Schools unfairly punish black students for hairstyles and for ‘kissing teeth’ amid racial bias, teachers say

‘Stereotypes among staff and school policies have racially discriminatory outcomes for pupils’

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Sunday 12 January 2020 11:20
Schools unfairly punish black students for hairstyles and for ‘kissing teeth’ amid racial bias, teachers say

Schools are unfairly punishing black students for their hairstyles, wearing bandanas and “kissing teeth” because of racial bias, teachers and campaigners have claimed.

Black students are being disproportionately targeted by “draconian” zero-tolerance behaviour and uniform policies in schools, as well as subconscious negative stereotypes held by teachers, critics say.

Experts have warned a government push to increase academies – which are state schools independent of councils – may have worsened the experience of black pupils as there is less scrutiny by authorities.

The criticism comes after a government behaviour tsar recently endorsed an academy that punishes pupils who “kiss teeth”, a sound common in African and Caribbean culture, with two-hour detentions.

Campaign group No More Exclusions, which is predominantly led by black and minority ethnic teachers and parents, says black girls are frequently being sent home for having braids in their hair and other black students have been suspended for kissing teeth – the sound of sucking air through the teeth through pursed lips.

Zahra Bei, founder of No More Exclusions and a teacher of 20 years, has suggested that black students are sanctioned more harshly by some teachers because of a lack of understanding about cultural traits.

“Sometimes children will [kiss teeth] because they’re annoyed or unhappy about something but it is often treated as something much more serious than it is,” Ms Bei said.

She has also noticed black students being punished for not looking teachers in the eye – and yet Ms Bei said in some cultures it is rude for children to make eye contact with adults so they will look down.

The former teacher recently witnessed black male pupils with very short hair being placed in isolation in an academy, but she claims white pupils with similar length hair were not penalised in the same way.

“A black child that kept coming in for his short hair said to me, ‘Miss, my family can’t afford to have my hair cut often so I have to have it short so it lasts longer,’” Ms Bei told The Independent. “These are very draconian ways to punish kids.”

The government’s Timpson review into school exclusions last year revealed that black Caribbean pupils are round 1.7 times more likely to be permanently excluded compared to white British children.

But campaigners and experts say the review failed to address the causes for the racial disparity and they argue government inaction on the issue has led to schools increasingly “making up their own rules”.

David Gillborn, professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham’s School of Education, said: “When you have zero-tolerance policies the idea is that we are not going to tolerate any infringements, we are going to be tough on everyone – but the problem is it is black students who are disproportionately hit by these policies.”

“It is not every student in class who is accused of these things. It is black Caribbean students disproportionately,” he added.

The government needs to investigate the schools which disproportionately exclude black children and take action, campaigners and experts say, and cultural awareness should be taught to all new teachers.

Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust, added: “Exclusions in schools have spiked for many reasons, but we know there are significant concerns about teacher stereotypes and in-school policies which have racially discriminatory outcomes for students from different ethnic backgrounds.”

But Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School in London, where pupils are subjected to an internal exclusion in the school for at least one day for “kissing teeth or tutting”, said she found it “odd” that people would expect less from a black child than a white pupil when it comes to behaviour.

Ms Birbalsingh, whose state school has been dubbed the strictest in the country, said: “I don’t know why black children are not able to meet the same behavioural requirements as other children.

“All children, whatever race, are able to behave themselves as long as they are given the right support and we do that for all our children.”

She added: “Kissing teeth is rude. Everyone knows that. Black people know that it is rude. The idea of permitting black children to be rude is to lower your standards for those black children.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools endeavour to apply behaviour policies consistently and fairly while taking into account any factors, cultural or otherwise, which may have a bearing on a pupil’s behaviour.

“That said, there is always more we can do to develop our understanding of our pupils and we welcome any initiative which helps to achieve that goal.”

He added that decisions to exclude pupils are “never made lightly” but he said it can sometimes be necessary to ensure “pupils are able to learn in an orderly environment”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Racism has absolutely no place in our schools and the Equality Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against pupils on the basis of their race. Our guidance makes it clear that schools should be mindful of this when developing a uniform policy.

“Statutory exclusions guidance is also clear that all schools should consider what extra support might be needed to identify and address the needs of children from groups who are more likely to be excluded.”

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