Written evidence submitted by University of Birmingham

1.    Introduction

The submission evidence is based upon case study research undertaken by Dr. Valentina Migliarini, member of the Center for Research in Race and Education (CRRE) at the University of Birmingham, and her student Orla Martin. This research, and the resulting policy recommendations, relates to the racialized encounters with discipline of Black girls during their educational careers within English state secondary schools, and how these encounters with discipline have an impact on their engagement, exclusion, and attendance in school. The submission draws on a qualitative case study conducted with ten girls, five of them identified as Black and the other five identified as white (Martin & Migliarini, in press). At the time of the interviews, all girls were between eighteen and twenty-three years old, were currently attending universities across the UK and self-identified as woman/female. This research aspired to uncloak the stark differences between Black and white girls, thus participants needed to identify as Black Caribbean, Black African or white British. No participants were mixed-race and although this seems to prescribe to a race binary, this research aims to explore how discrimination and discipline disparities stretches across all marginalized communities. This research is currently in the process of being published and the full report is available on request. The submission also refers to broader literature when relevant.

2. Summary and recommendations

In the context of England, Black children’s struggles within education have been widely documented (Bradbury, 2011; Gillborn, 2008), while little is known about Black girls’ specific experiences with school discipline. Yet, discipline disparities between Black and white girls in English state secondary schools persists, and Black girls are more likely to be excluded from schools than their white counterparts (Department of Education [DfE], 2019).

In the aftermath of the publication of the Child Q report (Gamble & McCallum, 2022), public attention has focused on how the application of law and policies governing strip-searching children in secondary schools can be open to interpretation. Indeed, Child Q strip-searching episode serves as a sombre reminder that schools and law enforcement institutions fail Black girls in a myriad of ways. Teachers stereotype Black girls as dangerous (Morris, 2016), perceive them to be less innocent (Epstein et al., 2017), and expect them to assimilate into hegemonic norms of white femininity (Carter-Andrews et al., 2019). As a result, Black girls are subjected to harsher forms of punishment (Hines-Datiri & Carter Andrews, 2017), and to a generally hostile schooling environment (Brown, 2009). This has a direct impact on their academic achievement, school engagement and absenteeism.

An overview of our recommendations is provided here. The recommendations are provided in more detail at the end of this report.

Key recommendations for government

Key recommendations for schools

Key recommendations for research


3.The data

3.1. Exclusion, absenteeism and the impact on Black girls in secondary school


The past decade has highlighted a surge in immoderate rates of Black youth being overrepresented within school discipline figures (Wun, 2016). More specifically, there is increasing evidence showing that outrageous displays of discipline against young Black female students within secondary schools are commonplace. Since the implementation of Zero Tolerance policies in the early 1990s within English Schools, Black female students are swiftly becoming an increasing demographic within exclusion rates (Poole, 2019).

Exclusion rates for girls within England have seen a great proportional increase in the years 2016-2017 from 2.53% to 2.83% (DfE, 2019). It has also become evident that rates vary due to ethnicity and Black Caribbean students are disproportionately represented in exclusion statistics (DfE, 2019). Additionally, Black girls with identifiable disabilities are more at risk to be excluded and be disciplined more harshly.

3.2. History and stereotypes

Studies by Hartman (1997) and Mirza (2014) highlight that Black women and girls deal with daily micro-invalidations, micro-aggressions and blatant racism because Britain’s historical and contemporary racism, along with accompanying stereotypes, are inescapable. Black girls have been viewed as being ‘ghetto’, troublesome or non-scholarly, therefore warranting harsher punishments from school officials (. This can also be seen in the experiences of young Muslim girls, who are subject to intense surveillance to ensure they are the ideal Muslim girl (Mirza 2014). These stereotypes affect more than just Black girls' perceptions of themselves, their confidence and school engagement and attendance. They impact on teachers’ (dys)conscious treatment of Black girls who do get into trouble.


3.3. Adultification, sexualisation, surveillance and criminalisation of Black female bodies


Studies show that adults from various backgrounds expect Black girls, from the ages of five, to behave maturely, which subsequently impacts teacher interactions with Black girls, often resulting in harsher punishments compared to white girls (Poole, 2019). Adultification maintains the discipline disparity, as it suggests that Black girls are intentionally disobedient (Poole, 2019). Adultification goes hand-in-hand with age compression which ridicules Black girlhood and childhood naivety as it negatively views Black girls, ergo permitting discrimination (Morris, 2016). Hostility within the classroom translates into being kicked out of lessons, which intensifies risks of entering the criminal system (Annamma et al., 2019). These falsifications can subject Black girls to embodied oppression, the self-fulfilling prophecy and self-esteem issues (Morris, 2016).

