Race Equality – Our legal duty

By Marcia Tatham
Monday, September 28, 2020

A guide to institutionalised racism and the legal duty of settings to promote race equality. By Marcia Tatham

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, USA, led to accusations of systemic racism in police forces across America and triggered a global protest. Institutionalised racism is a problem not confined to the US, nor to the police, and it is one that we must all address.

The UK had to confront the problem following police handling of the racially motivated murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent Macpherson Report (1999), which declared the Metropolitan Police institutionally racist. However, its recommendations for tackling racism extended to public bodies, from the judiciary to education, and led to the Race Relation (Amendment) Act 2000. Anti-racism legislation was strengthened further in the Equality Act 2010 (see box).

In 2002, I wrote an article for Nursery Worldon the legal duty to promote race equality within schools and early years settings. Now in 2020, I’m wondering how much has changed.


Black people account for 3 per cent of the population but 8 per cent of deaths in police custody. According to former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal, ‘This is the endpoint of a system that disproportionately suspects, arrests, convicts and imprisons BAME people’.

Within education, the odds are stacked against black African Caribbean boys and teachers. At one Black Asian Minority Ethnic Educators conference, Ofsted director Mike Sheridan expressed his concern about the many black boys who are excluded, off-rolled and by themselves, and don’t do well enough within the education system.

His message was that people at the top needed to do more and that the onus was on him to bring about change, to be more proactive. He displayed a picture of Ofsted’s executive board, noting that its lack of diversity had discouraged members of the BAME community from trying to join the inspectorate.

The scale of the problem was revealed in the Timpson Review of School Exclusion. Among its findings were:

  • Caribbean and mixed white/Caribbean boys were three times more likely to be permanently excluded and twice as likely to face fixed-term exclusion.
  • 60 per cent of black and ethnic teachers were thinking of leaving the profession due to racism, which affected their chances of career progression. One teacher reported being told ‘your face doesn’t fit’ when applying for a promotion; in another instance, a head teacher told an applicant they were unsure how they would fit in.

A National Union of Teachers (NUT) report – Visible Minorities, Invisible Teachers – also revealed prejudice among senior teaching staff, who often think that black and African teachers are incapable of being promoted beyond a certain level.

Many black and minority ethnic (BME) teachers felt that not all racism and discrimination experienced in schools were deliberate, with several mentioning ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘ingrained racist attitude amongst senior leaders and [the] governing body’.

Personal experience

As a black Caribbean educator, I have experienced and seen discrimination first-hand. Take, for example, the time I applied for the position of a pre-school manager in the early 1980s. I had the relevant qualification and experience, as well as the confidence to apply. The owner invited me in, said she was keen to meet me, and assumed from my name that I was white.

When she saw me, I thought she was going to faint. She refused to let me into the setting and announced that the position was no longer available. I just said thank you and left. This is what most African Caribbean educators are still experiencing as their face does not fit in certain working environments.

In a nursery school, I have witnessed able black children being assessed at a lower grade. In a staff room, I have seen ‘mugshots’ of African Caribbean boys who are assumed to have special educational needs. This type of discrimination was confirmed in a University of Oxford report, which found that:

  • black Caribbean pupils, including mixed heritage, were twice as likely to be identified as having social, emotional or mental health (SEMH) needs as their white British peers
  • black Caribbean and Pakistani pupils are also overrepresented in terms of having moderate learning difficulties.

The study also identified possible causes for this discrepancy as racism from teachers, a lack of understanding of cultural differences, low expectations and ineffective classroom management.

Report author, Professor of Education Steve Strand, said, ‘Some black Caribbean children may be suffering an inappropriate or narrowed curriculum from unwarranted over-identification.’

Racism and low expectations of BME pupils can also dramatically undermine their chances of academic success and progressing on to higher education.

In an earlier study, while at the University of Warwick, Professor Strand found white pupils were significantly more likely to be entered for higher-tier tests in maths and science than black Caribbean/African boys and Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils. He concluded that institutionalised racism and low expectation by teachers were among the factors responsible for the disparity.


So, discrimination persists and it is incumbent on everyone within public bodies to continue to promote race equality and prevent discrimination. All early years settings need to consider how they are:

  • eliminating unlawful racial discrimination
  • promoting equality of opportunity
  • promoting good relations between people of different racial groups.

To help you achieve race equality and fair treatment for all in your setting:

  • Start by reflecting on any personal prejudice you may have which stems from a stereotype of a racial group.
  • Accept that race discrimination and systemic racism are still in our society but that you can make a difference.
  • Acknowledge we are each unique due to our traditions, beliefs and backgrounds, and avoid viewing this in a negative way.
  • Allow individuals access to your services without passing judgement on them, because of their race, character, culture or abilities. Treat them as you would like to be treated.

Looking beyond the skin colour of a person is difficult for individuals with ‘unconscious bias’, ‘unwitting prejudice’ and stereotypical views of certain racial groups. However, BME children, especially black African/mixed-race boys, need to be valued, not judged, and given every opportunity to excel. And individuals with the right skills, knowledge and qualifications for an early years job should be given the chance to enter and progress within the workforce.

RACE EQUALITY: the legal framework

As a result of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the Race Relation (Amendment) Act 2000 was passed. It extended the reach of the Race Relations Act 1976, by placing a legal duty on most public bodies, such as education (including early years), health, police and housing, to promote race equality.

These bodies now had a duty to:

  • eliminate unlawful racial discrimination
  • promote equality of opportunity
  • promote good relations between people of different racial groups.

The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) provided guidance on what public services needed to put into place in their policies, services and employment practices to make race equality a central part of their organisations.

The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 consolidated and updated the earlier legislation and covers two forms of discrimination:

  • When one person is treated worse than another due to their race.
  • When an organisation has a policy or way of working that puts people of a racial group at a disadvantage.

The act also created the Public Sector Equality Duty, which came into effect in April 2011 and expects public authorities to:

  • eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation
  • advance equality of opportunity and foster good relationships between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.


The Macpherson Report (1999) was the outcome of an inquiry into police handling of the racially motivated murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence in south London in 1993.

The report defined institutionalised racism as ‘the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of culture, colour or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in the processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtless and racist stereotypes which disadvantage minority ethnic people.’


Marcia Tatham is principal consultant at GEM Training and Advisory Service

Download Now

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


© MA Education 2021. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved