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'Our schools are failing mixed raced children'

TALKING POINTS: Just one of the families that attended the recent People in Harmony seminar

A REPORT by People in Harmony, (PIH) the national charity for mixed race people and families has highlighted the experience of mixed race children in the education system. Stereotypical expectations that this group have ‘confused identities’ often mean they experience racism from teachers and fellow pupils. Here, PIH’s Dinah Morley tells how the report and the seminars it was based on were put together.

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IT IS over a decade since People in Harmony (PIH) published Mixed Race and Education: creating an ethos of respect and understanding, a conference report on mixed race children and young people in the education system.

PIH has now revisited the subject of mixed race young people in education in a new report called Mixed Race and Education: 2015 in order to consider ways in which a better dialogue with schools could be achieved to help improve outcomes and to add some substance to a patchy body of research.

The report was based on a series of seminars in Bethnal Green in east London.

One of the key themes of the new report is that while the family plays a crucial role in building a sense of identity and resilience for a young person of mixed race heritage outside the home, the experience of school has a huge impact on a their personal development.

During a child’s early school years, ideas of identity and race are less firmly fixed and although young children from black and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, including those of mixed race, are racially taunted the impact is usually not experienced as anything other than playground insults.

This changes as young people enter secondary school. As they approach adolescence, there are new challenges to navigate and identities to form. For some young people this may be the first time they have to deal with explicit racism.
Being part of a peer group during adolescence is especially important. For a mixed race child this can be a frustrating and confusing time as they may find themselves shut out of the group by friends from an earlier age because they are ‘too black to be white, too white to be black.’


SELF WORTH: Clive Webster, (left) a mixed race education expert, says high expectations of himself helped him deal with negative experiences of the school system

In 2013 a report showed Mixed Black Caribbean/White pupils in Reading, Berkshire, as being disadvantaged at 5 years old and make less progress in secondary school than similar pupils nationally; that they are more likely than other pupils in the area to be identified as having special educational needs; they are at higher risk of exclusion than pupils from other ethnic groups and are at a higher risk of exclusion than pupils of the same ethnic background nationally.

This paper* considered local data to highlight the need for Reading schools to take action on these issues.

NEEDS

The number of UK residents claiming mixed ethnicity is rising sharply. The 2011 census revealed that the UK’s ethnic-minority population has grown from 9 per cent to 14 per cent since 2001 with the numbers of mixed race young people increasing from 677,117 to 1,224,400.

While there has been a huge growth in the numbers of young people of mixed race, schools still rarely identify the particular needs of this group of pupils or ensure that the school environment reflects the history of mixedness as well as the histories of black and white people.

As identified by the 2005 conference report, statistics on the educational achievement and experiences of pupils who are mixed race vary widely with the type of mix. Some statistics show mixed race pupils doing better than their white peers while others show them trailing far behind. Class and gender also play significant roles in the educational outcomes of this very heterogeneous group of young people and one size does not fit all.

The current PIH report is based on a seminar in 2014 and a follow up debate in 2015. These two events focussed on the stories of young people speaking about their educational journeys. Clive Webster, a mixed race education expert and schools academies’ director, also talked about his experiences. Maintaining high expectations of himself enabled him to navigate the sometimes negative experiences of being a mixed race person in the education system and enabled him to attain the top positions and career that he now enjoys.

Sir Keith Ajegbo, a mixed race ex-headteacher, leadership manager and trustee of the Stephen Lawrence Foundation also spoke. He highlighted the importance of organisations like PIH working more with universities and students to promote much needed research into the changing experiences of being mixed race and British. He also stressed the need to use the lived experiences of those participating in the seminar to make recommendations to teachers so they could better target and deal with key issues affecting mixed race students.


UNDERSTANDING NEEDED: Sir Keith Ajegbo, a former headteacher and a trustee of the Stephen Lawrence Foundation highlighted the importance of universities and students researching the changing experiences of being mixed race and British

Young mixed race people from the Respond Academy in Hastings spoke of their experiences in the school system. One of the key issues they raised was the continuing use of disparaging and derogatory terms to describe mixed race identity.

