Could some white teachers’ low expectations of non-white ethnic minority pupils violate the requirements of the equality and race acts currently in operation in the United Kingdom?

By Kamil Trzebiatowski (2012)

for the University of the West of Scotland

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits schools in the United Kingdom from discrimination against the protected groups, such as different genders, races and disabled people. Supported by the earlier Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and placing duty on public authorities, including schools, to promote equal opportunities and good relationship between people from various racial backgrounds, it appears to be a powerful tool to ensure racial equality in the United Kingdom. However, as Smith (2010) observes certain teachers and school staff in Britain continue to hold racist views. Currently working at a high school in Edinburgh, where the vast majority of teachers are white, and having previously worked at an ethnically diverse high school in London, I took a particular interest in the possible impact that white teachers’ attitudes towards ethnic minorities might have on pupils’ self-esteem and achievement, particularly when teachers hold stereotypes and misguided perceptions about other cultures. Since it is teachers at schools who deliver the curriculum to ethnically diverse pupils, a question arises of whether or not white teachers might have low expectations of their non-white pupils from ethnic minorities as opposed to their white peers. This could be seen to be in violation of the provisions of the race and equality acts and the inclusive education philosophy. This essay will analyse the pertinent content of school-related equality and race acts currently in operation, examining a selection of theories related to racism, whiteness and multicultural education and its issues in the UK. Further, it will inspect the impact of teachers’ low expectations of ethnic minority pupils on their self-esteem and potential sources of such teachers’ views. Finally, it will consider how these issues impact on the successful fulfilment of both the Acts and inclusive education in my own professional circumstances (in Scotland) and will conclude by providing recommendations for improvements in the future.

First of all, it is vital to analyse the requirements of the equality and race acts, currently in operation in the UK. Race is listed by the Equality Act 2010 as one of its protected characteristics. In part 6, the Act states that the responsible body of a school shall not discriminate “in the way it provides education for the pupil”, “in the way it affords the pupil access to a benefit, facility or service” or “by subjecting pupil to any other detriment” (2010, p.55). The Code of Practice: Schools in Scotland (2011) clarifies that indirect discrimination takes place when pupils who have protected characteristics are put at a particular disadvantage when compared to other learners. It also adds that “disadvantage” itself is not defined in the Equality Act 2010; however, the Code explains that it can be seen as a similar notion to “detriment” (5.10, p.55). The Code also makes it clear that if a school puts a pupil at a clear (emphasis added) disadvantage, it would constitute “less favourable treatment” (4.5, p.36) and would be considered direct discrimination. The prohibition of putting pupils at a disadvantage / detriment is further supported in the Code’s Chapter 11 which states that all pupils are to be provided with the same opportunities (11.11, p.124) and that a detriment to a pupil might occur even if the school believes they are “acting in the pupil’s best interests” (11.17, p.127). This implies that it would be discriminatory of a teacher not to offer a choice of higher-level exam to a minority pupil even if the teacher in question felt it was in the pupil’s best interest to remain at a “safer level”.

Another act that places requirements on schools in the UK to ensure the rights of ethnic minorities is the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. It states that public authorities, including schools, have a duty to promote equality and good relationships between representatives of different races.

The aforementioned Acts may be seen as functioning in accordance with the philosophy of inclusive education. In 1994, The Salamanca Statement, a UNESCO publication and a product of 25 international organizations, proclaimed every child’s right to education and urged all countries to reform their educational systems to include all of their diverse learners, regardless of their physical, emotional, social or linguistic circumstances. Over the years, a number of definitions of inclusion have been developed: Ainscow (2007) notes that in some countries inclusive education is still regarded as an approach aiding only the needs of children with disabilities, but he also observes that a growing number of countries have adopted the view of inclusive education as providing for all learners and accommodating all differences. In discussing this, it is important to distinguish between integration and inclusion (Ainscow, 1995, in Frederickson and Cline, 2002): integration is about making certain arrangements for certain pupils without overall changes to schools; inclusion, however, is about a major overhaul of the school in terms of physical structure, curricula, procedures and practices. Index for inclusion (2002) claims that inclusion in education is about valuing all students and staff equally and removing barriers to education for all students. It also stresses that those included are not only those with special educational needs. Evans (2007) adds that inclusion is “about looking out for those individuals who, for whatever reason, may find themselves left out or overlooked” (p.5). Sapon-Shevin (2007) describes inclusive education as supporting all students in a school, regardless of their strengths, weaknesses or labels. She goes on to suggest that inclusion is about accommodating various cultures and beliefs within mainstream classrooms.

Ensuring inclusion in a classroom will be the responsibility of a teacher; therefore, it is important to consider the inclusive teacher’s qualities required for the task. Hamill and Clark (2005) suggest it is a teacher who has faith in the learners, who treats pupils fairly and equally, does not negatively stereotype, welcomes diversity, provides opportunities for all learners and has very high expectations for all pupils. In relation to teaching pupils from diverse ethnic backgrounds, it is a teacher who will see a potential to attain and succeed in all his or her pupils, regardless of their race or ethnicity, and ensure that they achieve. Unfortunately, it appears this is often not the case: for instance, a 2002-2003 Her Majesty Inspectorate of Education report finds that “good practice, tackling racism and promoting race equality is not consistent across Scotland”(2005).

Promoting race equality, ensuring that barriers to learning for ethnic minority pupils are removed and that pupils from diverse ethnic backgrounds achieve is, as already mentioned before, largely in the hands of the classroom teachers. Thus, it is crucial to examine white teachers’ attitudes to other races and how they might influence their actions in the classrooms and mainstream schools. Meertens and Pettigrew (1997) make a distinction between ‘blatant racism’ and ‘subtle racism’: blatant racism is direct and delivered up-close. Subtle racists, however, view minorities as “others” and behaviour of such “others” is valued in terms of subtle racists’ own values. Gaertner and Dovidio (2000, in Deal) also propose that such negative feelings can stem not from feelings of hatred but rather discomfort or fear. Teachers, coming to the education profession from all walks of life and societal circumstances, might often experience such feelings.

Critical Race Theory (CRT), as described by Ladson-Billings (1998), whilst originated in the American context, might offer certain insights into the nature of such perceptions. CRT claims that racism (the hegemony of the white race) is weaved into the structure of society so much that it no longer appears abnormal to people in the culture. Conteh’s (2003) research with teachers in England appears to support CRT’s claims: some of them, reflecting on their work with ethnic minority pupils, appear to believe that in order to be successful in an English school one needs to be like the English. Whiteness, or in this case “Englishness”, is seen as natural and ethnic minorities are being “othered”. Pearce (2003), in reflecting on her own practice as a teacher in a British primary school, concludes that the whites have a tendency to see whiteness as neutral and marginalise ethnicity, often out of guilt and fear.

Such “hidden subtle racism” might be exacerbated by the existence of institutionalized racism. First officially identified in Great Britain by MacPherson (1999, in Pilkington, 2008), institutional racism has been defined as failing to provide services to people of different races, cultures or ethnic origin. It amounts to discrimination through stereotyping, ignorance and prejudice, disadvantaging ethnic minorities. Pilkington (2008) acknowledges the importance on placing duty on public bodies to tackle racial discrimination and promote equality, but also remarks that the conventional view of Britain – white majority against ethnic minorities (us and them) remains. As such, it may influence the way white teachers act, even if unwittingly, in their classrooms.

There exists a real danger that such hidden, subconscious racist notions may be communicated in a class by a teacher. Tiedt & Tiedt (2005) warn that children are very sensitive to hidden messages passed on in the classroom by teachers. In the opinion of South Asian children in Bhatti’s (1999) research, good teachers are those who never touch on racist topics (racist and stereotyping teachers were always ‘bad’), who are sensitive about other cultures and languages and were frequently described as ‘caring teachers’ (p.142).

Rubie-Davies (2010) conducted a study on how teacher expectations are related to perceptions of students attitudes to education and how such perceptions relate to student achievements and found that teachers with high expectations created positive classroom community, viewed their pupils optimistically, manifested care and respect for their pupils (thus confirming findings in Bhatti’s research) and revealing a positive relationship between the way they perceived their students attitudes and those students’ achievement.

Black Caribbean pupils in both Scotland and England might perhaps be victims of low teacher expectations. The official national statistics demonstrate very low attainment of this group when compared with other non-white ethnic groups (Scottish Executive, 2006; DFES, 2006). It has been suggested that Black Caribbean pupils might be less likely to be entered for higher tier exams than their white peers: perhaps due to the fact that the teachers’ view of their academic abilities might be skewed by the perception of their behaviour – which might only be perceived as challenging (Strand, 2011). Such perceptions, putting Black children at clear disadvantage, might be resulting from white teachers’ ignorance and constructing Black children’s behaviours on the basis of normative whiteness (Wright 2010). Of concern are teachers’ remaining deficit perceptions of African Caribbean students; and of perhaps even greater concern is the fact that the Black pupils know themselves that they are seen as undesirable (Youdell 2003) – leading one to a conclusion that their own self-esteem might be severely affected. White-centric curricula might exacerbate this problem: Ochieng (2010) suggests that providing African Caribbean students with some African Caribbean content in the curriculum would serve to enhance their academic achievement and boost their self-esteem; therefore, structuring learning around White-only concepts has an esteem-lowering effect.

Teacher expectations play just as important a role in the case of teaching South Asian children in the UK. Whilst Crozier (2009) finds that teachers believe that Bangladeshi and Pakistani children do not value education, have low aspirations and their parents expect little educationally of their children, he also discovers that all parents find education as highly desirable for their children, but are frequently concerned with the impact of Western values on their daughters morality and the potential culture of alcohol drinking conformity pressures on their sons. This is further confirmed by Abbas (2002) who claims that teachers’ high expectations can increase their pupils’ aspirations and willingness to attend universities. Finally, Bhatti says that many sixth form Asian children retaking their exams felt that “teachers did not press Asian pupils as much as they could have” (p.156, in Ladson-Billings, 2004). In her study the young people believed that questionable misbehaviour of certain Asian learners at the school translated into lower expectations of teachers towards all Asian children. Some children felt they should have been given more homework or felt disappointed with teachers who saw B grades as sufficient achievement for Asian pupils.

