Tackling racism in schools in our current political climate

Sept. 27, 2018
Domini Leong

Domini Leong

Deputy Headteacher at Cotham School

Cotham School is a diverse, multicultural, multi-faith secondary school with 1500+ students from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. But that wasn’t always the case.

When I arrived two years ago, I could clearly see the legacy of the old grammar school positioned within an affluent suburb of Bristol surrounded by grand architecture of Georgian and Victorian designs.

This backdrop appeared to contribute to a culture of high expectations and high aspirations. And yet there was still a dichotomy. In lessons, students of all backgrounds generally work freely and well together but, at social times, a dichotomy is much more apparent. 

The bonds of diversity we are trying to encourage at school could never be quite as strong as the friendships formed on the route home and in local neighbourhoods. 

This is exemplified by the students’ journey home: at 3.05pm, students from a much more white, middle-class locality exit and typically all walk in one direction; while students from disadvantaged, often BAME or white working-class backgrounds, all exit and walk in a completely different direction.

At school, we feel it is of paramount importance that all students feel a sense of belonging and ownership of their school, however far they’ve travelled to get here. We must ensure a culture of tolerance and kindness to each other regardless of background. 

As with any school, there are times when students forget this message of tolerance and tensions flair, sometimes of a racial nature in the form of the casual, almost flippant use of racist language.

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As the Designated Safeguarding Lead, tackling racism and homophobia is of great importance but so is teaching students about not misusing a declaration of racism. It is vitally important, particularly given the world that we are now living in with its divisive politics, that we are not afraid to openly discuss difficult and controversial topics with students. 

They will be talking about these things anyway so we must provide a balanced and thoughtful narrative. Race in the city of Bristol is an important issue and even more so within the education system where diversity in the teaching profession is woefully underrepresented with only 26 black secondary teachers out of 1,346.

Two years ago, I quickly began to realise that racist incidents were prone to reoccurring. Despite the sanctions we imposed, it was the same students again and again. A re-education strategy was required. I felt that the most effective way was to appeal to students’ emotions and demonstrate empathy. 

As a mixed-race British Asian growing up in the 70s and 80s, I had a multitude of experiences to draw upon to teach students how to respond to racist language and attitudes, and why it was important for them not to perpetuate and contribute towards this culture whatever their background. I discussed my idea with the school’s BAME learning mentor, Marlene Kelly, a lady of Afro-Caribbean heritage who was keen and we agreed on a joint approach.

The best way to describe our strategy is through an example: a student is referred to us for using the ‘N’ word towards another student. We invite the student to a meeting and explain at the start that it is not a telling off but, instead, the opportunity to have an open and mature dialogue about race. 

We ask the student to explain what happened. I ask the student if they understand the history of the ‘N’ word. Most know it is linked to slavery but are unaware how the word was used to degrade and subjugate black people, and treat them as sub-human, not worthy of their own name.

We talk about when the student has ever suffered racism or seen it towards others. At this point I share with them examples from my own life, when I was their age growing up in a town as the only non-white family owning the first Indian restaurant there and where the ‘N’ word was repeatedly used to degrade us and vandalise our business. Marlene will also share an example of her own experience. 

We ask the student to think about the feelings arising from these examples, explaining that for this reason the ‘N’ word is still a painful reminder of past hurts to many people. I encourage an open discussion about how the use of the ‘N’ word is part of a controversial debate in society as some black people wish to ‘re-own’ the word and make it a positive word again, using it in an affectionate way. 

Again, I give an example of my husband, a Nigerian, who uses the ‘N’ word affectionately with his close friends and family, but explaining that my husband would not use the word in any public setting because he is mindful of the hurt that it could cause others. 

"At school, we feel it is of paramount importance that all students feel a sense of belonging"

We discuss strategies they could use if someone is racist towards them; this was very useful when we needed to tackle the tensions between adults in the local community and some students who struggled to understand how adults could be racist towards them and we explore how the rhetoric in society through politics and the media could be contributing to this. 

We always finish the conversation by asking the student how they feel about what we have discussed and, as in any conversation of this nature, asking them what they will now do differently.

The success of this strategy has been significant. Firstly, students leave the meeting describing feeling very positive and empowered. Secondly, our safeguarding and behaviour data shows that, after every such incident since employing this strategy, the student has never re-offended again.

However, the best measure of success has to be an example of a group of diverse Year 11 boys who were regularly using racist language towards each other. After working with them as a group, I was most surprised and pleased when two days later another group of Year 11 boys sought me out and said that they had heard about the meeting and it had made them reflect on how they use language of a racial nature and they were no longer going to use the ‘N’ word.

Finally, when Ofsted came in May 2018 and spoke to students, they described a school where students were tolerant and respectful of each other’s different backgrounds, where racism, homophobia and bullying is tackled quickly and where social mixing was occurring.

These successes haven’t been easy to come by and this is only one of many strategies. A significant challenge is how time consuming it has been to give such discussions the genuine time it deserves. 

I could just run assemblies on this topic; however, such a sensitive, and personal, discussion about race (and, indirectly, identity) cannot be swept over with broad strokes and pithy soundbites.

Another challenge has been in explaining to some staff why the student isn’t always punished for racism; I have to emphasise the aim of re-educating the student. In cases where the racism has been very extreme; however, I ask the student to decide upon how they can make amends which will result in a sanction.

Finally, the most difficult challenge has been in opening myself up to vulnerability by revealing personal stories about my own childhood experiences and life, but having worked in multiple Bristol and London schools where teaching tolerance has often been done in very similar, politically-correct and beating-about-the-bush ways, I have come to realise that, as the author and life coach Tony Robbins says, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

How can we promote equality in the education sector? Get involved in the discussion over at Ambition:Feed or tweet us using #ambitionfeed 

Domini is a graduate from our 2015 Future Leaders cohort. Future Leaders is a two-year intensive leadership development programme for senior leaders who aim to become headteachers of schools in challenging contexts within three years.


This article first appeared in SecEd and then on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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