Chadderton, C.: Educational Policy and Minority: Ethnic Young People in the UK, 2010

Download PDF Document


No school in the UK today is openly and explicitly discriminatory.  Schools have a legal requirement to actively promote racial equality as specified in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. The Race Relations Act 1976 (Amendment) Regulations 2003 even amends the definition of indirect discrimination, acknowledging that discrimination can be unwitting ( [January 2009]). One might conclude from this, then, that racial discrimination has been abolished and we now live together in racial harmony and equality in the UK.

Unfortunately, this is not exactly so. Inequalities between ethnic groups persist in the UK. For example, in education: Black students as well as students of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin continue to score below the national average in the GCSE examinations which mark the end of compulsory schooling in England (Torrance, 2005; DfES, 2006). Black children are consistently entered for lower papers in these exams, meaning that even if they achieve the highest possible mark on the papers they take, they will never achieve a grade A*-C, which are considered pass marks; five of which such grades are necessary for university entrance (Gillborn, 2006b: 90). In effect, such a system denies children entered for lower papers the chance to go to university. In addition, black students are still over-represented in expulsions from school (Gillborn, 2006b; Torrance, 2005; Osler & Morrison, 2002; Majors, 2001; Blair & Cole, 2000): in 2004/5 black and mixed heritage students were twice as likely to be permanently excluded from school than their white counterparts (DfES, 2006). 

A key reason for this continued racial inequality is the fact that educational policy in the UK is permeated by discourses which racialise and ‘other’ minority ethnic young people. The process of ‘othering’ refers to the dividing of the world into entities which are believed to be separated along the lines of alleged radical difference (Said, 2003: 45). These alleged differences are then used to justify the oppression of those who do not belong to the dominant groups in society.) Different governments have tried various approaches to tackle the increasing diversity in schools since the Second World War.  Although different approaches have been taken, an analysis of educational policy since the Second World War up to the present day suggests that despite a rhetoric of standards for all, education policy in England is actively involved in the defence, legitimation and extension of white supremacy (Gillborn, 2005: 499).

The term ‘white supremacy’ is used by some race theorists rather than racism, in order to emphasise the way in which racial ‘othering’ functions as a master narrative which disadvantages ethnic minorities and upholds the privileges of white people by influencing attitudes, policy and interaction. This explains how racism can be both witting and unwitting and does not only describe extreme, violent acts or the openly racist rhetoric of groups such as the British National Party (although this should also be taken seriously). It is important to emphasise that white supremacy does not mean that all white people are racists, but it does suggest that a lot (perhaps a majority) of white people make unthinking assumptions about race and ethnic minorities (Gillborn, 2005). The term white supremacy therefore does not refer to skin colour, rather to structures of subordination and domination. 

From the Second World War until the early 1980’s, there was an overt concentration on race and culture. Despite the passing of the Race Relations Act (1976) and the establishment of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), educational developments were underpinned by ‘common sense’ assumptions about the perceived inherent inferiority of minority ethnic families, identities and cultures (Mirza, 1992). Educational work aiming to deal with these perceived difficulties was characterised by two main discourses, both of which ‘othered’ minority ethnic children and young people: exoticism (materials portrayed children as exotic, strange and alien, sometimes primitive) and ‘compensatory’ programmes addressed at the alleged deficits of minority ethnic pupils (Gillborn, 2001:15). This “clearly signalled black children as a problem for teachers and for the education system” (Blair, 2000: 162).

From then until the late 1980’s, policy focused on a ‘celebration of difference’ with no mention of racial inequalities.  Multicultural education marked a change of emphasis in establishment attitudes towards ethnic minorities; from one of assimilation, the expectation that immigrants should adopt the lifestyle of the indigenous population, to one of integration, where cultural pluralism would prevail in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.  (Wilkins, 2001: 9)

However, multicultural education has been criticised for reproducing simplistic stereotypes of minority ethnic groups by focusing on cultural symbols (referred to sometimes as ‘the 3 S’s’: saris, samosas and steel bands (Troyna and Carrington In Gillborn, 2001). This only succeeded in reproducing inequalities, as other cultures were defined in terms of their being different from a presumed white British norm (Archer, 2003). This also coincided with the new racism of the 1980’s, which shifted the emphasis from ‘biological racism’ to ‘cultural racism’, a type of racism which promoted a perceived ‘British identity’ and aimed to exclude those whose culture was considered ‘alien’ (Wilkins, 2001: 9).

Antiracist approaches on the other hand, which were also introduced in some educational establishments at the time and aimed to focus on power inequalities as well as cultural understanding, have been criticised for utilising simplistic understandings of racism (Archer, 2003:22). Antiracism was further discredited after the report on the racist murder at Burnage High School in Manchester was misrepresented by the press, which blamed anti racist practice for exacerbating racial tensions (Gillborn, 2001:15). Although the Swann Report (Committee of Enquiry into the education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups, 1985) “documented the need for concerted efforts to improve the educational experiences and achievement for ethnic minority groups,” the short guide to the report which appeared (Swann, 1985) made no reference to racism (Gillborn, 1990) the effect of which was effectively to remove race and racism from the national policy agenda (Robinson & Robinson, 2001: 308). 

