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Black girls aren't safe in British schools

The attack on a Black girl by a gang of white teenagers makes clear the UK education system falls far short of its duty of care for Black children.

February 23 2023, 12.09pm

Two weeks ago, a 15-year-old Black girl in Surrey was captured on camera being attacked by a group of white people. Punches were thrown; kicks aimed at her; her braids were ripped out. Adults egged on the fight. She seemed alone in facing the brutality. Passersby did nothing.

There is a yearning, I think, for many of us who watched that video. We want to step in. Push aside the white children and adults who are attacking her, pulling the braids out from her sensitive scalp. Whisk her off someplace where we can tend to her wounds. Put ice on the bruises. Give her ginger tea. Tell her we’re sorry and that she deserved better.

This sounds romantic, because it is. It’s fanciful. Because at the moment, there is no way to protect the Black girls who have become, thanks to the internet, symbolic of so many of our wider experiences. 

We don’t know what led to the fight, the victim’s feelings about what happened, or whether she’s being looked after now. As outsiders, we know very little about the incident itself: only that it occurred in Surrey, Ashford, outside the Thomas Knyvett College, an academy school for pupils aged 11–16. We know that the video suggests some adults in the vicinity were aggressive - and teachers, apathetic at best; that there have now been arrests of five people on suspicion of attempted racially aggravated grievous bodily harm, and that the girl’s cousin has said she has been left in pain and unable to eat.

“You'd be accused of looking at someone funny. And then suddenly a gang of white girls were outside your classroom, saying they're going to beat you up.”

We also know that many of us have been through similar experiences. That she is not the only one who has faced the sick, slick brutality of a school fight bolstered by the reality of being ‘othered’ in a majority white environment. We have been traumatised by our experiences as young Black girls in British education systems, woefully under-equipped to deal with any kind of bullying - let alone the racially-motivated kind.

According to the Daily Mirror, in 2022 more than 7,000 pupils were suspended over racist incidents in schools. And a study published in November 2022 suggested that Black and mixed heritage girls receive more punitive punishments in schools than their white classmates. And so we console each other and share our long-repressed experiences. Attempt to force change, even though we hoped, we had prayed, that our own generation might be the last.  

Violence and bullying have lifelong impacts

Communications specialist Louise Potter, 35, understands this feeling only too well. As a teenager, she attended the same school as the girl in the video and was the victim of a brutal racially-motivated attack. Back then, the school was called Ashford High, and according to an Ofsted report from 2005, had a demographic that was over 90% white. As of the latest census in 2021, Surrey itself as a county is predominantly white, at 85%.

“Immediately, I didn't feel like I fit in at all. There were very few Black people in my year — one other mixed-race girl, one dark-skinned Black girl that I can remember.”

The bullying was consistent, gendered and racialised from the beginning. She was taunted about her hairstyles, canerows and curls, to the point where she developed sores and lumps around her hairline from pulling back her hair. She felt overlooked, and lonely, as though no one was interested in getting to know her. “My self-esteem just went down and down,” Louise recollects. “And I thought - ‘I'm never gonna fit in this school.’”

It only got worse as she got older. “You'd be accused of looking at someone funny. And then suddenly a gang of white girls were outside your classroom, saying they're going to beat you up,” Louise says. These incidents culminated in a pair of boys from her school verbally abusing her on a bus and then following her to a newsagent, where they physically attacked her.

“They started calling me racist things like the N-word. I still remember the words. They almost made me laugh because it's so ridiculous,” said Louise. “They called me a dirty, raving, Black C-word. I was angry and, you know, telling them to eff off and stuff. But they started to really push me around, as hard as they could. The Indian shopkeepers didn't want anything to do with it because they were absolutely terrorised on a daily basis by those kids. No passersby did anything.”

“If you throw Black children into white schools, then they're not safe.”

The incident escalated quickly, even though Louise was accompanied by a white friend. One of the boys repeatedly hit her over the head with a newspaper stand; he was eventually prosecuted and convicted. Another stole her phone. Louise and her friend made the complaint to the police themselves. The school was informed but, according to Louise, “they weren't interested at all” in supporting her. She doesn’t remember receiving any pastoral care.

After she graduated, she said her life went “off the rails for some years,” something she relates directly to her treatment at school. “I had to make decisions to survive. That started really from my experience in school. And yeah, led me to some dark places in my late teens.”

Louise attended Ashford High from roughly 1999 to 2004. Shortly after she left, it was renamed Ash Technology College, and then in 2007 — after being put into special measures due to a poor Ofsted rating — there was a change in leadership. It was turned into an academy and renamed Thomas Knyvett College. Since then, its reputation has improved. But, Louise believes, the demography of the area it serves is still very white, and that can cause problems for Black students.

“If you throw Black children into white schools, then they're not safe,” Louise said. She doesn’t think that Black children shouldn’t attend majority-white schools at all but believes they need dedicated support and access to resources. “Otherwise, it's not a safe environment, whether that's from violence or emotional, mental harm.” For her, it felt as though to get through school, she had to make a lot of compromises — she stopped speaking up to defend herself, and she became angry and more willing to fight. They weigh on her heavily to this day.

