Dr Shungu Hilda M’gadzah
THIRD LETTER TO WHITE EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGISTS: WE ARE PART OF SYSTEMS THAT DISCRIMINATE.
Updated: Mar 7
Dear White and Black Educational Psychologists,
We all like to think of ourselves as good people.
Most of us educational psychologists would rather remain silent when we see racism then cause waves. You see, we like to be liked and it’s more important (some would say it’s in our EP DNA) that we maintain our good relationships with our schools than speak up. And by racism I am talking about racism as a spectrum from subtle, low-key racism to high-key racism.
See the Prejudice Racism Spectrum for more details:
However, the problem is this when we fail to take action children suffer. They stop being safe and happy.
We all like to think of ourselves as good people but the evidence is in the data and in the outcomes of Black children. The data tells a very different story. It sheds a light not only on those schools that discriminate but also on the professionals working with these schools that stay silent.
We need to use our skills and competencies to better support schools.
If we are truly good people and good professionals then we should use our skills and competencies to better support teachers in understanding and dealing with racism. If we are good people we should speak up when a teacher complains about a black child’s behaviour, and we should ask the right questions. We should offer support and challenge to help that teacher look at the child through different lenses and not through “the lenses of a disruptor”. (Dr M’gadzah, 2023, Voice Newspaper article).
BLACK SPECIAL NEEDS KIDS FAILED BY SCHOOLS by Sinai Fleary.
Sure, many psychologists are good people but a failure to take action is causing harm to the children we are supposed to be protecting and working with. We as a professional group are failing to safeguard Black children from the systemic racism which they are faced with in some schools and communities. I recognise that there some educational psychologists doing a great job in this area, but the numbers are too small.
We need to take more responsibility as a profession.
My fellow educational psychologists, we need to wake up and we need to take responsibility and we need to be held accountable. Whenever children experience racism in schools we should see ourselves as partly responsible. We should see that we have failed to apply psychology, the very definition of what our role is in schools. As psychologists our job is to focus on the learning and behaviours not only of children and young people but also on the systems around them. We need to shine a light on how the systems around Black children are causing and contributing to the barriers and challenges they face in accessing the curriculum and in learning.
We often fail to speak up because we do not want to spoil our relationships with schools.
When we fail to speak up and when we fail to use our psychological skills to question and challenge schools then we’re not acting as psychologists, we’re merely “nice professionals” who work with schools and are too afraid of speaking up in case the “schools stop liking us”. Then we become part of the problem- we collude with schools that discriminate.
So, what are we going to do? Do we continue to preserve our nice professional reputation in schools or do we work to make a difference in Black children’s lives. You know what, I think we can do both. We have such sophisticated skills that we should be able to rise to the occasion and find ways of offering support and challenge to schools whilst also maintaining the good relationships we have with these schools. In fact, many schools are crying out for support in this area, and they need “critical friends” to work with them in helping them better understand and deal with racism. Who is better placed to do this than us as educational psychologists?
Some EPs have said they need scripts and support in asking the right questions.
In my training (supervision and coaching) of local authorities and educational psychologists many have said they need scripts and that they need support in asking the right questions. Sure, I understand that and if that’s the case then we need to get intentional, we need to get active in getting the support and the training. We need to work together to create these scripts, in the same way that we would do if we were working with a child with literacy difficulties or a new condition we are not familiar with; we would go out there and actively seek CPD and ensure we are equipped and able to offer support to teachers and parents in this area. We need to do the same in the case of anti-racism development and practice, we need to move our behaviour and actions in a positive intentional direction and as a wise retired PEP recently said, “Let’s make sure our EP practice is anti-racist.” We need to work to make our profession an anti-racist profession one which champions and supports schools in becoming anti-racist organisations.
Most educational psychologists remain at Stages +1 and +2 of the Six Stages Framework
A recent Guardian article described schools in Wales as “ignoring and denying racism”. These are the exact words I use within the Six Stages Framework to describe those who are at Stages +1 and +2 (and Stages -1 and -2) of the Framework.
Check out full description of the Six Stages Framework
In my view many educational psychologists are at Stages +1 and +2 of the Six Stages Framework. There are some great educational psychologists out there doing a great job in the area of anti-racism however this is only about 10% of the profession. You may ask, how did I arrive at that figure? Well, its a guesstimate but it’s from the data and lived experiences of those we work with and the experience of those within our profession and those who have exited the profession:
§ The evidence is in the outcomes of Black children.
