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Tackling Unconscious Bias within the Schools

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What is Unconscious Bias?

Whether we like it or not, we all exhibit unconscious bias in some way whether deciding which friend to honour a dinner date with when we’ve double-booked or making application shortlists that reflect our own cultural experiences.  Unconscious bias is about patterns of behaviour that affect our everyday decision making and which are influenced by shared background, culture, and personal experiences. 

Unconscious bias is when we make judgments or decisions on the basis of our prior experience, our own personal deep-seated thought patterns, assumptions or interpretations, and we are not aware that we are doing it. The irony is that prejudice and discrimination are inevitable by-products of the efficiency of human cognition. Making decisions about candidates is hard work and depends on being able to judge them entirely on their merits. Each and every one of us tends to believe that we are more fair, and less prejudiced than the average person. Research has shown that this is an effect of a self-serving attribution bias, one of many unconscious biases that we draw on in order to make fast decisions.

Importantly, we have both a positive bias towards our ingroup, and a negative bias towards an outgroup. Weare familiar with members of our in-group and feel on firm ground when judging their excellence and trustworthiness. We perceive a pleasant fluency of action when we experience familiarity, and this makes us feel confident and in control of our decisions. With unfamiliar members of other groups we are on less sure ground. It often seems like taking a high risk to select such a candidate. Actually, in the case of both familiar and unfamiliar candidates, itis very difficult to shut out unconscious preferences and fears. We are often unaware that we redefine merit to justify discrimination.

How does unconscious bias manifest itself?

We are born with a predisposition to prefer the sortof people by whom we are surrounded and to learn from them. Then, through development, our attitudes are shaped by cultural values both implicitly and explicitly, through listening to everyday talk, or reading stories. Our unconscious brain is constantly processing and sifting vast amounts of information looking for patterns. When the unconscious brain experiences two things occurring together (e.g. many male senior managers or many female nurses), it begins to expect them to be seen together with the result that other patterns or combinations start to feel less ‘normal’ and more challenging to process. If left unchecked this can easily lead us into (at best) lazy stereotypes and (at worst) prejudicial or discriminatory behaviours.

How do we identify unconscious bias?

It helps to be aware of its existence. Once we accept that we will all quite naturally use subconscious mental shortcuts, then we can take the time to consider them and reflect on whether such implicit thought processes are inappropriately affecting the objectivity of our decision-making.

A striking demonstration of hidden bias is provided by Implicit Association Tests (IAT).

The test measures the speed with which you associate values of different concepts. For example, you are given the task of sorting pictures of men to the left and women to the right. You are also given words to sort into categories of science related or arts related. It turns out that you are faster to sort these words if science words are to be placed to the left where men have been placed and arts words to the right where women have been placed.

The reason for this is that you unconsciously associate science with men and arts with women. If it's the opposite way around, your performance is more effortful and therefore slower. There are such strong cultural stereotypes that they feel truthful, when research has shown over and over again, that they are not. It is a sad fact that women’s careers in science are blighted by such stereotypes. Another way of putting this is that we unconsciously discriminate in favour of things that feel ‘natural’ and ‘right’ as opposed to those that are less familiar, but might actually be correct. The very act of taking the IAT, which you can do, can force hidden biases into the conscious part of the mind. It can be a sobering experience.

If statistics are to be believed, the paper on School teacher Workforce – Ethnicity Facts and Figures (2019) revealed that 85.7% of all teachers in state funded schools in England were white British. 3.8% of teachers were from the White Other ethnic group, the second highest percentage after the white British group and 92.7% of head teachers were white British whilst only 65.4% of pupils are from a white British background.

Surely it is time to address the implications of unconscious bias within UK state schools?

Of interest is how biases drive high turnover and high attrition among black Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) teachers, in a system where BAME pupils do not see themselves represented in the ‘school community’ and the ‘school community’ does not reflect how wider society or ‘Global Britain’ looks today. 

Experiences of BAME teachers

Tereshchenko, Mills and Bradbury (2020) shows us that the proportion of students and teachers from minority ethnic groups is disparate, meaning that BAME students and teachers may not see teaching as a viable option without role models to inspire.

Research participants stated that they regularly experienced:

  • Being ‘passed over’ in senior promotions and hitting a glass ceiling which may not have been obvious at the outset. ‘I look at the people at my school that have been promoted or given opportunities to learn and they’re all white British’;

  • A ‘culture of toxicity which took the form of micro-aggressions, covert bias and injustices’. ‘It matters what the culture of the school is, how they view ethnic minorities and if one walks around a school on interview and they don’t see diversity reflected in the pupils or staff’, then they would be ‘more likely to opt for a school which had encouraged and supported this’;

  • A revolving door resulting in BAME teachers having to move to more diverse and disadvantaged/SEN schools in London in order to advance their careers;

  • Feeling that ‘wider social inequalities are mirrored and reproduced in school power hierarchies which underpin and drive BAME teachers’ unequal career progression’.  

Examples of Unconscious Bias

However, it is not just in education where we see unconscious bias being played out. Channel 4’s Hollyoaks aired a powerful episode on the subject.

In one scene, Martine, a black woman, attends a cancer diagnostic appointment and is first to arrive at the surgery. Tara, a white British woman, arrives after Martine for the very same reason. The receptionist informs the two women that the appointment has been double booked and that only one of them can see the Doctor that day. Tara begins to cry. Martine awaits the decision in silence. The receptionist chooses Tara and tells Martine ‘Tara is clearly upset’ and ‘Have some sympathy.

It is not unusual for NHS staff to have to make these decisions against the backdrop of a system which is overwhelmed and underfunded. However, Statistics show black women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer due to systematic racism and misinformation  (Morris, 2021). When Martine questions the receptionist, she is told to ‘ take a step back and stop being aggressive’. The writers skilfully make the point that the word ‘aggressive’ like intimidating are so often used against black people and people of colour as well as non British people who have ever dared to stand up for themselves.

Seconds later, Martine tries to explain that ‘I have a lump too. I am terrified too’, but the scene ends with Martine standing outside in the cold whilst the two women make their way inside the surgery. This will not have been the only problematic person or challenging situation Martine will have faced that day.

For instance, where could she be in her job she wonders, if ‘it weren’t for so many barriers’. ‘The micro-aggressions are so subtle and covert it is hard to prove’. There is a sense throughout the episode that Martine must be’ strong’ and toughen up. Any injustice she feels must be borne with unflinching humility.

Parm Sandhu was the most senior Asian woman in the Metropolitan Police Force and the only non-white female to have been promoted to Chief Superintendent in the history of the Force. Her book entitled ‘Black and Blue – One Woman’s Story of policing and prejudice’ she tells of a challenging thirty year rise through the ranks of the Force where she faced racial and gender discrimination and spurious claims of misconduct after whistleblowing.

In her nail-biting account, Sandhu observes how persons of colour get the jobs and perform as well as, if not better in some cases than, their white British counterparts, but when they come to knock on that door for promotion or to raise a concern, the path is fraught with complexity and struggle and the rules are very different depending on who knocks. 

So, could unconscious bias have played a part in the situation with Megan Markle?  In her infamous interview with Oprah Winfrey, Megan spoke of the need to avoid polarising people and she found it hard being blamed for something ‘not only that I didn’t do’, but ‘that actually happened to me’. Megan’s quote ‘If you love me, you don’t need to hate her [Kate] and if you love her, you don’t need to hate me’ is the money sentence and will likely resonate. Megan felt she was often compared to Kate, with Kate usually coming off better because when one is faced with fewer battles to fight, they can concentrate on the battles worth fighting. One is far less likely to miss-step when not constantly on a back-foot. 

What can Senior Leadership Teams and Ofsted do to improve recruitment and retention of BAME staff? 

  1. Diversification of the workforce only occurs if there is an ambition and an appetite to make it happen.

  2. Look around your school. How many teachers or teaching assistants of colour do you see? Who sits on your leadership team and at the table of the Board of Governors? 

  3. When advertising for teachers, try to advertise in two different demographics and avoid language as ‘will suit someone from the local area’, but rather you could advertise in such a way as to actively source and welcome applicants from the BAME community. 

  4. Consider whether opportunities for training are open to persons of colour. What does that training look like? 

  5. Is there a pattern as to whom you choose for advancement.  As one of the participants in the earlier research paper commented ‘First level the playing field and then let’s talk about merit’. 

  6. Move out of your comfort zone. Spend time with people from different cultures and backgrounds and see things from a different perspective. Less diversity means conformity of thought and exclusion.

  7. Ofsted could revise their reports avoiding language relating to demographic as being eg ‘mostly white British with lower than average children with EAL, a statement of need or pupil premium’ and they could also score schools according to if they have made some attempt to recruit and retain BAME staff.

  8. Provide opportunities to raise concerns with a diverse team. Use Gary Klein’s “premortem”. Imagine a decision or conflict leads to disaster and detail how it might have happened. Thus, search for overlooked problems.

  9. Be comfortable talking about matters involving race. Avoid language as ‘She is more English than us’ or ‘I don’t see colour’ as this only serves to invalidate a person’s background. 

  10. Think about what social media platforms you share with your staff. Can you remain objective and professional if Facebook (staff) friends are commenting on every aspect of your personal life. 


Schools roll out PREVENT training to staff, but do we really understand that those young people influenced into radicalisation are those who are in search of belonging and identity. However, we ‘prevent’ a sense of belonging when our institutions are not geared up to providing role models as part of a pupil’s lived daily reality. We are very good at teaching pupils about tolerance, equality and diversity, but we don’t show them what that looks like within the school environment. 

In the wake of the George Floyd Killing, there was much emphasis on social media about ‘learning from it’ and ‘moving on’. Prima facie, this is an ideal but, in reality, how do you ‘learn’ and ‘move on’ if those uncomfortable conversations about colonialism, slavery and trade are not discussed in any meaningful way? This can leave young, vulnerable people grieving and in a situation which is inexplicable to them.

When we only look to recruit and retain those who conform to our own set of values and perspectives, we risk losing skills within the profession but also, we can inadvertently develop some negative and harmful cultures out of complacency, which can threaten the integrity of structural practices. If leaders only create other leaders in the image of themselves with replicas of models that already exist, what real steps have we taken to progress diversity and integration?

Senior Leadership Teams have a key role to play in making diversification of the workforce happen and in shaping the culture, vision and ethos of the school (see Benjamin Aishnine, who is Head of Equality, Inclusion and Culture at the British Medical Association and Racial Literacy at Integrity coaching). 


Aishnine, B. (2021) Aishnine. [Online] Available at: 

Integrity Coaching (2022) Coaching & Leadership Development. [Online]. Available at: 

Morris, N. (2021) ‘We are not listened to’: Why Black women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with late-stage cancer’, 27 April, Metro [Online]. Available at: 

Sandhu, P. (2021) Black and Blue: One Woman’s Story of Policing and Prejudice. Atlantic books.

Tereshchenko, A; Mills, M; Bradbury, A; (2020) Making progress? Employment and retention of BAME teachers in England. UCL Institute of Education: London, UK

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