These observations indicate that some white teachers hold low expectations of children and young people from ethnic minority backgrounds, such as Black children and Asian children. How, therefore, are such views first constructed? Both Jones (1999) and Hayes and Stidder (2003) make observations that stereotypes are often held of ethnic minority children, for instance that black children are better at sports and not as academically clever as white children. Some teachers make a number of cultural and racial assumptions, equating, for example, wearing traditional Islamic clothes to being passive and, conversely, wearing tracksuits as culture defiance and being ‘westernised’ (Conteh, 1999). Tiedt and Tiedt (2005) advise that in order to deliver truly inclusive education teachers need to not trivialise or tokenise cultures (e.g. deliver multicultural education only about food or holidays or having only one multicultural display in a classroom among all other white or European-centric). Such approaches may only serve to confirm stereotyping and, as Gaine (2005) suggests, “we need to discriminate between people in order to make sure we don’t discriminate against them” (p.21) as all ethnic groups are diverse internally and are not homogenous (Basit and Santoro, 2011).

Some teachers appear to link social status with children’s intelligence (Jones 1999) and since social deprivation has been linked to under-achievement among ethnic minority children in Scotland (Arshad et al., 2004), it is arguable that some teachers might expect less of ethnic minority pupils in their classes due to their social class.

Such low expectations, stemming from stereotyping and cultural ignorance and belief in homogeneity within cultures may lead to the expectations that teachers from ethnic minority backgrounds will become mentors and role models for minority pupils: however, as Basit and Santoro (2011) found, such teachers may often face excessive workload and responsibilities, due to being the only experts in the field at a school. Also, statistically there is less than 1.4 per cent of non-white teachers in Scottish schools and and 5.1 per cent in English schools (A National Statistic Publication in Scotland, 2008; DfES, 2008), thus it is currently unlikely that such a group will have quantitatively significant presence amongst teaching staff in every school in the UK.  Finally, it may be argued that the assertion that white teachers are unable to effectively teach ethnic minority students does not hold ground: if so, why should it be assumed that black teachers will be able to teach white students? I advocate that all teachers teach all children, regardless of their ethnicity and background, thus being in agreement with the recommendation of inclusive education philosophy and requirements of the equality and race acts.

In conclusion, the Equality Act 2010 requires teachers in Scotland not to discriminate against any pupils (therefore including those from ethnic minority backgrounds) in the way it provides them with education and access to any service. Schools are also not to do anything else that is detrimental to pupils. This is strongly supported by the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, requiring schools to promote good relationships between different races. These stipulations are in accordance with the inclusive education philosophy, which, as I stated above, asks that each pupil is treated as an individual, that barriers to their learning are removed and that teachers have faith in their pupils, welcome diversity and have high expectations of all, allowing them to achieve as high as possible.

I argue that certain teachers’ deficit views and low expectations of their ethnic minority pupils, as exemplified earlier in this essay, are detrimental to pupils’ self-esteem and hence achievement and are contrary to the stipulations of the legal acts and the assertions of inclusive education: they disadvantage pupils, do not allow them to use educational services (such as lessons) to their full extent and instead of removing barriers, erect them. In my essay, I have drawn attention to how some white teachers’ cultural ignorance, stereotyping and continuing to view the society in terms of “white and the rest” may lead to them perceiving ethnic minority students as less academically able. This is contrary to having high expectations of all and allowing everyone to achieve. The case of Black pupils not being entered for more challenging exams due to teachers’ difficulty distinguishing between behaviour and academic potential is a case in point.

The high school in Scotland where I work is staffed largely by white teachers. Repeatedly, I have witnessed certain ethnic minority students left by their teachers on their own, with little expectation of them to complete tasks, thus not allowing them to contribute to lessons in any way. Such pupils often suffer from the white-centric curriculum, where certain teachers do not recognize their academic potential, alienating them from an otherwise white society.

I contend that some teachers’ low expectations of ethnic minority students, possibly strengthened by the existence of institutionalized racism and white-centric curricula, results in practices integrative in nature, but not inclusionary. The practices and curricula do not serve ethnic minority students well, limit their academic potential and bar them from fully “fitting in”.

The policies currently in operation are laudable, but they do not take into consideration the pre-existing deficit views of ethnic minorities still strongly embedded in the British society. Teachers should be provided with extensive training, challenging their often deep-seated beliefs about minority groups, both at initial training courses and for already employed teachers, alerting them to the requirement to provide all learners to achieve, irrespective of their backgrounds and races and encouraging them to treat every learner individually and equally. Promoting ethnic diversity in Great Britain should occur in every school, regardless how “white” or diverse a school is – and teachers should be encouraged to incorporate the duty to promote diversity wherever they teach in their yearly teaching targets.

When an ethnically inclusive ethos is firmly established across Britain, it will be a powerful tool for the teacher bodies to challenge and alter white-centric curricula, thus allowing minority learners to truly achieve to the best of their abilities and for schools to genuinely fulfil the requirements of both the Equality Act 2010 and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.


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