§ The evidence is in the outcomes of Black educational psychologists within our profession.
§ The evidence is in the numbers of Black educational psychologists who get pushed out of the profession for speaking up about racism issues including the racism they face from schools and from their own colleagues. Many psychologists inform me during coaching and supervision how they are left feeling unsupported by their senior leaders.
§ The evidence is in the educational psychologists who send so called “friendly emails” informing Black psychologists that they have posted too many emails about racism (5 in a month including replies) on a psychology group forum. And then quickly sending an email to try and shut down any discussion from the wider group.
§ The evidence is in the inability of many of the educational psychologists on that forum to speak up and challenge what to many would seem like racist behaviour.
§ The evidence is in the numbers of educational psychologists who are too scared to speak out and call out racism and instead resort to sending private messages to me. This speaks volumes about the current culture in the EP profession with regards to discussing and challenging racism. Being an “ally” is seen as dangerous and done secretly.
§ The evidence is in the failure of educational psychologists to speak up and challenge blatant racism occurring on the psychology group forum particularly from one male individual.
§ The evidence is in the limited numbers of Black professionals in senior leadership roles and in course directors positions. Currently there are probably about 1 or 2% in these positions. (?)
§ The evidence is in the lack of action from professional organisations such as the AEP (Association of Educational Psychologists) and the BPS (British psychological Society) – DECP (Division of Educational and Child Psychologists) in supporting its professional members to tackle these issues and in refusing to take feedback from its members on the need to collect data to better understand where we are as a profession in terms of anti-racist practice.
Surely we can do better as a profession, we must do better.
I truly believe that we can do better as a profession. I have been encouraged by the numbers of trainee educational psychologists attending my Eventbrite seminars on Anti-racism and on In what ways to be discriminate. We need to be able to support schools in dealing with the issues and challenges facing them in the current social climate; developing antiracist policies, practice and keeping all children happy and safe is a key area for schools. How many EP Services are supporting schools with these issues?
Link to Eventbrite workshops
Some educational psychologists are crying out for support in this area.
I have many educational psychologist coming to me for racism trauma counselling and also for supervision and coaching as they feel they cannot get the support they need from within their own EP services. They talk about the lack of psychological safety and containment when discussing these issues. This is not good enough; we are a highly skilled group of professionals, and we can do better. Black children in our schools deserve more from us. Your Black and ethnic minority colleagues deserve better.
We can no longer be bystanders in systems that discriminate. We have the skills to make a difference for these children and for many others who are suffering from discrimination. We are responsible and we are accountable, and we need to stop acting as if this is not our responsibility. Anti-racism is everybody’s responsibility, it should be everybody’s business and that includes educational psychologists.
Racism in schools is happening on our watch.
How many of you have ever challenged or asked questions about anti-racism and or discrimination within your schools. In most cases, if you haven’t this does not mean that racism and discrimination does not exist, it just means that you’re not able to recognise it and to understand how racism manifests within schools. Or if you are at Stages +1 or +2 or even Stages -1 or -2 of the Six Stages Framework it could be that you are ignorant and in denial about the issues of racism in society and in some schools or that you do not care.
I came across this interesting post and a quote from- Rebecca Solnit on Linkedin:
“ I always pair privilege with obliviousness“
Being oblivious is Stage 1 in my Six Stages Anti-racism Framework. What stage are you on?
“Obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprevation.
When you don't hear others, you don't imagine them.
They become unreal and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters."
We all like to think we are “nice professionals” but the experiences of so many Black children is saying otherwise. The evidence is in the lived experiences of Black children and of their families; it’s in the outcomes (and data) of Black children including exclusions, SEND discrimination, misdiagnoses and low attainments.
The Intersection between Race and SEND
The intersection between Race and SEND is one we should all focus on much more. Frances Akinde, SEND Advisor/ ex Headteacher in her recent article points to the work which needs to be done in relation to SEND and Race. (See link below, also published in www.teachingtimes.com )
"Addressing barriers caused by the intersectionality between RACE and SEND in UK Education. An urgent call to action."
