numbers are. Black Caribbean students might be excluded at a higher rate than white students, and most of the claims about race stem from this fact, but there are only 260 Black Caribbean students excluded from England’s 30 000 schools in 2016-17. For the most “over-represented” group, Irish travellers, there were 25 students excluded in 2016-17. It will be worth remembering, that when we talk about permanent exclusions discriminating against young people on grounds of race, we are not talking about a huge, anonymous bureaucracy; we are talking about the decisions of probably around 1% of headteachers in a given year. With turnover so high among headteachers, and different ethnic groups not being evenly distributed across the country, the vast majority of headteachers will never have excluded anyone from an ethnic group that is over-represented in the figures. Those who have, will probably have excluded so few children of any ethnic group that they could recall every one of those children, and recall exactly why they made that difficult choice. When people say exclusions are racist, they are not condemning “the system”, they are condemning real people making difficult choices concerning the interests of children they know well.

The second point, that it would be racist to claim that there were differences in behaviour between different ethnic groups, is the one that causes the biggest problems with having a rational debate about this subject. Because it is morally urgent that we don’t judge people by their race, we may be scared to acknowledge that aggregating ethnic groups does not reveal every group to be statistically identical. This is why it is so important to look at the actual numbers involved. The statistics on exclusions suggest that there are around 170 black Caribbean students in England’s 30 000 schools who behave worse than you’d expect if you assume that extreme behaviour occurs at the same rate in black Caribbean students as white students. This should not reflect on the 99.76% of black Caribbean students who are not excluded, but some people are so worried that it might, that they would rather deny without evidence that those 170 students should have been excluded. They might even imply that the 170 headteachers who made those decisions were racists.

However, if we don’t start from the assumption that every ethnic group will be statistically identical, but instead try to justify that claim, this way of looking at things rapidly falls apart. When you aggregate different ethnic groups, you will find that when you look at an entire ethnic group, there are differences of:

  • social class;
  • geography;
  • parental education;
  • religion;
  • level of religious observance;
  • family size and structure;
  • history;
  • culture;
  • health;
  • peer group;
  • politics.

Because this is at an aggregate level, nothing here would justify judging individuals. But it would be absolutely amazing if, given these differences, not to mention many more that didn’t spring to mind as I wrote the list, each group turned out to have children who, in aggregate, behave in an identical way. If anything, the incredible thing is how small the differences between children from different ethnic groups are when looking at the permanent exclusion figures. I suspect that the discrepancies in the figures mentioned earlier could probably be explained in full by very few of the factors on the list. Geography alone might explain a lot. After all, if more black Caribbean students go to challenging, urban comprehensives in disadvantaged areas, would we really expect black Caribbean students to have identical behaviour to an ethnic group that is better represented in leafy, suburban schools? Peer group effects are also likely to be enormous, particularly when you consider individual students in individual schools.

If we move away from wishful thinking, and playing “gotcha” with middle class white people who are scared to talk about race, is anyone really going to claim that the amount of serious misbehaviour in schools is identical across ethnic groups? How about other demographics where an assumption of equal worth is desirable like social class, or gender? Is anyone going to claim that rich Chinese girls will assault teachers as often as white working class boys? At the very least, anyone claiming that exclusion rates are too high for a particular ethnic group needs to do a multi-variate analysis (tricky when numbers are so small), not just compare headline rates.

And finally, we can look at the third point, that the only (or the best) explanation for differences in exclusion rates is because of some kind of racism. The first and most obvious reason to doubt this is to look at the figures above again. If there was a racist agenda behind exclusions, we’d be looking for people who are very racist against travellers, black Caribbeans and those from mixed race backgrounds. They’d be only moderately prejudiced against black Africans and white people. They’d be fine with pretty much every Asian group. Does this actually match up with the racial prejudices of any group in English society? Are there really headteachers who would think that if a black Caribbean kid sets fire to the science block it’s an exclusion offence, but if a black African kid did it, then it’s okay? Are we really saying that where there is racism in schools, it works in favour of Asian kids, not against them?

Beyond that, we should again refer back to just how small the numbers of permanently excluded kids are. We are probably looking at the decisions of less than a couple of hundred headteachers that cause the “discrepancy” out of a slightly larger population of headteachers who have excluded students from “over-represented” groups. Are they racist? Not all of them will be white, does that affect our willingness to make accusations? At this point the goal posts usually move. It’s not that the people making the decisions are explicitly racist; it is implicit bias or systematic racism that is the problem. This is conveniently unfalsifiable. Nobody can prove that a few hundred headteachers making the controversial decisions aren’t the servants of an unconscious bias or a system of privilege. But, at the same time, they are only a few hundred people. It’s hard not to hold them responsible for their decisions. Should every headteacher who excludes a black Caribbean or Irish traveller student, be under suspicion in this way even if we say their prejudice was unconscious or the system made them do it? No doubt some believe that our society is so racist at every level that the burden of proof lies on those who don’t think racism is the explanation for any given social phenomena and that “innocent until proven guilty” simply doesn’t apply in these cases. However, we my end up finding it hard to get people to become heads in schools with high ethnic minority populations if we treat them as either racists or agents of a racist system when they do their jobs.

Finally, a few points as to why reducing exclusions is not going to advance the interests of ethnic minorities or combat racism. Firstly, ethnic minorities are not distributed equally across the country, or even across any given city. Schools are often more segregated than they should be. This means that the ethnicity of those being excluded for their behaviour is often the same as the ethnicity of some of their victims. If we stopped excluding black Caribbean kids for, say, sexual assault, then we might well increase the number of black Caribbean kids who are sexually assaulted. Secondly, racist abuse and behaviour is a reason for excluding some kids. If schools are forced to reduce the number of exclusions, then they may well feel obliged to tolerate more racism. Thirdly, reducing exclusions might not reduce the racial gap in exclusions. If headteachers are pressured to permanently exclude fewer students, there is absolutely no reason to assume that this will affect the ethnic mix of the excluded. Finally, we should challenge the narrative that exclusion is always against the interest of the excluded child. We don’t know that those who are excluded are losing out because of it, they may be benefiting, but I’ll look at that in more detail at a later date.

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4 comments

  1. Being that I have neither a Twitter account nor a salary to protect, I feel quite safe in saying that obsessing about racism is racist.
    I don’t know anyone who would be the slightest bit concerned about working or socialising with people whose ancestors came from Africa or Asia, and most white people I know can point to a relative who’s married someone from a different ethnic group.


  2. […] Teaching in British schools « Are Exclusions Fair? Part 2: Race […]


  3. […] Are Exclusions Fair? Part 2: Race […]



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