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'We're punished for being different': Black girls excluded from school at double rate of white pupils

Girls from Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller backgrounds are excluded at even higher rates – three times the rate as white girls

black girl

Black girls are among those most impacted by exclusions. Image: Pexels

Violet felt misunderstood and invisible when she was at school, as though teachers did not care or believe in her. She was permanently excluded aged 16, just before her GCSEs.

Racial injustice could have been to blame. New research from the charity Agenda Alliance has revealed that girls from a Black Caribbean background are excluded from school at double the rate of white girls.

A freedom of information request to the Department for Education found that in the 2021/2022 academic year, white girls were excluded at a rate of 0.06. That equates to six exclusions for every 10,000 pupils.

Black Caribbean girls were excluded at a rate of 0.12, while it was even higher for girls of a mixed white and Black Caribbean background at 0.14.

“Things were bad at school and sometimes things were bad at home but nobody ever gave me support,” Violet says. “When I was permanently excluded – just before my GCSEs – I didn’t know who I was going to be or what I’d do.

“I think there’s stigma around Black British girls. We’re treated differently with perceptions about us. We’re often punished just for being different. We get told off for the way uniforms look on our bodies, but they’re just not made for our body types and don’t fit us in the same way as white girls.

“Also, sometimes Black girls just have an opinion and it’s then taken as aggressive, or we’re just labelled ‘rude’. I could do the same thing as a white girl and I would get in 10 times more trouble.”

Research from charity Voyage Youth, which tackles racial imbalance in London, has found that around 70% of students had never been consulted on policies that affect them in school.

School rules can be “overly oppressive of self-expression”, with beauty products and hair styling often come up as valid reasons for punishing young people. Voyage Youth has seen that exclusions are often fuelled by “huge misunderstandings and misconceptions about young people of colour”.

Paul Anderson, the charity’s founder, explains that one of the key issues is ‘adultification’. He says: “Young people are mistreated as they are seen as mature, aggressive and more physical so their behaviours and actions are seen as intentional and not accidental.

“Many young people express they are not understood and valued by some teachers as many working in inner cities have no understanding of young peoples lived experiences, cultures, races and religions. This creates a disassociation and distance and can lead to teachers making recommendation to exclude due to a lack of understanding about diverse lives.”

Family background also plays a role – if parents are not present at school events, teachers might be able to “exploit this gap” and young people feel particularly targeted.

Anderson adds: “We are also concerned about new covert policies schools are also adopting such as managed moves. This is when one school partners with another to swap young people that are on the peripheries of exclusion. This helps them overcome being exposed as excludees.”

The situation is even worse for girls from Gypsy, Roma and Irish traveller girls, who are excluded at triple the rate of their white peers.

Pauline Anderson, the chair of trustees at the Traveller Movement, says: “Schools are legally required to have behaviour policies in place that address race-based bullying, yet these educational institutions are continuing to fail to protect our children.

“We need to see a zero-tolerance policy for racist bullying in schools from both pupils and staff. For our young girls, the combined discrimination of racism and ableism as well as sexism has a detrimental impact on them.”

Agenda Alliance is calling for schools to adopt improved behavioural policies, addressing how gender and racial stereotypes are disproportionately impacting girls.

The charity wants all specialist staff working with children at risk of exclusion to have better training that is aware of how culture, gender, age and experiences of trauma might impact behaviour.

Agenda Alliance also warns that responses to high rates of absenteeism “must avoid unnecessarily punitive approaches”, and instead work to address the root causes of girls’ absence from school alongside girls and specialist organisations that support them.

Indy Cross, chief executive of the Agenda Alliance. Image: Supplied

Indy Cross, Chief Executive of Agenda Alliance, says: “These are extremely worrying findings. We are calling for zero tolerance to harmful behaviour policies which blight girls’ futures. We know schools do a tough job and that teachers are hard pressed. But by the government’s own measure, girls at the sharpest end of disadvantage are being set up to fail.

“Racial and gender stereotypes have no place in today’s education for young women. Enough is enough. No more excuses that poverty also inevitably jeopardises education. We can – and must – do better than this.”

Alba Kapoor, Head of Policy at the Runnymede Trust adds: “These disturbing statistics reflect the racism that continues to pervade every aspect of our school system. That girls from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds are being disproportionately punished and marginalised as a result, is something that needs to urgently be addressed.” 

“That’s why we are calling on schools to implement a temporary halt on school exclusions, and to instead prioritise non-punitive, proactive approaches which actually address harm. This would of course need meaningful investment in education from the government.

“It will take whole-school approaches to root out racism, and embed anti-racism throughout school cultures, policies and curricula. This means improving racial literacy amongst teachers, broadening the curriculum to help students learn about race, migration and Empire, and doing away with discriminatory policies which disproportionately target Black and minority ethnic children.”

 Fatima Ahmed, helpline coordinator at Southall Black Sisters, says: “In my experience, young black girls who have approached our services often struggle to remain focused or remain in schools at all due to their multi-faceted and consistent experiences of racial injustice. For example, those who experience violence at home or in any other setting are less likely to directly approach their schools for support, which is why they may approach a local domestic abuse agency to advocate on their behalf.

“There is no one proven way to challenge racial injustice in schools as, often, it depends on the school’s geographical location and willingness of institutions to prioritize the experiences of young black girls subject to racial injustice. One suggestion would be to take a synergistic approach by bringing together teachers, counsellors, and safeguarding professionals to create tools to tackle structural racism and embed racial injustice awareness into every subject possible.”

Violet was referred to the charity Milk Honey Bees who offered support and empowered her to be herself. The charity supports Black girls who have been excluded and those who are at risk of exclusion and sees stories like Violet’s far too often.

Ebinehita Iyere, founder and managing director of Milk Honey Bees, says: “In my experience as a practitioner, racial biases are applied resulting in harsher punishment for things such as uniform or lateness.

“As an organisation, we are calling for support from policymakers, schools, funders and our wider community to understand and foster positive relationships between teachers and Black girls to stop them being marginalised by the education system.

“Only a joined up therapeutic approach will work. Creating safe spaces for Black girls to heal from their traumatic schooling experiences must be a priority, in order to prevent further risk of exclusion.”

With the right support, Violet found hope for her future. She says: “I got referred to Milk Honey Bees who worked with me and reassured me that it’s okay to be myself, without judging me from stuff on my form but going off my relationship with them. Now I see there’s a lot more I can offer in the world but, at school when I was excluded, I felt like if my school has given up on me, why should I believe in myself?”

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