Race Equality Teaching

Hidden Thoughts

It feels uncomfortable to describe someone as fat. The word is so loaded, somehow implicitly ascribing personal blame to them whatever their circumstances. A recent incident, however, brought home to me the possibly even more serious implications of the word. On the street, behind a little ‘fat’ boy, my granddaughter, just four, suddenly announced, “I hate fat people”. She then refused to talk about it, covering her ears (1). In a family where differences between people are discussed positively and openly this came as a shock. But ‘fatism’ (if that is what it might be called), like sexism, disableism, racism and all the other ‘isms’, lurks often unrecognised and unacknowledged until someone, like her, articulates its presence. The reaction of those around her probably explains her own counter-reaction to theirs. It made me wonder what other issues like this, at present relatively hidden, may be coming over the horizon to disturb us.

Readers of Race Equality Teaching will already be only too familiar with both the ‘lurking’ of racism and its overt in-your-face manifestations. But many people working in the early years field (and probably everywhere else too) have little knowledge or understanding of what racism is and is not.

Short on Awareness

So they plough on doing their work of somehow trying to implement racial equality with little concept of the racism that creates inequality in the first place – possibly thinking it does not exist in largely white rural or suburban areas. Or they may believe that the ‘victims’ themselves are responsible for what is happening and with some vague idea that it is to do with racist marches, violence and bigoted, xenophobic organisations.

Consequently they are in no position to see the work they are trying to do within a context or to have the confidence (apart from it being an apparently ‘good’ thing to do) to know why they are doing what they are doing. Not knowing why you are doing something is no basis for doing it well – and it may lead to a relatively meaningless tick-box syndrome.

There are, of course, training courses for some early years workers about ‘equality and diversity’ and ‘equal opportunities’ (whatever those words might mean). The issues are often said to be ‘threaded through’ all courses, there are ‘multicultural resources’ (often meaning black dolls and books with pictures of black people in them) and there are practitioners who ‘treat them all the same’. So that’s all right then! Except that it isn’t.

Lip Service Only

There are huge swathes of the country where lip service is paid to racial equality and relatively few early years settings (2) where active antiracist practice is in place. In particular, the private sector, which provides for 80% of all early years childcare, largely has other ‘priorities’ and lacks staff who understand the issues.

The owner of four nurseries in central London who, on hearing the title of my book, said that it did not involve them, as they were ‘all white and middle class’ there, typifies this. Another apparently highly regarded and qualified owner and member of a national advisory group devising government guidance said that early years practitioners were not prejudiced.

While in no way saying that all qualified teachers in schools understand racism or are intellectually curious, the rampant lack of appropriately qualified, informed, questioning and thoughtful staff in many early years settings may go some way to explain the gulf of knowledge about racial equality issues in general, as they apply to the care and education of young children.

This may apply similarly to some OFSTED childcare inspectors. Otherwise how have some settings passed their inspections when racial equality issues are not addressed either by the setting or the inspector? The fact that only a few early years OFSTED reports comment on these issues is an indication of the priority given to racial equality. Some readers may think that this is no different from the maintained education sector!

EYFS : Good Guidance

However, there is the potential for progress in that the new Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) statutory framework, introduced in September 2008, although not mentioning the term racism, has many pointers to it – for example ‘anti-discriminatory practice’, ‘helping to overcome barriers where these already exist’, ‘all children irrespective of ethnicity, culture or religion’ having ‘the opportunity to experience a challenging and enjoyable programme of learning and development’ and duties regarding ‘anti-discriminatory legislation’. These are significant contributors to what needs to be addressed to counter aspects of the package that together comprise racism.

The EYFS Practice Guidance also has allusions to racism – for example, it identifies many issues, too numerous to list, that need to be implemented in order to address factors in this package of aspects that together comprise racism – including ‘positive images that challenge children’s thinking’, ‘resources reflecting the diversity of children and adults within and beyond the setting’, avoiding ‘negative stereotypes’, supporting children in ‘developing positive relationships by challenging negative ….comments and actions towards either peers or adults’, being ‘alert to injustices’, supporting ‘children and adults to unlearn discriminatory attitudes’, talking ‘with young children about valuing all skin colour differences’ and giving ‘children information which challenges cultural, racial …stereotypes’.