This is a gendered problem

“Schools are becoming depressing places for Black girls,” says Ebinehita Iyere, founder of Milk and Honey Bees, a London-based organisation that supports and empowers young women and girls by providing them with safe spaces. She sees distinct differences in how Black girls are treated within the school environment in comparison to their white peers. “You see it play out in a society where a Black girl is more punished or penalised for something that she's done and how she feels is not really taken into consideration.”

Thanks to the work of educators and organisers such as scholar Bernard Coard, educator Rosemary Campbell-Stephens, teacher and author Jeffrey Boakye and MP Diane Abbott (to name just a few), there is a growing awareness of the history of how Black children have been treated in British schools. In short: poorly. From being labelled “educationally subnormal” in the 1960s and 1970s, to the high exclusion rates and the continued poor attainment levels of the 21st century, there are countless statistics on just how badly Black children continue to fare.

But, Ebinehita argues, there is a gendered element to this issue too, and Black girls specifically need more attention. “With Black girls, there is a lack of research, work and effort that is put into understanding their experiences,” she says.

Since the Child Q scandal in early 2022, when it was revealed a 15-year-old was strip-searched by police in a London school while she was on her period, there has been a greater public conversation and interest in the specific experiences Black girls can go through in school in terms of hypersexualisation, and adultification — the notion that some children, and in particular black girls, are not afforded the presumption of innocence and vulnerability.

“I’ve seen how my white colleagues treat black girls,” says Denise Henry, a primary school teacher who represents Black members on the National Education Union’s executive committee. “Telling them that they’re going to get pregnant. Treating them like they’re mini-adults."

This can have a profound everyday effect on Black girls in school. “They feel like Black girls just transition overnight into Black women,” added Ebinehita. “Notions of innocence are removed, which means that they experience dehumanisation, which leads to criminalisation.”

Systemic lack of support 

While Black girls attending majority-white schools in the UK can be exposed to particularly toxic experiences and isolation, Black girls in more diverse environments are still exposed to undeniable structural injustices. Students across the board report experiencing overt racism at school

Ellie*, who isn’t able to use her real name as she’s afraid of retaliation from her school, is one of them. Outside her secondary school gates one unremarkable morning in November 2021, the 16-year-old was panicking. She’d been given a puff of a vape in school, and whatever substance had been in it was making her feel unwell. Another student went to get a teacher, who brought her back inside. Little did she know this would just be the start of her ordeal.

“The way my school goes about things can be quite malicious, even when the victim is in the right. Especially when it's a Black child, as well. They don't have much sympathy,” says Ellie, now 17.

The school, in a large town 20 miles outside of London, decided to hand the matter over to the police without contacting her parents. Ellie said she was subjected to around two hours of “scary” questioning by police on school grounds before a teacher eventually informed her parents, who immediately came to collect her.

Though the police didn’t take the matter any further, she was suspended from school for an initial period of five days, on the basis that she had used a vape on school grounds.

“It makes me hate being at school,” says Ellie. Later, when her older sister tried to highlight the school’s perceived failings, Ellie had another five days added to her exclusion and claims the school threatened to sue her sister. 

After learning of Ellie’s interaction with the police, her sister encouraged her to circulate an online “student maltreatment form” for students at the school to record instances where they felt as though they had been subject to racism or other mistreatment. It received 17 submissions before it was shut down.

“We need people to monitor what’s going on in school. Governors should take it on board. Ofsted. Subject leads. Black pupils’ voices should be heard. Enough is enough."

Black and mixed Black girls in British schools from Caribbean backgrounds are excluded at twice the rate of white girls. “In general, girls are overlooked massively,” says Zahra Bei, founder of the advocacy group No More Exclusions. “The numbers of excluded girls continue to rise. And I'm not talking about white middle-class girls.”

There is no doubt that Black girls are put at further risk when they are shut out of mainstream education, with little understanding or empathy from school leadership. A recent report found that exclusion puts girls at greater risk of sexual harassment and discrimination

What is being done?

After the Thomas Knyvett video was circulated, a protest was quickly organised at the school, with attendees offering the victim self-defence classes and demanding that the leadership of the school be held accountable. Black activists and politicians like MP Janet Daby, ​​Jahnine Davis of Listen Up Research, and Vinna Best from Dear Black Women and Girls, sprung into action.

The arms of the community tried to extend their grasp to reach her, to reach all of us who have been harmed while at school. Bullied and attacked in spaces that are supposed to be for learning, friendship, for growth. Within the education system itself, there are also pushes for continued change. 

Denise Henry says that her members are campaigning for regularly monitored anti-racist policies to be rolled out systematically in schools, including training, equalities committees and spaces for Black students to reflect on how they are treated in school. At present, she says, “there’s no consistency”. Many schools don’t have anti-racist policies, though, in London, she cites Hackney as a borough that has been particularly proactive. 

“We need people to monitor what’s going on in school. Governors should take it on board. Ofsted. Subject leads. Black pupils’ voices should be heard. Enough is enough. We need to see the changes,” she says.

But really, where does all this leave the girl who was attacked? And if we could speak to her, if we are able to acknowledge her as more than a symbol of an ongoing resistance movement that flares and dies with the news cycle, even without the full details of the incident, what should we say?

“I would say I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry that happened to you,” said Louise Potter, emotion in her voice. “And it gets better. Get out of there. And you'll find your people and your tribe, and you won't have to face all these indignities every single day.”


Take action:

It feels like horrific incidents like what happened at Thomas Knyvett College are all too frequent. Here are three things you can do to push for positive change: