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The School As A ‘Hostile’ Environment

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

My research focuses on young people and communities who are ‘othered’, fueled by moral

panics through policy, practice and the media. It is only now with the ever increasing hostile environment and the normalization of right wing rhetoric, can I now state what I referred to as ‘othering’ in my research as racism, and anti-Muslim racism embedded in the educational system. Through a deficit discourse lens worn by policy makers to educators where educational policies are underpinned by the philosophy of social justice, equality and fairness, which falls short for marginalized groups. Minority ethnic Muslim young people are framed as ‘problematic’ and a ‘troubling’ presence (Mustafa, 2014), where our values are ‘alien’ (Kundnani, 2007) and our communities caricaturised as ‘dangerous’ and ‘hostile’ (Said, 1997). The young people talked of the lack of voice and agency in the school environment, and feeling powerlessness to counteract the discriminatory behaviour against them. This blog post highlights a few of my findings.

The research from England (Stevenson et al, 2017) and Scotland (Riaz, 2018) states that young Muslims already encounter significant barriers in the education system itself. The young people felt that:

  • Teachers have either stereotypical or overly low expectations of them.

One student in my study, Shiraz, spoke of a teacher who was not supportive and how this made him feel ‘low’ as the teacher considered him a ‘messabout’ and he often sought out his pastoral care teacher for support (Riaz, 2016, p221).

  • There are insufficient Muslim teachers or other role models in schools and non-Muslim teachers are reluctant to engage with them.

  • They are placed in middle or lower sets and where this happens teachers fail to listen to requests to move up to higher sets.

Another student Iftikar, in my study, had asked for help from his senior teacher in charge of all the classes in his school year, for support:

‘Yeah, once I did [ask for support], then of course my year head, well she just kinda goes you’re talking a load of garbage and to give you extra work and stuff. And off course you can’t argue with them and then they accuse you of being this and that. Then they phone your parents up and get you in trouble, they write up a bad report, and it affects if you get into college or not. They [the colleges] always look at your report.’

He was rebuffed and where he said he was told that continuing to push for support might lead to parental involvement and a bad annual report. It is this threat of contacting his parents and the report and how it will negatively impact his future choices, leading to non-acceptance into college that highlights the lack of power the young person feels in planning for his future. When he attempted to take the initiative to improve his chances, it backfired.

  • There is insufficient and inadequate individual tailored support, guidance and encouragement in schools.

They perceived the majority student population received preferential treatment in terms of support and guidance. One Pakistani Muslim male student Iftikar said when discussing guidance for career advice:

‘They don’t treat us like the Scottish White people, they like give them more chances, more ideas, they give more support to them. They see us one time and that’s us left. The other people, they will see them every 2 or 3 weeks, they give them more chances than us lot’ (Riaz, 2016, p165).

  • The young people were sanctioned more severely than their White counterparts for misbehaviour.

Iftikar speaks about being split up in class from his friends, and admits that his behaviour can be interpreted as disruptive but he feels the level of discrimination and racism towards him has increased as he has gone up the school

‘…it started gradually, as you go up the school, the topics change, you got more racism….It was usually in class. As you get to know them [the teachers] more, [unclear], then they start to bully you more, basically. Whenever our mates…. Had to choose their own seats the first time, our wee group of boys, me and another 2 boys, my mates were put separately.’

I question why the teacher would consider moving the groups of friends around, he admits the bad behaviour but he said no other friendship group was split and situated around the class as was his group

‘It’s cos we…Off course we laugh and stuff, we do mess about, I’m not saying that, but it’s usually us that are getting places, one at the back, one at the front and one in the middle… If a white Scottish male got into trouble. I’m seeing – he would be seen as bad, but if one Pakistani done it, it would be bad and thought of something really bad’ (Riaz, 2016, pp165-166).

Iftikar perceives the different levels of sanctions being applied by teachers as unfair, and which he justifies due to the visible difference in his skin colour (Gillborn and Youdell, 2000).

The young people were scared of raising these issues or seeking help because they feared that this would emphasise their difference and may make them targets for further bullying or harassment.

Indeed, when Bhopal (2012) speaks of how students of Roma origin are considered outsiders and do not enjoy the same rights as other minority groups in the school environment. This erosion of school citizenship has now questioned the rights of other minority ethnic groups, in particular, young Muslims, who are constantly under surveillance, and monitoring through statutory safeguarding policies.

As they moved up the school system, young people said they lacked the support necessary to succeed. Parents, particularly if they were educated in a different system, were less able to support them in their studies and they lacked requisite capital, knowledge or access to social networks to help their children make informed choices. Young Muslims felt that schools did a poor job of filling this gap. In their view, there was insufficient and inadequate individual tailored support, guidance and encouragement for young Muslims to take specific or challenging subjects, take part in extra-curricular activities, or explore alternative pathways to education or employment.

This also adds to Arshad et al’s (2005) critique of the lack of specific positive action in addressing these inequalities at the structural level within schools and institutions perceived by the young people. It is now 2019, and the same inequalities found many decades ago, although a part of policy rhetoric, has not been translated into effective practice, with the school environment is still one where students are treated differently based on their background. The necessity for critical conversations is more important to ensure equality and equity is embedded into the school infrastructure, and these conversations need to happen now.


Arshad, R., Diniz, F. A., Kelly, E., O'Hara, P., Sharp, S. and Syed, R. (2005) Minority Ethnic Pupils' Experiences of School in Scotland Insight 16. Scottish Executive Education Department,

Bhopal, K. (2012). Gypsy and Traveller pupils: moving towards inclusion and good practice in schools? Race Equality Teaching Vol.30 (3), pp.19-23.

Gillborn, D., Youdell, D. (2000) Rationing Education Policy, Practice and Reform. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Kundnani, A. (2007) The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain London: Pluto Press.

Mustafa, A. (2014) Collective Identity, Muslim Identity Politics and Multiculturalism, Workshop Proceedings: Sense of Belonging in a Diverse Britain.

Riaz, N. N. (2016). More Choices, More Chances: Exploring Identity, Culture, Policy and Practice with Black and Minority Ethnic Young People in Glasgow.

Riaz, N. N. (2018). Transitions: Exploring Aspirations of BME Muslim Youth Exiting Compulsory Education, Journal of Research in Post-Compulsory Education, Vol 23 (3), 368-390

Said, E. (1997) Covering Islam, London: Vintage Books. Kindle Edition.

Stevenson, J., S. Demack, B. Stiell, M. Abdi, L. Clarkson, F. Ghaffar, and S. Hassan (2017). Social Mobility Commission. 2017. “The Social Mobility Challenges Faced by Young Muslims.” [online]



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