As a result of school dress code policies, Black female bodies are intensely supervised and criminalised due to clothing, sustaining ideas of Black girls being intrinsically devious (Wilmot et al., 2021). Zero-Tolerance policies intensify the criminalisation of Black girls, as it maintains the idea that small infractions will trigger more problems, propagating notions that Black girls are rebellious (Aldridge, 2018).


3.4. Colourism and ableism


Black girls with darker skin tones are three times more likely to be threatened with suspension compared to lighter skinned Black girls (Poole, 2019). This type of racism is known as colourism. The closer an individual is to whiteness, the increased access they have to structurally enabled privileges which coincide with white skin (Obeyesekere, 2017). Thus, darker skinned Black girls deal with harsher disciplines. Teachers (sub)consciousness are influenced by societal beliefs that having darker skin is bad and means someone istroublesome’, which also affects individual mental health, and is highly concerning (Obeyesekere, 2017). Along with colourism, ableism is also a sub-factor of racism plaguing education: Black girls are perceived to be less academically ‘able’, and less ‘smart’. Hence, all components of Black girls’ identities participate in educational discriminatory discipline, and this includes the sexuality of Black girls (Morris, 2016). Black girls are being forced to wear a cloak of invisibility, whilst also being hyper-visible within education, which perpetuates the marginalisation and discrimination facing Black girls.

4.Factors causing persistent and severe absence and exclusion among Black girls

4.1. The experiences of Black girls who are marginalised and of white girls witnessing discipline disparities

In the case study, the issue of Black girls being disciplined differently than white girls is very frequently reported by both Black and white girls, especially in relation to Black girls’ adultification and dress code violation. The majority of the white participants affirmed that their secondary school experience was unwarrantable and needed no further thought. However, the majority of the Black participants had massively contradicting experiences to their white peers. Interestingly, both Black and white girls interviewed had a very clear understanding of how the vilifying Zero-Tolerance policies result in unfair discipline for Black girls. Both groups understood how the amalgamation of teachers’ biases, stereotypes and overt targeting of Black girls, manufactures an environment where Black girls are being disparaged and continuously monitored. Black girls were always an easy target in the classroom. For example, Ophelia, a Black British African, says:


“I wasn't even doing anything crazy. Maybe I was laughing a bit loud or I would just be talking, and they be like Ophelia be quiet. It was just little things like that, like pointing out certain things. There was this teacher and she uhm, so a lot of the girls in my year they would wear make-up that early, but it's like at the time there was this teacher, and she was just like ... she wore fake tan, she had nails and she had make-up on every day, but she was telling us the girls, stop brushing your hair. So, I got in trouble for brushing my hair here and there and I had to like do it in secret and I had to do certain things in secret”. 


Ophelia attended a South London secondary school, where the privileged approach to discipline was Zero-Tolerance policy and restorative justice was completely absent. In light of this approach, Black girls were reprimanded for minor issues that should not even be considered a misbehaviour, such as laughing loudly.

Sage, a white British girl attending secondary school in Bristol, says: “We weren’t allowed to wear make-up but some of us did, we sneaked in, um and I remember one girl came in and she braided her hair, and [...] I think she was called out to the head of year to have a talk about her hair really, which seemed a bit extreme, um and she was actually one of the better behaved um, Black girls, um, she was academically very able, um, but I remember her coming back and she seemed quite distraught about obviously the conversation, we assumed she had been told off [...] we heard that she had been very upset and she had said the teachers had shouted at her and said she couldn’t wear this hair and it was against the school rules or whatever.  So, then a bit later, um, she started missing some school really and we thought that seemed a bit strange. [...] Strangely enough, saying that, one of my friends she started, um braiding her hair, um I suppose in some Caribbean look or whatever, and she was white, but didn’t seem to, I think something was mentioned to her, but that was it, it didn’t go on from there, I spoke to her later and she said the teacher said, ‘it’s strange you are doing your hair like that.’”


