More than 200 pupils highlight racism issues at top private school
- Credit: Submitted
Pupils at a leading Norfolk private school have raised allegations of a catalogue of racist abuse by staff and fellow students.
More than 250 former and current pupils have called for teachers to be trained in “everyday racism” and for changes to the curriculum after students and alumni came forward to share their experience of alleged racial abuse at Norwich School.
In response, the school apologised and headmaster Steffan Griffiths said it was making changes, but admitted it had a long way to go.
He said the experiences of racism at the school, reported in a letter sent last week, made for very uncomfortable reading and shocked him, but added it was a wider problem not only confined to Norwich School.
“Lots of schools are going through this process,” he said. “Day by day I see a happy school with friendships across different ethnicities, but we recognise there is more for us to do.”
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In a letter to the chairman of governors, written by three former pupils, but signed by more than 250 current and former pupils, they said racist abuse at the school was often dismissed as “jokes” with victims labelled as “overly sensitive”.
“When left unchecked these incidents can help to affirm racist attitudes that are carried into both university and the working world by the perpetrators of these actions,” they wrote.
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The authors said the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, had compelled them to call on the school to change.
In a statement they said: “This is just an important first step to affecting real change and holding the school to account for the way their pupils and staff have treated BAME students.”
Attached to the letter was a document filled with examples of racism which more than 20 former and current pupils said they suffered at the hands of both teachers and their peers.
The examples included:
-One pupil said they were asked to apologise for wearing a Black Lives Matter badge and accused by staff of being “divisive”
-A pupil said he was told by a teacher he would grow up to be a “drug dealer”
-A teacher mimicked an Indian accent to a class
-A current pupil who reported racism by another pupil said he was told to “move on” by a teacher after the incident was investigated
-BAME pupils said they changed their names so teachers would stop saying them incorrectly, or were confused for other BAME pupils
Other claims in the document include anti-semitic “jokes” being made to Jewish pupils and one student waving a Swastika.
They range from a black pupil being told to wear beige tights, to full blown abuse.
At an alumni drinks event one black person was allegedly told by an ex-pupil: “Black people are the worst”. This was recorded on camera and reported to police at the time.
Pupils also wrote that a teacher went on a “rant” about how people should stay in the countries they are born in and another teacher “publicly ridiculed” a pupil’s name for sounding “funny”.
Meanwhile one ex-pupil wrote they were told by their teacher that the reason for their bad grades was because they were Jewish.
The incidents date from pupils who left the school in 2015 to the present day.
They were reported anonymously over a five-hour period in an online document on Thursday last week.
The letter called for “everyday racism and microaggressions awareness” to be added to the curriculum; a place where pupils who do experience racism can properly report it and Bystander Intervention Training for staff and prefects to help them recognise and address racism.
In response to the letter, the school’s chairman of governors Patrick Smith wrote: “I would like to say how sorry I am that pupils have felt hurt and belittled during their time at school and that, largely, they have not felt they could do anything about the cause of their hurt.”
He said the experiences tell a “sorry tale of pain” and would be addressed with a variety of measures.
He said he and Mr Griffiths viewed “favourably” the three suggestions made.
Mr Griffiths said in a letter to pupils: “During my time at the school, I am aware of a small number of incidents of a racist nature; the school has acted in good faith in handling these situations appropriately but all who care about our values will regret distress caused to members of our community because of them.”
Speaking to this newspaper, he said he was shocked and saddened by the incidents, many of which he was unaware of until last week.
He said if any incident of racism is reported it is investigated.
He added: “We must all seek to do better. This is not confined to Norwich School.”
• ‘Decolonised’ curriculum
Mr Griffiths also said changes had been made to the curriculum in recent years to make it more multicultural, particularly history and English.
This was in response to a separate letter sent by another ex-pupil which called for a “decolonised” curriculum.
A similar letter, regarding the lack of diversity in the curriculum and amongst teaching staff has been sent to private schools across the country.
Mr Griffiths said in a letter to current and former pupils: “I hope you will agree that, in general, the school’s ethos is indeed one of tolerance and compassion.
“I also hope the letter shows that education about diversity, including the unacceptability of racism, is part of the Norwich School curriculum.”
Mr Griffiths said pupils had been moved by a visit in February of Baroness Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen was killed in a racist attack in London in 1993.
“Our pupils’ eyes were opened to the extent of racism that her family experienced,” he said. “In this Norfolk bubble there has not been an appreciation of the negative experiences that people have had.”
Regarding a lack of diversity among staff he said the school had made “less progress… than is comfortable”.
He added: “We must work harder to make candidates of all backgrounds view Norfolk, Norwich and Norwich School as somewhere they might wish to work.”
OPINION: This newspaper says...
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has rightly caused much reflection about how deeply ingrained racism is in our societies.
Some of this racism occurs without us even thinking about it, other examples are more overt.
At Norwich School more than 250 former and current pupils have signed a letter calling on the school’s leadership to take action.
The examples of racism they cite as part of that letter are shocking.
The school says it is listening and acting, but the examples suggest that racism was perpetuated by some teachers.
These cases were gathered in just a few short hours online and may represent just a handful of pupils’ experiences, but the themes are common.
Pupils did not report incidents because they feared they would be seen as being unable to take a “joke”.
Racism was thinly disguised as “banter”, some pupils felt they were expected to follow racial stereotypes and if not this was pointed out to them, teachers confused names of BAME pupils.
Some of the abuse was open – at an alumni event a former pupil said to a black person “Black people are the worst”, while Jewish pupils reported open anti-semitism.
Other examples were highly insensitive – a black student got into difficulty for wearing a Black Lives Matter badge.
The school’s leadership says it is shocked and is taking action.
This is obviously not just a problem for Norwich School but for all of us to address.
As we do so we should remember that we have far more in common than the things that divide us.