Challenges faced by parents of minority ethnic children in the UK
Being a parent is one of the most life-changing and wonderful roles to have in life and children are indeed a blessing. Being a parent may allow us to reevaluate our lives in planning out a joint purpose for a new family and how we want to protect them, love them and guide them through life. Often though, parenting is a challenging role to fulfil. Sleepless nights, bills, school runs and fears all overwhelm our minds. But one of the significant issues parents of minority ethnic children face is schooling and education; whether it’s racism, stereotypes, finance, understanding school curriculums, access to resources and support, or learning English as an Additional Language (EAL)/Bilingualism. According to official statistics by the Department of Education, the proportion of pupils of a minority ethnicity has been rising over time and is at its highest ever level because as of the 2019/20 academic year, 34% of pupils in primary school, and 32% in secondary schools were of minority ethnicity. While we know for some years now that most pupils of African, Caribbean and Asian descent are performing better in school compared to their white counterparts, that's not to say the struggle parents have to reach this goal is an easy one. There remains within these figures pupils of these backgrounds who struggle to obtain satisfactory SATs and GCSE and A-Level results. The gaps between subgroups are vast and ought not to be ignored. New communities (including refugee and asylum seekers) are even more likely than established minority ethnic groups to have a very limited understanding of public services available, lack confidence in accessing them, have restricted social networks of support and face severe language barriers. This makes it very hard for them to support their child with their homework activities too or pay for trips or educational experiences for them that could enrich their vocabulary and understanding of the world.
Individuals from within and across different minority ethnic communities are viewed as part of larger homogeneous groups that can be labelled stereotyped. The label ‘BAME’ is found to be unhelpful where service providers come to see all minority ethnic groups as being a single group. There are countless examples. The names of parents of minority ethnic children are often confused with the children of other minority ethnic children. A young black girl called ‘Yemi', for instance, is continually called ‘Yasmine' because she looks like the other black girl in the class which in and of itself, shows that teachers or professionals in that setting do not value their presence and identity as much as the homogeneity of White British children who tend to have ‘simpler’ names and are seen and less likely to be ignored. Yes, the syndrome of ‘teacher’s brain’ results in occasional forgetfulness but once it becomes a frequent thing it shows a willful disregard for feelings and worth. I believe that for most parents, they want their children to be taught by teachers that recognise diversity and tailor their teaching strategies appropriately but not by taking a so-called ‘colour blind’ approach where they supposedly ‘don't see colour’ and refute racial differences but a case where every child’s identity is acknowledged and valued. Perhaps it needs to go further than that where teachers are explicitly taught how to tackle negative perceptions associated with minority ethnic groups and avoid assumptions about minority ethnic children and their parents based on their background, which tends to be unfairly judgmental. Perhaps it’s just a case that ethnic minority teachers, of which there are few, are better positioned to have the cultural sensitivity and understanding that can improve teacher-student relations and reduce instances of extreme disciplinary action for student behaviour like detentions and exclusions - another struggle for parents. For example, “The Black Nursery teacher” and manager, Liz Pemberton, who was the manager of a 46-place private day nursery in Birmingham and now a qualified secondary school teacher in a girls’ school where the Black African-Caribbean and South Asian heritage student populations were over-represented, has fought diligently to explore the impact of race in early years settings and schools nationwide. With an acute awareness of the wider impact of systemic racism within society, her nursery evolved into a community-based hub providing authentic and culturally compatible support for hundreds of children and families, providing care within an anti-racist framework. For Liz, there are four E’s of this anti-racist framework that she believes all Early Years environments should foster i.e. to Embrace all children’s racial, cultural and religious backgrounds, Embed a culture of belonging and value amongst practitioners and children, to ensure that practice is culturally sensitive and that the child is positioned as the expert of their own identity, and to Extend learning opportunities for the child by showing interest, expanding conversations and using diverse resources. She importantly says “Everybody working with small children must recognise the significant impact that they have on their world view. Conversations about race must not be overlooked if we are invested in their futures of creating a society that makes everybody feel as though they belong”.