Despite some of the recent valid criticisms of the EYFS, these are very positive requirements which might in the present climate be largely ignored if they were just professional guidance, as is being suggested by some critics. Ignoring these requirements may contribute to institutional racism but how many workers and inspectors have analysed the EYFS for these opportunities? How many have gone through it highlighting the examples relevant to gender, disability, family background and ethnicity, culture and religion – something that would probably be a revelation as to the threaded nature of equality issues, even if not yet exactly what we might ideally wish for?

And how many settings have linked the Government’s community cohesion agenda with the clear aim expressed through Every Child Matters for every child, whatever their background or their circumstances, to have the support they need to make a positive contribution – a contribution to the breaking down of barriers between communities? (see Lane and Ouseley 2006 for discussion).

The Missing Link

It was with all these long-known-among-antiracists issues in mind that I started to write Young children and racial justice – taking action for racial equality in the early years – understanding the past, thinking about the present, planning for the future. And the more I thought about it, the more clear it became that the missing link in all the local and national guidance and policies, practice, thinking and training for racial equality and in some pertinent legislation was even a mention of the word racism, let alone an understanding of it.

It seemed to be the key to unlocking the barriers to antiracist practice. Ranging from government ministers, national and local government departments, through OFSTED (now responsible for inspecting all early years provision) and the maintained, voluntary and private sectors to the actual practice in settings, the gulf in acknowledging racism was there (see Lane 2006 for a detailed analysis of the early years field and racism). During the writing of the book, the DfES critical paper Getting it – getting it right was published (Wanless, Dehal and Eyre 2006). This was seminal to the points I was trying to make.

Publishing the Book

So, four years and nearly 400 pages later, I have attempted to demystify racism in a way that I hope early years workers can accept and understand. I have tried to write this all in a non-threatening and sensitive way with lots of real life examples. So far as I know most readers have found the language readily accessible and the case studies helpful and relevant. Even some non-book readers have browsed through it and said that it is something everyone should read. While not believing for one moment that this will happen, I hope that the key messages in it are clear and open to further discussion.

I also hope that the book will stop people from feeling apprehensive, guilty or unable to talk about racism for fear of using the ‘wrong terminology’, having a finger wagged at them for being a racist or exposing their lack of knowledge. I hope that readers will no longer be concerned about being challenged aggressively and made to feel inadequate – shades of some racism awareness training (RAT) in the eighties. None of us would welcome that experience either! Instead, I hope the book will enable everyone to share the lack of knowledge common to so many of us and to talk freely, openly and honestly about it within an ethos of trust, equal respect and no blame.

Given this intent it was therefore disappointing, but hardly surprising, that the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph (not for the first time in relation to these early years issues, as RET readers will know) wrote destructive, distorted and ridiculing articles about the book, picking out particular bits and implying that racist toddlers commenting on spicy food would be reported to the council – words not used in the book itself. The media furore was out of all proportion and, as with the previous episode, the worldwide blogs were mostly hugely ignorant, ill thought out and, of course, anonymous. Many responses, including emails to both the publishers (the National Children’s Bureau) and myself, were obscene and insulting.

An article by that doughty ally Jenny Bourne of the Institute of Race Relations, (ironically the same surname as that of the Daily Mail journalist who clearly knew the consequences of what he wrote) can be seen on www.irr.org.ukMedia hysteria around new book. How many early years workers read the articles and were influenced by them is inevitably unknown.

What Is The Book About and What Issues Does It Cover?

The contents pages of the book can be seen on the website of the National Children’s Bureau (3). It attempts to address strategically all the relevant issues across the national early years field, from legislation and monitoring by ethnicity, through national and local government requirements, policies and procedures, inspections, training/education, research and employment to the actual practice in settings. On the way it considers racism (including a detailed discussion of institutional racism) at some length, prejudice, discrimination, stereotypes and assumptions, how children learn their racial attitudes, a review of past approaches, devising policies and schemes for racial equality, dealing with racist incidents, a critique of government practices and policies and an overall strategic implementation framework.

It addresses in detail such issues as talking about skin colours, mixed race families, terminology, living and working in mainly white areas, name-calling, learning English, bilingualism/multilingualism, valuing home languages, the role of the media, unlearning racially prejudiced attitudes, Persona Dolls, no-blame culture, ethnic composition and representation of groups, community cohesion, assessment, childrearing practices, religion, culture, families, observation, the key person approach, multiculturalism, political correctness, racist ‘jokes’, Travellers, refugees and asylum seekers and European migrants.