From then on, issues of race became invisible in political discourse. During the years of Conservative governments, the main discourse in educational policy was colour blindness. Colour blind approaches are those where race and racism are not explicitly addressed: such approaches are believed to be fair and apply equally to all and race is believed to not matter. However, policy which claims to be colour blind in theory, functions to maintain existing racial inequalities in practice (Williams, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 1998). At this time, notions of politics and ideology such as antiracist education were excluded and instead, there was a focus on standards and targets, performance, the needs of the individual (Pykett, 2007: 303). The Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major were characterised by an attachment to “imperial views of traditional British identity which rejected debate over cultural diversity and racial equality” (Tomlinson, 2005: 166). This deracialisation of educational policy was exacerbated by the 1988 Education Reform Act and the development of a National Curriculum. The standardised curriculum has been criticised as an attempt to impose a notion of national identity and unity on all pupils (Archer, 2003:23). 

Since then, under New Labour, despite apparent good intentions in 1997, little has changed in the discourses surrounding educational policy (Blair & Cole, 2000: 71; Tomlinson, 2005). Policies remain deracialised or colour blind. There is a focus on inclusion and exclusion in general, including Excellence in the Cities, Every Child Matters, City Academies, Education Action Zones, mentoring programmes and the setting up of a Social Exclusion Unit, which suggests an aim to include those who are ‘excluded’ into the dominant culture, rather than addressing inequalities (Archer, 2003:23). However, none of these specifically target black and ethnic minority children (Majors, 2001; Tomlinson, 2005) and thus do not address racial inequalities.  Race is simply subsumed into other categories of deprivation and inner city children (Gillborn, 2001; Archer, 2003).  Indeed, New Labour’s policies imply that race is not viewed by policy makers as an important factor in defining life opportunities to target specifically (Majors, 2001; Blair & Cole, 2000; Gillborn, 2001).

There is no public acknowledgement of institutional racism in education among education ministers (Osler and Morrison, 2002), despite this increasing body of evidence to suggest that “institutional racism is a characteristic of the English education system” (Gillborn, 2006a:90). Indeed, the market policies in education are exacerbating “a hierarchy of more and less desirable schools”, leading to “the development of racially and socially segregated schools” (Tomlinson, 2005: 154) and work against goals of social justice, leaving the disadvantaged in the lowest social positions. Such policies imply that minority groups are the source of their own problems rather than challenging societal inequalities (Archer, 2003:24: Lauria & Miron, 2005: 16) because they continue to underachieve and be disproportionately excluded despite the initiatives in place to tackle social inclusion. Such policies contribute to the perception that the students themselves or essentialised minority ethnic cultures are deficient (Ladson-Billings, 1998). 

Although race inequity may not be a planned and deliberate goal of education policy neither is it accidental.  The patterning of racial advantage and inequity is structured in domination and its continuation represents a form of tacit intentionality on the part of white powerholders and policy-makers.  It is in this sense that education policy is an act of white supremacy (Gillborn, 2005: 485)

Citizenship Education (CE) was introduced in August 2002 in all maintained secondary schools in England and Wales. The government claimed that CE was one of the political responses to the publication of the MacPherson Report which suggested that British institutions were guilty of ‘institutional racism’: a notion of all-pervasive, unwitting, structural racial discrimination, and CE would therefore aim to tackle racism in society. (The report was the result of an inquiry into the racially motivated murder of black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, by white youths. It found that the police had committed fundamental errors, including failing to administer First Aid on reaching the scene of the murder, and failing to arrest suspects.  Despite a campaign by the Daily Mail, still no one has been charged with Stephen’s murder). The report “offered a fundamental challenge to White complacency about the essentially sound and just nature of race relations in the country” (Gillborn, 2006a: 96).  

However, in CE policy guidelines for teaching, not only does the notion of institutional racism disappear, the policy also reproduces the racism it claims to address. Analysis of the policy suggests that CE has been introduced – at least in part - to contain threats to Britishness, which is constituted as homogenous, white and Christian, and implicitly excludes British ethnic minorities.  CE can be seen as part of New Labour’s response to concerns about the perceived threat which young people present to Britishness, due to their allegedly increasing criminality and disengagement from party politics and particularly growing ethnic diversity, which is perceived as a main cause of social conflict.  Recent research has found that minority ethnic students are positioned both by the guidelines themselves, and also in at least some UK schools, as threats to order, disengaged from contemporary issues, and inherently ‘different’ to white people. This in turn, positions them as implicitly threatening, and outsiders to, Britishness (Chadderton, 2009).

