The events of the last few weeks following the tragic death of George Floyd have sparked a global call for change on the issue of racism.
Among these calls is an open letter to The Independent from a group of over 200 black students and alumni asserting the prevalence of racism in independent schools and imploring these schools to take a stand against racist behaviour and attitudes within their communities.
One of the key messages in the letter is that independent schools in the UK are in a unique position to tackle racism and ensure their students, many of whom go on to hold some of the most powerful and influential positions in society, are balanced and unbiased. Schools are asked to “prioritise cultivating environments of acceptance and understanding, producing adults who aren’t simply not racist, but anti-racist”.
The letter makes the following suggestions for how schools can begin to tackle this issue:
- “Introduce unconscious bias training as standard for all staff as well as providing workshops for students across year groups.
- Talk to your black students about their experiences, take the time to understand what they are going through and listen to their recommendations.
- Hire a workforce that accurately represents your communities. We ask for all schools to review their hiring process and commit to becoming equal opportunity employers.
- Ensure access to BAME councillors for students.
- Adopt a clear racial code of conduct, with appropriate punishments included. Commit to following through with these punishments when required.
- A tangible commitment to diversifying curriculum.”
While these suggestions are directed at independent schools, they are also applicable to other organisations that work with children and young people and likewise the further initiatives discussed in this article are relevant sports and religious organisations and charities as well as schools.
Your organisation may already have some of the above measures or others in place, but recent events have shown beyond doubt that there is still far more work to be done. While the issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement are far reaching and complex and there is no simple solution to creating an anti-racist organisational culture, here we discuss some initial practical steps you can take towards tackling racism in your organisation.
1. Listen, understand the problem
Before an organisation can start to tackle racism, it needs to understand the lived experience of those it engages with, hearing the perspectives of children and young people, but also staff, trustees and other stakeholders. One element that stifles improvement in organisational culture is that fear of saying the wrong thing causes people to say nothing at all. Organisations that work with children must create appropriate forums and space to enable frank discussions to take place and remember that having an awkward conversation is better than having no conversation at all.
2. Education, education, education
After listening comes education. The Equality Act 2010’s definition of racial harassment is much wider than people assume, and it is extremely important that organisations understand and educate their staff and young people on how to recognise harassment perpetrators by others, or unwittingly themselves. There has been much discussion in the press around "micro aggressions" and how unwanted comments relating to race can have the effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating a hostile, intimidating or degrading environment for others.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is an excellent source of guidance on how anti-discrimination legislation applies to schools and provides practical examples which demonstrate each type of prohibited conduct. In addition, in October 2019 the EHRC published Tackling Harassment: Universities Challenged which presents the findings of their inquiry into racial harassment in publicly funded universities in England, Scotland and Wales and many of their recommendations can also be implemented in settings which work with children and young people.
Organisations should use what they learn from the conversations we discussed first to highlight where further training, for example on unconscious bias or microaggression, is needed.
3. Introduce a peer-on-peer abuse policy
As much of the racism experienced by the signatories of the letter to schools was from other students, it follows that an organisation must ensure it has adequate measures in place to deal with peer-on-peer abuse. As we have discussed previously in our Safeguarding publications, a peer-on-peer abuse policy sends an immediate message that your organisation takes such abuse extremely seriously. Organisations should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of peer-on-peer abuse, and particularly racial abuse.
Farrer & Co has produced a peer-on-peer abuse toolkit in collaboration with Dr Carlene Firmin and a number of other experts in the field, which provides practical guidance on how to prevent, identify early and respond appropriately to peer-on-peer abuse. Further information on peer-on-peer abuse and all of the areas discussed in this article can be found in our toolkit here.
In addition to a peer-on-peer abuse policy, your organisation should ensure your other policies such as harassment and behavioural policies and their code of conduct are up to date and make specific reference to racial abuse.
4. Conduct a proactive risk assessment
This is an important step in determining the risks that students/young people are exposed to and assessing and monitoring those risks. As part of the risk assessment, organisations should consider the demographic profile of the young people they work with to help assess whether certain groups may be particularly vulnerable to peer-on-peer abuse – BAME students/young people should be considered here.
As well as conducting a risk assessment, organisations should ensure there are action plans in place to address any identified risks, and that these are ‘put into action’ when needed and are not merely a paper exercise.
We should emphasise that this proactive risk assessment of the general risks facing the student body/group is distinct from any responsive risk assessment(s) that may be required following an allegation of racial abuse.
5. Check your messaging
Schools and organisations should ensure that they actively promote equality of race, and other protected characteristics, in their curriculum and activities.
Organisations may decide to review their own Black history, for example relating to the origin of buildings or traditions, and consider whether this is something they want to comment on and/or include in their curriculums.
6. Respond appropriately and proportionately to concerns or allegations
Perhaps one of the key messages from the letter to The Independent was that students felt their concerns about, or allegations of racial abuse were not taken seriously by their schools. It is essential that all concerns and allegations of racial, or any peer-on-peer abuse are handled sensitively, appropriately and promptly. The way in which an organisation responds to complaints such as these can have a significant impact on its culture and, as demonstrated by the letter, a negative experience can have a detrimental effect on a young person for life. It is crucial that they feel reassured by how the organisation is handling their concern/allegation and that there is appropriate support in place to safeguard the young person’s mental and physical wellbeing. Examples of possible support measures include:
- offering a 1:1 meeting with the Head of the school or the leader of the organisation. This has the dual effect of demonstrating that the organisation is taking the young person’s concern seriously and allowing them to voice their views and experiences at the highest level;
- where possible, providing appropriate apologies to the young person. An act as simple as saying sorry can often go a long way in affecting how an individualfeels about their experience;
- signposting to agencies that can offer support. This may be in the form of charities that offer these services, or it may be appropriate for the organisation to pay for private counselling;
- clearly explaining what measures the organisation is proposing to take as a result of their disclosure. The organisation’s aim should be to reassure the young person that their concerns are being taken seriously and the organisation is 100per cent committed to tackling any form of racist behaviour – a key allegation in the letter to The Independent was apathy on the part of schools to address racism.
Whilst most of the measures discussed above refer to racial abuse experienced by students, they are also relevant for staff members who experience racial abuse. In the Safeguarding Unit, we frequently find that when organisations are made safer for children, they are also safer for the adults working there.
As we highlighted at the beginning, the student and alumni who wrote to The Independent implored schools to produce adults “who aren’t simply not racist, but anti-racist”.
Schools and organisations should use the measures discussed in this article to seek to achieve this very important goal.
For a more detailed discussion of the points raised in this article, please see our peer-on-peer abuse toolkit here.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, June 2020