Safeguarding children of colour in White institutions

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By Dr Saba Hussain, Assistant Professor in Education, Department of Education & Social Justice

Even ‘safe’ spaces such as schools are not safe for racialised children. Being pinned down to the table, handcuffed and accusations of ‘smelling like marijuana’ are not experiences one would normally associate with school going children. However, some of the accounts of my Black students that I read in a reflective coursework last year suggested that this violence is not unusual. Earlier, this month, when Child Q’s harrowing experiences came to light, I was left thinking about child Q, my students, and all the black and brown children across the country inhabiting white institutions. Child Q’s experience is a reminder of the banality of violence that all racialised children are exposed to on a day-to-day basis. As Kahinde Andrews notesthe mechanisms that are supposed to protect us violate us even further.” Thus, the violence inflicted on Child Q forces us to critically analyse the whiteness of so called ‘safe’ spaces and the institutional mechanism of safeguarding. In this context especially in the light of the increasing securitisation of education- whereby police presence is normalised in schools especially in secondary schools.

White institutions and racist common-sense

The Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review says “School staff had an insufficient focus on the safeguarding needs of Child Q when responding to concerns about suspected drug use.” The Review goes on to highlight “the potential impact of disproportionality and racism and how these factors might have influenced the actions of organisations and individual professionals.” Here the social worker Auma Acellam’s powerful account of being a Black social worker highlights the racist common sense in her professional practice that the victims are typically white and the villains were people of colour. Her insights can easily be extrapolated into education, where historic overrepresentation of Black children in permanent exclusions drives home this issue of racist common sense across white institutions often leading them on the school to prison pipeline. This failure to provide ‘an appropriate and professional service’ to racialised children reinforces the ‘institutional’ nature of racism and racist common-sense. Further “adultification” of children from racialised communities blinds professionals to their victimhood. This can also be viewed as a racist common-sense that leads vulnerable black and brown children to receive a criminal justice response from institutions, whereas white children receive a safeguarding response. What else could explain the triggering of such a violent criminal justice response as opposed to as welfare response to the reported smelling of weed on a Child Q? What made the teacher’s and the school unable to engage with their own student and their parents before seeking police intervention?

Safeguarding in securitised spaces

Following concerns around young centric crimes like ‘knife crime’ Home Affairs Select Committee on Serious Youth Violence recommended increasing police presence in schools, with a dedicated police officer in ‘all schools in areas with an above-average risk of serious youth violence’. The focus on certain areas shows follows the racist common-sense of that further stigmatises racially and economically deprived groups. Further, the Children’s Commissioner has also demanded ‘neighbourhood police officers [to be] attached to every school’. In the UK there is a rich body of evidence on race and policing that raises concerns about the disproportionate impact of such strategies racialised. Police–school partnerships further strengthen existing forms surveillance and profiling, while also giving officers a greater role in everyday schooling matters including minor disciplinary matters.  Normalisation of police in schools has led to the securitisation of safeguarding as seen in Child Q’s case. This can offer clues towards understanding the ways in which security concerns have taken precedence over welfare concerns in safeguarding as seen blatantly in Child Q’s case.

The other notable issue is the professional pedagogic space of teaching being invaded by the spectres of counterterrorism and securitisation. A study by Vini Lander and colleagues exposes the “slow and stealthy” erosion of references to race and racism from the Teachers Standards whilst teachers increasingly encounter ethnically and culturally diverse classrooms in their working lives. Following Nisha Kapoor’s study on racial neoliberalism, this can be viewed as a part of an insidious agenda of erasing race from government’s equality agenda while embedding it within educational policy through the securitisation. As such teachers are socialised into ‘new’ professional identities wherein they are a part of state’s racialised surveillance mechanism. In my own forthcoming research on teacher’s perception of prevent, I observe a blurring of the boundaries between the counter-terrorism agenda and the safeguarding agenda in schools, as they come to be seen as one and the same. It is therefore imperative that independent, anti-racist and critical pedagogy teacher training puts forth a new vision for teaching as profession that enables and empowers teachers to challenge racist common-sense at individual and institutional levels.

Tinkering with ‘White’ institutions isn’t enough

Ultimately, the experiences of my students and of Child Q show that racist common-sense and securitised safeguarding exposes black and brown children to the violence in white educational institutions. There is an urgent need for institutional reflections and responses to restore the confidence of racialised children and parents on educational institutions. Responses like anti racist teacher training are an essential part of this institutional response, but we must not lose sight of the need to overhaul the whiteness of institutions -whether it is education or policing or criminal justice. This will also require white and white passing professionals in these institutions to acknowledge the role they play in perpetuating the existing racist systems. Further, in education this will require better funding of state schools and the overturning of the dominant discourses of meritocracy, discipline, security and safeguarding. These discourse and ultimately the practices and policies emanating from them are wedded to deeply racist common-sense which marginalises black and brown children.

Otherwise, as David Gilborn notes, ‘We risk tinkering with the system to make its outputs slightly less awful, but leaving untouched the fundamental shape, scale, and purpose of the system itself’.

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