Commissioner’s Report on Racism in Secondary Schools

Many children and young people experience racism and racist incidents in secondary school, and few have confidence in how this is dealt with, according to the Children’s Commissioner for Wales.

In a new report, ‘”Take it Seriously”: Children’s experiences of racism within secondary schools’, the Children’s Commissioner calls for a stronger school response to racism and racist incidents, more training and support for schools, and national data on racist incidents.

The Commissioner and her team listened to 170 children as part of the research, as well as school leaders, teachers, and staff working across the public and third sectors.

Experiences of Racism

As part of the Commissioner’s research, children across Wales spoke about the normalisation of racist language and the ‘everyday’ nature of racist experiences. Many felt that these incidents were not taken seriously or properly addressed.

Experiences of racism in the report include:

  • young Muslim girls who wore the headscarf receiving comments such as ‘you’re hiding a bomb in your scarf’
  • a girl’s hijab being pulled off, leaving her crying
  • pupils being called ‘terrorists’
  • use of the N-word being ‘normalised’ in a school
  • a girl being called ‘a monkey’ and ‘a cotton-picker’

One child had been told by another that they didn’t want to sit next to them because of their skin colour.

Reporting Incidents

Young people felt that very little is done when racist incidents are reported, according to the Children’s Commissioner. Rocio Cifuentes said that young people want teachers to take racism more seriously, and to see those who have engaged in racist behaviour receiving appropriate sanctions.

One young person quoted in the report said ‘no one really reports as nothing gets done’, while another said their school is stricter about school uniform than racism. Young people who took part in the research called for clearer reporting systems, more support for those experiencing racism, and better communication from schools on how reported incidents were being dealt with.

School Leaders and Teachers

One teacher told the Commissioner’s team that they had never had specific training on racism, despite teaching for 27 years. Similarly, other school leaders and teachers said they had received very few or no training opportunities. Teachers and school leaders had mixed views on the extent that existing Welsh Government guidance helps them to deal with racism effectively, with some calling for clearer, more practical materials.

Some teachers taking part in the research worried about ‘saying the wrong thing’ and being ‘uncomfortable about the topic’. One school leader said teachers can be uncomfortable talking about race, which can result in ‘smoothing over’ incidents. They said that this causes harm by normalising experiences of racism and creating barriers in reporting.

The GCSE text Of Mice and Men, which contains the N-word, was also discussed by some school leaders. Some said they had stopped using the text after discussing its impact with young people.

Commenting on her findings, Rocio Cifuentes MBE said:

“The voices collected in this report have given us some stark insight into the ways and extent to which children and young people are experiencing racism and racist incidents within secondary schools in Wales, and how these experiences are almost a normal part of life for them.

“We have also heard why learners may not report racist incidents, including the normalization of racism, fear of the process being emotionally draining and burdensome, and not expecting much to happen anyway. This means that overall, the cost-benefit analysis means that it is usually not seen as worth reporting racist incidents. This suggests that those incidents which do get reported are really just the visible tip of a very large iceberg.  

“On the whole, teachers reported feeling under-equipped and unconfident to respond to racism. They would really like more practical and clearer guidance, as well as ongoing support on how they should respond to this evolving issue. It is clear that racism, like society is constantly changing and being able to keep up with quickly changing terminology and what is acceptable or not, was one clear challenge highlighted by educators. 

“From children and young people, we heard strong calls overall for schools to take racism more seriously, for there to be more training for teachers to understand racism and diversity, and for schools to do more to educate all children and young people about racism to stop it happening in the first place.”

The report makes 22 recommendations, including:

  • Welsh Government should clarify within its forthcoming refreshed anti-bullying guidance how it expects schools to respond to, record and address racist incidents;
  • Welsh Government, in its refreshed anti-bullying guidance, should direct schools to deal with and record racist incidents as equivalent to safeguarding incidents ensuring the visibility and accessibility of school-based and regional systems for raising concerns.
  • Welsh Government should urgently progress its planned work to develop a Wales-wide system of recording and reporting of racist incidents in schools, ensuring there is a legal basis for this data collection, and clarifying the distinct roles and responsibilities of schools, local authorities and other bodies within this system.
  • School Improvement Consortia Wales should develop an ‘anti-racism champion’ role and steering groups including people and organisations with lived experience to support schools in revising policies, responding to incidents and upskilling staff on this topic, as well as offering direct advice to schools on live issues  These roles should link to and be supported by Welsh Government’s proposed ARWAP Regional Coordinators.
  • School policies on responding to racist incidents should be communicated to all pupils in an accessible and child and young person friendly way, to support learning and develop an anti-racist school culture
  • School policies on responding to racist incidents should be clear about what happens both for the person reporting, and the person alleged to have been racist and should include a section on providing regular, timely and sensitive feedback mechanisms to all those involved in and affected by the incident.
  • Training on racism and anti-racism and recognising and responding to racist incidents should be made mandatory for all education leaders, teachers and support  staff, refreshed on a minimum 3 year cycle, similar to safeguarding training. To ensure quality and consistency, this should be coordinated via the Welsh Government funded DARPL network and linked to the work of the National Academy for Educational Leadership (NAEL).
  • WJEC should progress as a priority, the work already underway with DARPL to review and revise text lists in the syllabi that contain racist language, recognising its impact on learners and the school environment/culture.