"We must address the structural barriers and discriminations that are at the heart of inequalities in Education. If these issues are not addressed and actions not enforced at government level, students from marginalised backgrounds who are also SEND, will continue to face disadvantage and discrimination. We know that inequalities experienced in school continue into adulthood and impact on outcomes and inclusion…..
In addition, we must insist on antiracism training for teachers and educational psychologists to better understand the issues of bias and explore the ways in which professionals may inadvertently discriminate (Dr Shungu Hilda M'gadzah, 2022)"
“( Added after original publication) In 1999 M’gadzah and Gibbs produced a themed journal of the British Psychological Society’s Education and Child Psychology entitled ‘Challenging Racism and Inequality in Education and Child Psychology; in the editorial they called for educational psychologists (and schools) to critically review their practice. In 2015, Williams et al in another themed journal, ‘Race, Culture and Ethnicity in Educational Psychology’ highlighted the slow progress made in this area and the need to “reflect on our effectiveness in acknowledging and addressing the experience of minority communities within educational psychology practice…..”
The slow progress within the profession in dealing with these issues is further evidence of where the profession is on the Six Stages Framework in terms of our ability to understand and deal with racism.
Are Educational Psychologists enabling and masking institutional racism?
It’s time to face up to the fact that educational psychologists are part of the “systemic cogs that enable and mask exclusions."
Claire Stewart-Hall/Equitable Coaching in a recent publication in Equity in Education and Society "Preventing School exclusions of Black children in England" described these systemic cogs as "institutional racism, policy and teacher racial illiteracy in schools.”
Indeed, many educational psychologists are also racially illiterate. What’s even more concerning is that many do not recognise this and do not seem to have any commitment to doing anything about it. They do not recognise their own racism or understand the racism spectrum and how some schools are racially discriminating against black and ethnic minority pupils.
Educational psychologists are failing to offer the challenge and support required for schools to understand and challenge racism. By being silent many are complicit and become part of the problem. They become part of systems that discriminate, and they watch as bystanders from the shadows or the side-lines.
We need to change our behaviours if we are to become an anti-racist profession.
In a recent post I wrote, "I can’t help but think that the real work will begin when we start shining a light on and take the lens to the behaviours of so-called “nice professionals (working with schools) who discriminate or allow discrimination to occur. As educational psychologists we have such a powerful position within schools but many of us in my view continue to turn a blind eye to the racism and discrimination around us.
We need to look at the racist behaviours (#PrejudiceRacismSpectrum) of all the professionals working with Black children and young people. We need to expand our definitions of racism so that we stop by-passing the so-called nice professionals.
I talk about some of these issues in my article “If racism was a virus.”
It’s time we call the professional groups working with schools to account. Anti-racism is everybody’s responsibility even educational psychologists."
Reforming the Education System
There has been some talk about reforming the education system and other discussions which are taking place with the department for education. However, you can’t reform the education system without looking at the skills set of the professionals who are working within the system- with schools and with young people. The skills need to include professionals who are able to understand current issues facing our education system and our schools i.e.,including racism and discrimination and to be able to support schools in dealing with these issues.
We need to challenge systems that are ineffective and inadequate in meeting the needs of children who are different, and this includes the full spectrum of difference from SEND, disability, racial differences and cultural discrimination .
Currently in my view the Educational Psychology profession is not fit for purpose in terms of working with children from Black and ethnic minorities as the standard educational psychologist is oblivious to or not capable (or interested) in identifying racial discrimination and supporting schools to put in place interventions and strategies to counter this,
We have a long way to go in becoming an anti-racist profession.
There seems to be a lack of commitment in some Local Authorities and Educational Psychology Services in recognising the role that we as psychologist have to play in challenging and combating racism and racial discrimination in schools.
I am sure that in years to come there will be more and more parents challenging Local Authorities and educational psychologists in their part in discriminating and causing racial trauma to their children. In my view, the Article in the Voice Newspaper (which I was interviewed for) is just the beginning.
Black Special Needs Kids Failed by Schools
As educational psychologists we can no longer sit back and say we don’t deal with issues of racism in schools because we are not social agents. How many of you remember those discussions within the profession? We need to face up to the fact that educational psychologists are part of the systemic cogs that enable and mask exclusions and thereby perpetuate institutional racism. We all have a duty to do some personal development work and to work on becoming racially literate so that we can more effectively support schools, other professionals and our communities in challenging racism.