What they said demonstrated a lack of awareness amongst teachers and others in schools of mixed race issues and the subsequent lack of support for mixed race pupils. Their experiences also highlighted the fact that young people want to select their own ways of describing their identity with words they are comfortable with.

AWARENESS

The debate in April 2015 facilitated by Martin and Asher Hoyles, educators and authors of books on race and culture, was constructed to address four specific topics that had arisen from the earlier seminar.

Racism and discrimination in school was also discussed by the young people and parents. They identified:

◆ The curriculum content does not acknowledge the mixed race presence.

◆ A failure to stimulate an awareness of mixed race students and families.

◆ Schools lack resources needed about mixed race achievers and role models

◆ Appearance often incorrectly determines how mixed race students are related to.

◆ Teacher stereotyping leads to incorrect assumptions about students’ backgrounds and needs.

◆ The default position applied to mixed race people is usually black.

◆ Others are deciding the terminology used in schools for mixed race people.

It is important for teachers and others to understand the experiences of mixed race people and the fact that lazy racist stereotypes are not helpful in helping children from these backgrounds to settle and to achieve.

The facilitators stressed that mixed race people need to know how to deal with confrontation. Confidence building is important and it helps to move through an environment that makes you feel better, for example, where there are pictures of mixed race people.

While some participants were keen to point out the importance of acknowledging and understanding that genetically we are all one race, it was accepted that this was not the lived experience of most.

In particular pigmentocracy – social hierarchy of those with a certain skin tone, regardless of race or socioeconomic status – still exists in many countries today.


ROLE MODELS: (l-r) Formula One champ Lewis Hamilton, US President Barack Obama, Oscar winning actress Halle Berry and Labour MP Chuka Umunna were cited, among others, as people who could be used to stimulate a strong sense of self-worth in mixed race students

Some labels for mixed race people, largely derogatory, were discussed to help delegates to understand the significance of and origins of such terms, which have international connotations.

For example, the term half-caste originates from the Latin for pure. Another term, mulatto means mule and implies infertility. And then there is Kinder egg – a reference to the chocolate egg which is white on the inside. However, the most popular and approved term is mixed race.

But it was acknowledged that anger, when being on the receiving end of derogatory name calling, can build up into aggression and violence if there is no checking mechanism in place.

The facilitators strongly emphasised that students and young people need to have the life skills to point out to others the label/category that they were willing to accept. Students need to develop language as a resource in dealing with certain labels. Children today should have a repertoire of strong responses to identity.

From Mary Seacole, William Cuffay, Bob Marley, Tiger Woods, Louis Hamilton, and Halle Berry to Barack Obama and Chuka Umunna, participants had many names, both modern and historical, to put forward to build a bank of role models that could be used to stimulate and encourage a strong sense of self-worth in mixed race students
The introduction of some of these high achieving people from a mixed heritage background in lessons will do much to enhance the school environment for mixed race pupils.

IDENTITY

Another key discussion point was the importance of parents educating their children about their mixed identity and talking about any issues that came up.

Attendees felt that parents need to have a positive approach at home, ensuring that ‘mixed’ values are encouraged.

A black parent said they could find themselves in social situations where they felt judged for having mixed race children and asked for organisations like PIH to highlight more role models.

Mixed race people need real tools and solid foundations to be able to deal with some of the challenges they may face.
They must also be aware that they have allies in organisations like People in Harmony and also Mix-d who have published reports and training resources from their work with young students.

The debate ended with a sense of déjà vu, that racism has to some extent been dismantled but is still very much alive in our education system.

Schools must do as much as they can to affirm the identities of mixed race children and young people. It is essential that mixed race experiences and identities are reflected throughout the school curriculum.

Students need to be allowed to decide the terminology they use to describe themselves, not to have one imposed on them, and to be educated in an environment where they feel they belong.

* Indicators of educational disadvantage and Black Caribbean and Mixed Black Caribbean and White heritage pupils in Reading www.school-portal.co.uk/GroupDownloadFile.asp?ResourceId=4823394

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