On the matter of hair and outward appearance, children of minority ethnic backgrounds tend to wear different hairstyles and bodily garments; whether it’s braids, a hijab, dreadlocks or a turban. Parents of minority ethnic children are continually stereotyped for these unique differences and are often asked to remove certain cultural items by school staff so that their child can be more homogenous with the group of pupils in a class. So parents fight social attitudes towards their child’s appearance being too different, not presentable, too big or too ‘oppressive’. Children may often hear comments like “Are your lips real?”, “You’re like black-black!” or “You’re so lucky to have a natural tan”, leaving children upset or unnecessary exposed for who they are and thereby, angering parents.
Many parents and children from a minority ethnic background come from low-income households where Mum, Dad or carer have low paying jobs such as cleaners, housekeepers, waiters, bar staff or delivery drivers etc. Therefore, parents find it hard to not only pay rent and bills but also adequately feed their children with healthy meals and prevent childhood obesity. Fruit, vegetables and fish can be expensive for low-income households and such families rely heavily on grants and donations from schools or local services, food kitchens and access to food banks. Thus, their children are made eligible for free school meals (FSM) which are now seen as a very common indicator of deprivation by the Department for Education. Often this is paired up with such families living in temporary accommodation and they do not know when or where the next meal will come from or have the facilities to cook for the children in the first place.
Minority ethnic parents are likely to be disproportionately affected by barriers such as lack of time, distance to travel and costs. While some middle-class parents may afford to have their children go on family holidays, visit a museum, have an adventure day, read a wide range of books they all know the name of, learn to play an instrument, or have a part-time tutor, minority ethnic parents are less likely to afford tuition and take time off work; or they may work alongside tutoring their children, leaving parents tired and weary. Minority ethnic parents who work multiple jobs with long shifts may not have the time to help their child to participate in extracurricular activities like swimming, football, athletics or ballet. They may not own a car or a faster mode of transport and therefore, rely on public transport which poses issues for their child's punctuality and attendance at school if they live further out of the catchment area. Often, minority ethnic children are left in the care of older family members and provided a tablet or technological device to while away the time. Plus, over a third of African dependent children households are made up of lone parents; as are nearly half of Caribbean households and so a significant proportion of these families do not have a father or mother living in the household. This puts a huge strain on finances and the opportunities available to the children in their care. Family breakdown is seen as one of the quickest routes into poverty and an issue that disproportionally affects poorer communities, entrenching the poverty they already face. Many deprived minority ethnic parents and families do not have steady access to books and often the children end up having a much more diminished vocabulary and less love for reading because it's not a steady presence in their lives. I remember some years ago, I taught in a rather wealthy area and the children all knew the names of their favourite books but not just that, the names of the authors/illustrators and the beginning, middle and end off by heart. Where I teach currently, deprivation amongst the children of minority ethnic backgrounds has revealed itself in them saying they don't know how to tell a story or what books they like or how to even hold a book and turn the pages. Parents of these children work around the clock to provide for their kids but the children may not have the opportunity to be read to at bedtime like other children in polar opposite circumstances.
In addition, some minority ethnic parents face significant barriers where huge language needs exist. Minority ethnic parents may not speak English as their first language or have just moved to the country and are finding their feet. Many minority ethnic parents just communicate with their children in their home language, whether it’s Urdu, Twi, Romanian, Yoruba, Polish, Portuguese, or Tamil, to name a few. As a result, they struggle to grasp the school curriculum and therefore, do not support their child academically based on its content, and perhaps more crucially, communicate with teachers and educational professionals in how best to engage with assignments and their child’s general wellbeing. This is precisely why services that help with language barriers should consider affordability (where relevant), times of service provision, location, and ensuring that information is communicated in several languages. Sure Start and some multi-ethnic schools, provide language classes for parents which are invaluable but Sure Start and other language providers have struggled with funding for many years now where Spending on Sure Start children’s centres decreased on average 53% from 2010 - 2018. Minority ethnic parents take pride in their language and culture and often want their child to be bilingual but they worry that given their child’s very early English language proficiency, they will be excluded in class, assumed to be of lower ability and discouraged to even speak their home language. But bilingualism is a wonderful thing, and no parent should have to feel worried about their child’s speaking skills in the care of their teachers but rather willingly engage in language intervention programmes offered in school if available.
It’s clear that minority ethnic parents have several challenges they are required to overcome daily and one that social policy in the UK can work much more diligently to help alleviate with the help of more funding, more racial understanding and tolerance, and general parent and community support. I hope to see a day when all minority ethnic children are given the same opportunities as all the children in their class because their parents are now well supported, well-rested and adept at supporting their future learning journeys.