The AEP & talks about a restart to our Education System
In her recent blog the AEP general secretary talks about what psychologists do and what psychology is.
“Educational Psychologists need to be at the table when there is a restart to our education system. We will be talking about how to make sure that children and young people flourish- as whole people - and not a collection of ‘attainments’ or ‘standards’. This is what psychology is and what Educational Psychologists do. Educational Psychologists have a role to play in “making sure our children and young people are safe and happy in education and beyond.”
I think we would all agree about the need to focus on the holistic child and the need to make sure children and young people are safe and happy in education and beyond. However, this cannot happen unless we can protect Black children from discrimination and racism. I would have liked to have seen the AEP general secretary mention discrimination and racism when she talks about the role that educational psychologists can play within schools and the challenges that schools are faced with.
Are you a so-called "nice professional" standing on the side-lines clutching your BAS/WISC briefcase?
We all like to think we are good people but the outcomes and experiences of Black children in our schools (and the experiences of Black educational psychologists) tell a different story. The statistics around exclusions and misdiagnosis of black pupils tell a different story.
I realise now that the reason our profession of educational psychologist spends so much time discussing "the role of the EP" is partly as a way keeping the EP role “sanitised” and of avoiding getting involved in real world issues facing some children like Black children within the school system.
But here is a quick newsflash! We cannot stand there with of BAS/WISC briefcases or dynamic assessment tool bags insisting that we are not part of the problem, because we are. We cannot keep our hands sanitised and say we don't get involved in these issues, or we don't get our hands dirty in this kind of work whilst we watch the lives of Black children being ruined through discrimination and racism.
We cannot stand with our assessment briefcases and say actually we're just here to assess needs and dealing with issues around racial discrimination, racism and its impact on children and young people is not our role. [Our role after all is to look at Black children and young people as whole people - and not a collection of ‘attainments’ or ‘standards’. This means looking at their experiences of racism and at systems that discriminate. This includes looking at what part we are playing within those systems]
We cannot do all this whist still maintaining when seated at “that table” that we do have a role in making sure all children are happy and safe. (Why can we not do this you may ask? Because more and more parents will be speaking up and saying educational psychologists are part of systems that discriminate. More and more families will come forward exposing the racism experienced by Black children in Education and in some schools- sometimes at the hands of Educational Psychologists- if not directly then as bystanders)
So, if we want a seat at that table, things have to change.
So, if we are truly going to achieve change, it's time for those of you who have been sleeping at the wheel or standing in the shadows to wake up! We are part of the current education system and when the restart to our Education system begins, if we really want to be at the table we need to recognise that we are part of the cogs of systemic racism which are blighting the experiences of Black children and young people. We need to be able to support schools and communities in dealing with current issues and the challenges they are faced with- real everyday issues of our time and that includes everyday racism- and developing antiracist practice and keeping Black children safe within all schools.
We need to be brave enough to take on the challenges some of our schools are facing and we need to put down our assessment briefcases, roll our sleeves up and get our hands dirty. Even if this means redefining our role and relationships with schools. Even if it means causing some discomfort in schools through offering support and challenge in this area. Even if it means that some schools will not see us as “nice friendly professionals” who do not challenge. Even if it means building our professional and individual resilience to enable us to operate in areas outside our comfort zone. Above all we need to get skilled up and write those scripts! If we do not have the skills or confidence required to work with schools to develop their antiracist practice then we need to take time to develop those skills and confidence.
Indeed, we need to develop our own profession’s antiracist practice: “Let’s make sure our EP practice is anti-racist” echoes the words of that wise ex PEP. This means developing true antiracist practice and not just words contained in the empty policies and position statements (which many seem so fond of -including the AEP, DECP and BPS) but in the measurable outcomes for Black children and young people. The results of our efforts also have to be evident in the lived experiences, outcomes and representation of Black educational psychologists at all levels within our profession.
We need to collect meaningful data not only about the children we work with but also about the experiences and outcomes of Black colleagues working within our Services. We need to take baseline measures and monitor progress.
One thing is clear we cannot do nothing- we have to review our work in this area and be committed to doing better. Not just for our professional reputations in the future but also for the hundreds of Black children and young people who we (as a profession) are failing on a daily basis. But also for the future generations of Black and White EPs who are to follow and who will be looked at through the lenses of our successes and failures as a profession.