This represents continuity with previous education policies not only in the UK, but across Europe and globally:  Formal education in nation states has historically functioned as a method of containing threats to the imagined national community (Durkheim, 1956), by creating compliant citizens, and by defining ‘insiders’ in distinction to perceived ‘outsiders’ who implicitly threaten the normative identity of the community by being ‘different’.  Whilst across Europe, minority ethnic young people have been identified as a group especially vulnerable to social exclusion, they continue to be constituted as threatening to European nation states due to perceived links with crime and violence, strengthened by recent events including 9/11, the protests in northern England in summer 2001, 7/7 and protests in the Parisian banlieues (Colley et al, 2005).  Such findings are especially relevant at this time, as social inclusion remains a key concern in European policies for learning.

NB. Readers will note that through out this text, terms such as ‘minority ethnic’, ‘black’ and ‘white’ have been used. Such ethnic categorisation presumes that people are “clearly defined types” (Ali, 2005: 158) when in fact, each person has multiple complex and hybrid identifications (Maguire et al, 2006). For the purposes of this article, I have used ethnic categories strategically, whilst acknowledging that the meaning of race and identity is ambiguous, shifting and contested, and that individuals in these groups are not considered as having a homogenous experience and vary widely culturally.


Ali, S.: Uses of the Exotic: Body, Narrative, Mixedness in Alexander, C. & Knowles, C. (eds.) Making Race Matter: Bodies, Space and Identity (London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 153-171, 2005).

Archer, L.: Race, Masculinity and Schooling (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2003).

Blair, M./Cole, M.: Racism and Education in Cole, M. (ed) Education, Equality and Human Rights (London and New York: Routledge Falmer, 2000).

Blair, M.: ‘Race’, School Exclusions and Human Rights in Osler, A.  (ed) Citizenship and Democracy in Schools: Diversity, Identity, Equality (Stoke on Trent, UK and Sterling, USA: Trentham, 2000).

Chadderton C.: Discourses of Britishness, Race and Difference: Minority Ethnic Students’ Shifting Perceptions of their School Experience (Unpublished PhD thesis, 2009).

Colley, H./Hoskins, B./Parveva, T./Boetzelen, P.: Social Inclusion and Young People: Breaking Down the Barriers in Colley, H./Boetzelen, P./Hoskins, B./Parveva, T. (eds) Social Inclusion for Young People: Breaking Down the Barriers (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 2007).

DfES (March 2006): at

Durkheim, E.: Education and Sociology (The Free Press, 1956).

Gillborn, D.: Racism, Policy and the (mis)education of Black Children in Majors, R. (ed.) Educating our Black Children: new Directions and Racial Approaches (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).

Gillborn, D.: Education Policy as an Act of White Supremacy (Journal of Educational Policy, 20(4), pp. 485-505, 2005).

Gillborn, D.: Citizenship Education as Placebo (Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 1(1), pp. 83-104, 2006a).

Gillborn, D.: Rethinking White Supremacy: Who Counts in ‘WhiteWorld’ (Ethnicities 6(3), pp. 318-340, 2006b).

Ladson-Billings, G.: Just what is Critical Race Theory and what’s it Doing in a Nice Field like Education? (Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), pp. 7-24, 1998).

Lauria, M./Miron, L.: Urban Schools: The New Social Spaces of Resistance (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005).

Maguire, M./Wooldridge, T./Pratt-Adams, S.: The Urban Primary School (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006).

Majors, R.: Educating our Black Children: New Directions and Radical Approaches (Routledge: London and New York, 2001).

Mirza, H. S.: Young, Female and Black (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

Osler, A./Morrison, M.: Can Race Equality be Inspected? (British Educational Research Journal, 28(3), pp. 327-338, 2002).

Pykett, J.: Making Citizens Governable? The Crick Report as Governmental Technology (Journal of Educational Policy, 22(3), pp. 301-319, 2007).

Robinson, I./Robinson, J.: Sometimes it’s Hard to Get a Taxi when You are Black: The Implications of the Macpherson Report for Teacher Education (Professional Development in Education, 27(2), pp. 302-322, 2001).

Said, E. W.: Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003).

Tomlinson, S.: Race, Ethnicity and Education under New Labour (Oxford Review of Education, 31(1), pp. 153-171, 2005).

Torrance, H.: Testing Times for Black Achievement – Some Observations from England (Paper presented at American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Montreal, 11-15 April 2005).

Wilkins, C.: Student Teachers and Attitudes towards ‘Race’: The Role of Citizenship Education in Addressing Racism through the Curriculum  (Westminster Studies in Education, 24(1), pp. 7-21, 2001).

Williams, P. J.: Seeing a Colour-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race. The 1997 Reith Lectures (London: Virago, 1997).

Chadderton, C., Manchester Metropolitan University, 2010