Black and female: Adultification, bias and racism

Written by: Orlene Badu | Published:
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Having taught in an inner city primary school, that although it was part of the overall data. The ...

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Black children are more likely to be excluded from school and face systemic adultification, bias and racism. Our response to this often focuses on boys, but Orlene Badu looks at the barriers faced by students who are both female and of black heritage...

As the autumn term rolls on, many of us will be considering the experiences of all of our pupils. We will be reviewing their re-entry to school, their re-engagement with learning, and ensuring that all children have a strong sense of belonging to their school and a secure attachment to staff.

We know that the cost of living crisis is having a deep impact on our children and their families at a time when we are still recovering from the pandemic.

We may be satisfied that we have systems in place and that our offer is working for most of our children. And for those for whom it is not working, we may have a selection of narratives to pathologise why that is the case.

We can hope that all children are treated equally, that all children have the same access to our resources, and that any child who works hard will thrive in our school.

But yet, there are children in our schools who will not be thriving. Within this cohort, there will be black girls who are not thriving, including those who identify as Afro-Caribbean, black African, African Caribbean or all black heritage.

A Freedom of Information request from the charity Agenda and official figures from the Department for Education (DfE, 2022) reveal that during the academic year 2020/21, mixed heritage white and black Caribbean girls were three times more likely to be excluded from school than their white British female peers (Agenda, 2022).

Agenda’s research corroborates the harrowing fact that biases continue to have an impact on outcomes for black girls and those who are mixed white and black heritage.

There is a systemic challenge that we must confront, both within ourselves and the systems that operate in our schools...

The urgency of intersectionality

Historically (and currently) girls have had to face barriers to opportunities, independence and freedoms. And these are even more difficult to access if they are a black or mixed heritage girl who is white and black Caribbean. Societally there has been a focus on the systemic challenges that exist for black heritage boys and white and black Caribbean boys, a catalyst being the brutal and harrowing murder of George Floyd in 2020.

However, there is also an awareness that needs to be raised when working with black and mixed heritage white and black Caribbean girls. This must include an awareness of the systemic barriers they face and an understanding of how this can affect them, their lived experiences, and academic outcomes.

Intersectionality can help us to understand the cumulative challenges that girls in our society and our schools can and do face – every day.

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, an American civil rights advocate and scholar, coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989. In her 2016 TED Talk – The urgency of intersectionality – she identifies intersectionality as a “study of overlapping or intersectional social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination”.

For a black heritage girl or mixed white and black heritage girl, their life experience is likely to be more challenging, with many more systemic barriers affecting them in comparison to their white female peers.

While their peers may experience biases as a result of being female, they will not experience the stranglehold and overwhelming obstacle of systemic bias because of their race. This is of paramount importance.

The intersectional lens allows us to understand that there is a myriad of ways that black heritage and mixed white and black heritage children can be affected due to the cumulative layers of characteristics they have been born into in our unequal society.

Black and mixed white and black heritage girls are not only being hugely affected by racism, but they are also impacted by classism (where it applies), gender bias, and being a child.

Child Q and adultification

In March, we saw the publication of the Hackney and City Safeguarding Children Partnership Review into the case of “Child Q” (CHSCP, 2022), which highlighted the harrowing challenges that black girls can and continue to face in our education system.

Child Q was strip-searched in her school – a place that “should” be safe for all children – by two female police officers while teachers waited outside the room.

Finding 8 of the review is clear in its assessment of the incident: “Having considered the context of the incident, the views of those engaged in the review and the impact felt by Child Q and her family, racism (whether deliberate or not) was likely to have been an influencing factor in the decision to undertake a strip-search.”

I have had a number of conversations with headteachers and school leaders who have responded after the release of this review. They wanted to reflect on and review their practices and create systems and processes so that this could never happen in their school.

I get nervous when I hear a school leader tell me: “This could never happen in my school.” Because it could and it does.

We know that “adultification” is a by-product of bias and racism. It occurs when black and mixed heritage white and black heritage children are treated and perceived as being more adult like than their white peers.

It is prevalent across our society, particularly in the criminal justice and education system. The review noted: “It was a lack of action taken after the strip search that shows Child Q was primarily being seen as ‘the risk’ as opposed to being ‘at risk’.”

Adultification can affect black girls as young as five and sees them having to accept perceived culpability and being treated much more harshly than their peers, societally and in schools.

