Tackling racial discrimination in schools

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A NASUWT and the Runnymede Trust report concluded a pervasive culture of racism persists in schools

Researchers found that 31% of black and minority ethnic (BME) teachers had experienced discrimination in the workplace, 79% believed that they were not paid at a level ‘commensurate with their skills and experiences’, and 64% had experienced ‘verbal abuse by pupils’.

Let’s be clear at the outset, a school will be liable for its own acts of racism. It will also be liable for racism by its staff unless it can prove that it took ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent it. Although liability for racism committed by third parties, such as pupils or parents, is less clear cut schools should deal with it appropriately because it creates a hostile working environment. Discrimination claims can prove very costly, because the compensation available (which can include compensation for injured feelings) is unlimited.

So what steps can a school take to ensure that its BME staff are protected from racism, and how should it deal with complaints of discrimination and harassment?

1. Have a legally-complaint equal opportunities policy

Having an equal opportunities policy which clearly explains the school’s commitment to eradicating discrimination and treating staff equally is a school’s first line of defence. It creates the framework for minimising the risk of discrimination. It should be coupled with either a robust grievance procedure, or dignity at work policy designed specifically to deal with discrimination complaints. Having these policies and procedures in place goes part-way towards establishing that the school has taken ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent discrimination.

2. Train all staff on the policy

The second step in establishing that the school has taken ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent discrimination is having an equal opportunities training programme. All staff should receive equal opportunities training so that they understand the dos and don’ts, and how to complain if they encounter discrimination. It’s also often worth reminding staff that they can be personally liable for their own acts of harassment or discrimination.

The level of equalities training should be appropriate to the staff member’s role e.g. department heads should receive a higher level of training, because they will have supervisory responsibility for other teachers, and those making recruitment decisions should receive specialist training on interview technique. Equalities training should be refreshed at regular intervals (usually at least bi-annually).

3. Take appropriate action and enforce the policy

Unfortunately, an equal opportunities policy and training will only go so far to minimise the risk. It is important to tackle any complaints about discrimination or harassment head on. Investigate discrimination complaints thoroughly, and take appropriate action to deal with them. This may include taking disciplinary action against the staff member who has acted in a discriminatory manner. You may also need to make changes to your own policies and procedures (e.g. to remove any indirect discrimination against BME staff or candidates). Remember that someone complaining about discrimination receives special protection from victimisation, so be careful not to be seen to ‘punish’ them in any way for making a complaint about discrimination.

4. Consider monitoring

Monitoring can help a school to identify any areas of risk, because you can only take steps to fix a problem after you have identified it. Monitoring recruitment patterns may identify the need to advertise vacancies more widely so that more BME candidates apply, or if BME candidates do less well in the selection process you may need to take steps to remove any disadvantage they suffer. Monitoring promotion decisions, or decisions about pay progression, may also highlight areas of concern. Monitoring the number and nature of discrimination complaints may highlight patterns of behaviour, or discriminatory treatment, which need to be addressed.

Unfortunately, whilst it is probably impossible to eradicate discrimination from our schools altogether, schools can greatly minimise the risk by taking the steps outlined above and, in turn, create a healthy working environment for all members of staff.

Luke Green is a partner and head of schools at Hill Dickinson

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