Some of the practice discussion has been written in more detail and more effectively elsewhere. The book does not claim to be a definitive resource of good practice. And I know that I am no expert and certainly do not know all the answers. What I hope it will be is a sort of manual and set of principles for those who wish to think seriously about early years practice and are sufficiently committed and passionate about ensuring racial equality to read about it further. It aims to provide an opportunity to reflect, to think, to question and to become confident about the reasons for working in an antiracist way.

No one bar passionate antiracists will read it all through but trainers may find it helpful to introduce bits in stages in order to engage in discussion. Also I hope that some people may dip into it, open their eyes and minds and become sufficiently interested to read further. But my main hope is that the issue of racism will cease to be the awesome enigma that it so often is and instead will become something that, through better understanding, can be faced with confidence and a commitment to remove it.

What Is Racism?

Most people in the early years field, when asked to say what racism is, cite prejudice and, less frequently, discrimination. The responses are often given as examples – refusing to offer a nursery place to a black child or witnessing a white child refusing to hold a black child’s hand. They nearly always hold the parents responsible for such attitudes. Rarely is there a wider knowledge.Clearly a basic definition is needed. I define racism as :

    all those practices and procedures that, both historically and in the present, disadvantage and discriminate against people because of their skin colour, ethnicity, culture, religion, nationality or language.

But, although this is accurate, it is somewhat obtuse to those unfamiliar with such concepts. To make it more accessible the ‘practices and procedures’ can be spelt out as a package of different things that taken together comprise racism. It can then be seen more clearly as complex with different components. I have defined the package as comprising:

racial prejudice

racial discrimination

racial harassment

racial hatred

racial violence

racial assumptions

racial stereotyping

cultural racism

sectarianism and anti-religious racism


institutional racism

structural racism

state racism

Considering racism in this way may help to explain its complexity and clarifies the struggles, misunderstandings and misinformation that many people have when trying to define and understand it. It helps to explain that any racist incident is fundamentally part and parcel of the whole and not just a one-off event without a context. It points to how history has fashioned and still does fashion the notion of racism. Some of the components are more pertinent to the early years than others, but all may impinge in some way.

The Need to Face Racism

Talking about racism and even using the word may appear to be daunting to some early years workers and perhaps induces feelings of apprehension, often resulting in impotence to discuss it and, therefore, to address it. But because its origins are in world history, and Britain’s role in that history, it is something for which none of us was personally responsible. However, we are responsible for recognising it today and for playing our part in eliminating it, at least in our own contexts.

Understanding it enables us to better know what to do about its consequent present day manifestations in the early years and, in so doing, helps us to take responsibility to counter it. This is important because to do nothing about it or to pretend that it does not exist, especially in largely white areas, is to collude in its perpetuation. It flies in the face of the evidence, collected over more than fifty years, that shows that young children recognise different skin colours by the age of three – indeed how would they not do so when they can recognise other colours – for example, the difference between blue and red bricks, and when babies recognise the people who care for them?

And unless action is taken to enable them to learn positive attitudes to such differences, the evidence also shows that they may be learning to be racially prejudiced, possibly leading to racist behaviour in adulthood. Every racist adult was once a young child. The power of racism to affect young minds cannot be ignored.

Within this approach, institutional racism is less daunting. I discuss this with examples and then go on to suggest specific instances in the early years, which may constitute institutional racism.

Outstanding and Ongoing Concerns

Nothing discussed so far is likely to touch the ongoing concerns about the failure to address the racism in our society comprehensively. There is a series of outstanding issues that are of critical importance but which remain only on the margins of the early years agenda. They influence whether settings and training take racial equality seriously, feel reluctantly obliged to make gestures to do so or do nothing at all.

The amended Race Relations Act is an example of this. Monitoring by ethnicity, conducting race equality impact assessments, setting up key advisory groups with attention being paid to their ethnic composition or whether participants have a knowledge of racial equality issues and ensuring that research projects are not ethnocentric or culturally biased are just a few key preliminaries that are mostly ignored.

Most depressing is the fact that so few people even notice (or care about?) the failings of law enforcement. For example, most national conferences to consider the EYFS and its forerunner have barely any black representation. Who notices this? The 1998 National Childcare Strategy contains no national strategy for race equality. Nor has one been devised since then. It is as if there is no legislation about racial equality or, if there is, it does not have to be complied with consistently at all levels.