In this specific example, Sage recalls how teachers felt comfortable being overtly racist against the Black girl wearing braided hair and arguing that this was against the school’s dress code policy. But when a white girl attended school with similar braids, teachers were unfazed. This incident demonstrates once again how the education system is designed to uphold and sustain whiteness, to the point where teachers can use Black girls as their punching bags. Additionally, it shows how the use of unfair discipline and marginalisation contributes to future complications, such as students dropping-out and potentially becoming subject the the judicial system, whilst also magnifying how racial biases have a colossal contribution to the creation of stereotypical judgements made about Black girls (Poole, 2019).


4.2. Teachers’ biases influencing discipline disproportionality


Jordan, a Black Caribbean participant, stated how her secondary school treated Black girls distinctively differently and were ‘very [...] racist’. A prime example of this is given by Jordan, a Black British Caribbean who attended secondary school in South London:

“They [the teachers] actually named the Black girls the ‘alpha group’ and this was what the teachers and the high staff called us and um, that’s what they would tell prefects and head girls we were called, for no reason, no other group was called certain names we were just called the ‘alpha group’, and um, for some reason they thought we were this big group who can influence everybody to do bad thing etc. etc. and I had only been at that school for a year and a half, I just   came there to do my education that’s it.”

    Jordan’s friendship group were labelled as ‘the alpha group’ by teaching staff, which instantly made them stand out further to teachers and make them more subject to racial biases. Jordan was aware that the teachers had biases, which greatly informed the way they treated Black students and thus, massively affected her educational experience. Jordan’s account shows how predominantly white teachers perceive Black girls as less compliant and dangerous than their peers.

In addition to holding biases, white teachers also deliberately use racist language when approaching Black students. Hannah revealed an incident where a school official said ‘what’s up my n***a?’ to a Black student. Hannah said,

“I told one of the teachers and they never dealt with it they only gave him a warning and it pissed me off because it was like [...] you have someone that feels comfortable enough to use that word, I’m not saying ruin his life but just saying you’ve gotta do a bit more”

As Hannah stated, the teacher felt comfortable to use intentional language fuelled with hatred, ignorance and bigotry. Hannah acknowledged how her teachers were actually perpetuating racist ideologies within education, while protecting those who sustain them. In fact, her school would ‘gas-light’ her when she challenged racist remarks by teachers or racial biases within the teaching force. It quickly became apparent to her that her school would rather unjustly punish Black girls and subject them to discrimination, than confront their own racial biases.

Although not subject to racial biases herself, Arabella, a white British Irish participant, agreed that discrimination in the form of discipline disparities was due to racial biases she saw from some teachers. For example, she argued that most white girls in her school would get away with their actions and behaviours. She remembered spraying perfume at one of her peers, causing an asthma attack, and she was merely told off, not shouted at, or expelled from the classroom. All participants had a coherent understanding of racial biases within secondary school, even if the white participants had never dealt with these biases. All students understood how racial biases have a colossal contribution to the creation of stereotypical judgements about Black girls.

5. How schools can be better supported to improve attendance and inclusion of Black girls

5.2. Key recommendations for schools based on our analysis of best practice:

1. Shifting from Zero Tolerance to Restorative Justice Policy of Behaviour Management : School leadership should re-conceptualise classroom and behaviour management through an approach that does not recreate the trends of inequities and mass incarceration within schools. Teachers should be trained to create learning environments that encourage productive social interactions and active engagement in learning through creating solidarity in the classroom, instead of punishment.

2.Relationship building: Favour relationships of solidarity between teachers and historically marginalised communities, so that educators understand how ability is distributed and withheld based on race and additional marginalised identities, through policies and practices.

5.2. Recommendations for government

We call on government to publish targets to reduce the levels of exclusion and absenteeism of Black girls. Given the result of our case study, and the review of the literature presented in this evidence, we call the government to:

1.       Implement restorative justice  (Advancement Project, 2014) policies of classroom and behavior management in every school at every level, but especially in secondary schools at national level.

2.       Shifting resources from Alternative Provision and Pupil Referral Units facilities to in-school, inclusive, culturally sustaining and culturally relevant behaviour management.

3.       Provide more training and funding for professional development including guidance to culturally sustaining behaviour management.

We are worried that episodes like the Child Q one might happen again. Hence, we recommend the government to transform existing policies, to encourage educators to create safer spaces within schools, where Black girls are uplifted and supported, rather than condemned and punished. We recommend the government to look at local grassroots organizations work such as #EndStripSearch coalition campaign, #NoPoliceInSchools, focused works of Milk Honey Bees and more, making significant changes to inequalities in schools. 

February 2023