A key safeguarding question that staff and our systems must answer is: “Was this child ‘at risk’ or was this child being deemed as ‘the risk’?”

Challenging our biases

School leaders need to consider how we support staff to challenge their biases when it comes to our decisions about a child.

Because the truth is if we do not tackle bias within the decisions, we make the likelihood is that Child Q will happen again – whether it be a strip-search, an exclusion, or an under-assessment.

Continually providing staff opportunities to consider how their biases can and do affect the decisions they make is imperative and must be an on-going part of our school culture. Our biases do not go away so working in an organisation that has a focus on collaboratively challenging staff is vital.

Likewise, reviewing our safeguarding policies to understand the impact of racism on our pupils, their outcomes, and their lived experiences is vital. Our policies must encourage deeper reflection and ensure that staff develop and use racial literacy to understand the experiences of children, particularly if they are from backgrounds or cultures that are different to their own.

For example, in a safeguarding policy that challenges racism, we would want reference to the racism that children and young people can face in school but also reference to the intersectional lenses that can further compound their experiences.

We want a policy that confronts the challenging experiences your pupils might have and ensures that staff confront their own biases when making decisions to safeguard the pupil; a policy that supports a system that builds in opportunities for staff to review and reflect on the decisions that they must make is imperative.

In order to challenge bias and racism it is important that we educate ourselves and our teams about race and racism to avoid making decisions that unfairly disadvantage our black children.

This approach is advocated in Racism in secondary schools, a report written by Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury and published by the Runnymede Trust (2020). The study calls for anti-racism to be placed at the centre of our education system, reflected in policies, in the curriculum, in the racial demographic of the teaching workforce, and in the competencies of teachers.

A teacher that is clear and well-educated about the intersectional experiences of their students will understand that they must consider how they challenge their own perceptions so that they do not lead to racist or biased decisions or assumptions about their children on a number of levels – irrespective of where that staff member was born, lived or were educated.

Racism that black girls experience in schools is not just a problem for those experiencing it now. It is a factor to consider when reviewing the lack of black teachers in the UK – have their experiences in school when they were children compounded a lack of representation in our school staff today?

Analysis of workforce statistics from 2019 show that 85.7% of all female teachers in state-funded schools in England were white British in comparison to 2.2% identified as black heritage. This is exacerbated at headship level, with 92.6% of all female headteachers being white British compared to 1.1% identifying as black heritage (DfE, 2021).

Where are the role models for our girls in schools? How do they view leadership and how do they see themselves represented in schools? And if they do become teachers, where are the opportunities to progress into senior leadership?

There is a great deal of work to do and that must begin with us.

  • Orlene Badu is a former primary school headteacher who also has experience of working in alternative provision. She is the author of How to Build Your Anti Racist Classroom (due out April 2023) and now works across London as a leadership and management advisor supporting schools and local authorities. She is also a school improvement advisor. She is the curator of Hackney's Diverse Curriculum. Visit

Curriculum Excellence: Design, Delivery & Diversity

  • Orlene Badu will be presenting a workshop at SecEd and Headteacher Update’s forthcoming Curriculum Excellence conference. The event runs online from January 17 to 19, 2023. The workshop runs at 3:30pm on January 19 and will be focused on decolonising primary school assessment practices. For details, visit

Further information & resources

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Having taught in an inner city primary school, that although it was part of the overall data. The racial make up of the staff and leadership was representative of the pupils. This gave all pupils in the school positive role models. Pupils outcomes were good to outstanding, and staff regularly reflected on our practice.
Now having had time to stop and reflect on the school, the location, the ethos, the staff, the pupils their demographics and our SATs results. I am satisfied that the school has had a positive impact on our pupils. I feel that all the time, the effort, the challenges, the difficulties decisions, the teaching and the learning, were all worth it. I am often greeted in the streets by teenagers and young adults that I have previously taught, which allows me to feel proud that I have had a hand in part of their success!

It would seem we have been unofficially teaching in an anti racist school, and our pupils have benefited from our teaching. Teahers high expectations for all their pupils is paramount for learning.
I look forward to reading Orlene's book to confirm my theory. Enjoyed reading your article Orlene. The data is quite shocking.

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Amazing article Orlene. The data speaks for itself. Thank you so much for being such an advocate for equality, equity and unconscious bias today. Keep up the great work
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