Positive and Supportive Work Being Done

However, on the encouraging side, there are positive indicators for the future. Nearly everyone working in the early years sector genuinely wants to do the best for children, so if we can unlock the resistance to considering racial equality there is real potential for change. Furthermore, there are people dotted all over the place who are already fired up with enthusiasm, determination and commitment to ensure that training and settings are taking racial equality seriously. And there are plenty of good resources on racial equality and early years for those who seek them – videos, articles and books (see www.childrenwebmag.com/racial equality info for such a resource list).

So why, after all these years of effort, are things apparently not changing sufficiently to be really noticed? Could it be the failure to understand racism as already discussed? Could it be that the present training programmes, both initial and in continuing professional development, are insufficiently persuasive for participants to have the determination and confidence to take personal action? Perhaps it is a combination of these factors.

A Possible Way Forward

People come to work in the early years field (as with nearly all work situations) with their own personal histories, experiences, education, family and social backgrounds. These inevitably influence their reactions, understandings and commitment to ensure racial equality in whatever they do. Where discussions, training, meetings, seminars and conferences provide little time and opportunity to consider the issues calmly, safely and in unthreatening ways, those with almost inevitably deep-seated ideas, opinions and beliefs tend to be defensive (although usually very politely) and maintain their original stance whatever alternative views are presented.

It is becoming daily more obvious from the reports of some of those involved in training as well as those with experiences of observing such training and practices in settings that the key to understanding racism comes from opportunities for people to talk together, to listen to one another and to share ideas and experiences all within a commitment to wanting the best for all children.

Such opportunities, taken over a period of time where trust is established within a no blame culture and where participants are able to bring their own ideas for calm discussion are recognised as engendering a listening open-minded and open-hearted basis for working together. This fosters a respectful ethos and permits changes to take place without any fear of shame or being found wanting. Everyone benefits. Furthermore it prepares the ground for a willingness to learn more about specific issues. For example, there is a vital link between such programmes with adults and the way adults see the importance of work with Persona Dolls to address children’s attitudes and their capacity to think critically (Brown 2008).

A programme of such training, More is Caught Than Taught (MCTT), has been developed in the United States and programmes have been run here for over ten years. Its essential components are a concern for the well being of children, opportunities to range over an array of issues that arise from living in our society and sufficient time over a period to build trust and for open and honest discussions (see Kapasi and Lane 2008 for a detailed discussion of antiracist training and MCTT).

From such programmes participants are empowered to address inequalities holistically. They are then ready and prepared to accept subsequent training on specific issues of racial equality with equanimity. Such opportunities can be life-changing and ensure a lifetime’s commitment to be pro-active for equality in principle and practice.

Of course, such programmes are time consuming and require funding. But a few local authorities, concerned that money is well spent in the long term, are beginning to recognise the benefit of the possibility of one-off, admittedly costly, programmes that are truly effective and require no further input because participants take the issues forward independently, instead of the present constant drip-drip situation of running courses on a never-ending basis but where little really changes.

Does this make sense? Is it worth trying? What do readers think?


  1. Subsequent to this incident, and after some discussion, she decided to talk about ‘round’ people instead – she had understood how her negative opinion was hurtful and wrong.
  2. Early years settings are subsequently referred to as ‘settings’.
  3. The National Children’s Bureau website, www.ncb.org.uk


Brown, B (2008) Equality in action – a way forward with Persona Dolls Trentham Books
Kapasi, H and Lane, J (2008) Approaching race equality training in the early years. Race Equality Teaching. Summer. For MCTT see www.inspire.eu.com

Lane, J (2006) Right from the Start – a commissioned study of antiracism, learning and the early years. Focus Institute on Rights and Social Transformation (FIRST) www.focus-first.co.uk

Lane, J and Ouseley, H (2006) We’ve got to start somewhere: what role can early years services and settings play in helping society to be more at ease with itself? Race Equality Teaching. Spring

Wanless, P, Dehal, I and Eyre, R (2006) Getting it. Getting it right: Exclusion of Black Pupils – Priority Review. DfES. Formally published by DfES in March 2007.

Jane Lane is an advocate worker for racial equality in the early years. She is the author of Young Children and Racial Justice – Taking action for racial equality in the early years – understanding the past, thinking about the present, planning for the future.

This article was first written for the Autumn 2008 edition of Race Equality Teaching, and thanks are due for permission to reprint.

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