Teach First Head of Programme Diversity & Inclusion Laura Swiszczowski
Laura Swiszczowski
Head of Programme Diversity & Inclusion at Teach First

We need to talk about racism in the UK education system

Studies show that racial inequality is one of the biggest barriers to pupils attaining success at school. In this post, we investigate the key areas that Teach First and the wider education sector need to focus on to help every pupil reach their potential.


The UK’s education system today is racially unequal, and this creates disadvantage. This is visible in the demographics of our schools, when you consider a third of pupils in both primary and secondary are from an ethnic minority background — but according to a UCL study, 46% of schools do not have a teacher from an ethnic minority background.

Looking deeper, we see that Black Caribbean students are consistently at least three times more likely to be excluded than White pupils. The Guardian found in some local authorities Black Caribbean children are as high as six times more likely to be excluded than their White counterparts.

It is important to consider intersectionality – the acknowledgement that everyone has their own experiences of oppression and discrimination, and we need to consider everything that can marginalise people such as gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, class, etc.

For example we see the exclusion rate for girls is growing at a faster rate than boys, with Black Caribbean girls twice as likely to be excluded as White girls.

These findings only provide an indication of a differing in experience for Black pupils, and further research is needed in this area, especially investigation of how ethnicity intersects with other factors like socio-economic background and location.

We need to ask questions about what is happening with exclusions and why, this is an area currently under-researched

Experts have shown historically, that changing the measure of educational attainment has had a disproportionate impact for those from ethnic minority backgrounds, particularly for Black Caribbean children.

For example, in 2006 the government introduced the ‘Gold Standard’ measure of five or more ‘C’ grade or higher passes including English and mathematics.

In 2011, the English Baccalaureate was introduced which required higher pass grades in English, mathematics, two sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language and either history or geography.

Black Caribbean students seemed to narrow the gap over time with their White peers on educational attainment, and then the 2011 measure of attainment was brought in which seemed to lead to the gap widening.

The impact of racial inequality in schools on students

A 2020 report by Runnymede found that not only is the education system racially unequal in the proportion of teachers from a Black, Asian or ethnic minority background, but also that ‘"racism is deeply embedded in schooling".

This is reflected in the views of 49% of young Black people, who think that racism in schools the biggest barrier to attaining success in education.

In interviews with teachers, Runnymede found there is a shared agreement of a need for better diversity amongst teachers, providing role models for ethnic minority pupils. It is implied this would raise aspiration and thereby, their attainment.

While we have a way to go, at Teach First we are working hard to provide more role models for the diverse community we serve; however, we also recognise the importance of whole system change.

Given that 6% of headteachers are from an ethnic minority background, there is a risk pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds will perceive themselves as less suited to leadership roles as their White peers. We need to address representation at all levels and holistically.

There are also the benefits for White pupils of having diverse teachers teaching them. Seeing ethnic minority people as leaders, either in a classroom as a teacher or as headteacher, contributes towards dispelling negative stereotypes about people from ethnic minority backgrounds as not ambitious or not able to be leaders.

This would benefit all young people, not just those from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is not to say that increasing the number of ethnic minority teachers and leaders is enough to address the racial inequality in education.

In fact, we need White teachers and leaders to play their part in being racially literate (i.e., the ability to understand and talk about the ways race and racism work in society) and actively anti-racist. We also need to understand how this inequality is maintained.

How racial inequality is maintained in our education system

1. Curriculum

The curriculum taught to pupils plays a significant role in the structural inequality I am talking about here. Only 11% of GCSE modules studied referred to the presence of Black people in British history.

In our paper Missing Pages, we revealed that the biggest exam board in England does not include a single book by a Black author in their English literature specifications.

With glaring absences like this, it is clear that the curriculum needs to reflect the community it is designed for, young people and to ensure positive representations exist of ethnic minorities.

2. School culture  

Further to the curriculum is the school culture that exists for our young people. According to a YMCA report, seven out of 10 young black people in the UK have felt under pressure to change their hair in order to appear more professional in school or at work.

On top of this, 95% said they had witnessed racist language at school.

This points to a need to not only review school policies (as we saw earlier the high number of exclusions suggests potential bias in policies on behaviour), but whole culture change to address the tolerance of racial discrimination and racist language within our schools, and challenge racism in education.

3. Teacher workforce

Despite efforts to increase numbers of Black and ethnic minority people in the teaching profession, research from UCL shows ethnic minority teachers face many barriers and lower levels of retention.

Nationally, retention is lower for ethnic minority teachers than for White British teachers. This includes higher turnover due to moving school or not remaining in the teaching profession.

We need school leaders and governors to address this; not just focus energy on getting diverse people ‘in the door’ but rather, on the progression of diverse staff into leadership roles.

The UCL findings suggest that a better preparation of school leaders and their conscious effort to improve the racial literacy and diversity within the senior leadership team is paramount for a favourable racial climate for ethnic minority teacher retention.

Finding solutions to the racism problem

Addressing racial inequality in education is a complex issue which could easily take more than one blog post to describe (let alone solve). However, we already know some of the key areas we as Teach First and the education system more widely need to focus on:

  • There needs to be ethnic minority representation in leadership, as well as in teaching - we recognise the benefits of more diverse teachers and school leaders. Over time we have increased the number of ethnic minority trainees recruited onto our ITT, but more needs to be done to make sure teachers are supporting to thrive into leadership positions. In our manifesto we are calling for the government support and fund a development programme for aspiring teachers from ethnic minority backgrounds to progress into leadership roles.
  • Embedding racial literacy in teacher training. What is key here is that addressing inequity is not down to those with protected characteristics but is a whole-school responsibility. Thus, all teachers take responsibility for teaching in ways that promote anti-racism, at the heart of their role to prevent racism in schools. To be a high quality teacher, is to be an inclusive teacher.
  • In our manifesto we also call to make what is taught in schools more inclusive and promote anti-racism. We have found an enormous appetite amongst teachers and students alike to make sure that what is taught in schools – and how it is taught – represents the full breadth of the modern British experience.
  • Anti-racism policies are needed to institutionally embed a culture of anti-racism in schools.

I'd encourage all teachers and school leaders to read and share our manifesto. Change won't happen overnight, but we'll keep going to ensure every child is given a fighting chance to reach their full potential.

Yet every day we see teachers and leaders challenging this and creating amazing opportunities for their staff and their pupils. This includes teachers and leaders reviewing the curriculum for inclusion, reviewing school policies and looking at how to progress diverse staff.

We'd encourage any teacher reading this to think about how celebrate people from all backgrounds in their lessons to help inspire the next generation and help create an education system that celebrates and inspires every child, not just some.

As a final note, I'd encourage you to watch this video about our fantastic partner school Copthall School, who have rigorously embedded diversity and inclusion into their curriculum and practice: 

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