Shocking evidence of US-style racial bias in Australian schools

By Linda Graham

Australian research is almost silent on how disciplinary practices in our schools are affected by racial bias. 

In the United States there is ample evidence that children from minority groups are more likely to labelled as having behaviour disorders. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with having a mild intellectual impairment, learning disabilities or emotional disturbance, and placed in special education classes.

Research from the US consistently shows that African American, American Indian and Hispanic students are more likely to be overrepresented if they are:

  • male,
  • from a low SES background,
  • live in a high-density urban area, and
  • where there is a high proportion of students from minority groups.

Similar trends have been noted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada.

The lack Australian research on this issue is not because we somehow have escaped the problem but because Australian education systems are remarkably eclectic in the ways in which they report data.

Sophisticated longitudinal and geographical analyses tracking trends in diagnosis and placement are currently impossible. We remain ignorant of magnitude, cause and effect. But there are indicators and if you can see the tip of an iceberg, logic suggests that you would make a serious effort to alter direction.

What DO we know?

The NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC) publishes an extensive array of educational data. Whilst they are riddled with inconsistencies and blind-alleys, DEC does at least publish some statistics disaggregated by Indigenous status.

These data show that Indigenous students are significantly over-represented in long school suspensions (5-20 days) and in separate special educational settings. DEC doesn’t draw that conclusion themselves but it is clearly evident when Indigenous students make up only 6.3% of total enrolments in NSW government schools in 2012 but account for:

24.4% of long-suspensions,

14.6% of enrolments in primary school support classes,

12.6% of enrolments in secondary school support classes, and

12.8% of enrolments in special schools.

These numbers tell us far less than we need to know. For example, is the disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous students in school suspensions and special educational settings increasing or declining over time? Are there discrepancies that might indicate institutional bias or is Indigenous over-representation in these data simply a reflection of social disadvantage?

I looked for evidence of trends emerging. What I discovered has made me believe urgent attention is needed.

Let’s start with the use of suspension: the strongest predictor of later special education placement and school failure.

Long-school suspensions: 2008-2012

Indigenous students accounted for 6.3% of total enrolments in NSW government schools in 2012, but received 24.4% of long-suspensions (averaging 11.8 days), up from 22% in 2008.

They were 5.1 times more likely to receive a long-suspension than non-Indigenous students (up from a risk of 4.3 in 2008), and 6.1 times more likely than non-Indigenous students to receive a repeat long-suspension (no change from 2008).

There was a 35.1% increase in the number of Indigenous students receiving a long-suspension between 2008 and 2012.

This is almost twice the increase in long-suspensions received by non-Indigenous students.

This is a serious problem because suspension is an ineffective and often harmful response to student disengagement that does nothing to address the underlying causes of disruptive behaviour.

As I mentioned earlier, suspension is also the most robust predictor of special education placement and later school failure. If that’s true, then high rates of suspension may be impacting Indigenous enrolments in special education. Let’s have a closer look at this part of the iceberg…

Enrolments in separate special educational settings

longitudinal analysis  of enrolments in separate special educational settings (1997-2007) found that Indigenous enrolments in support classes and special schools are increasing faster than enrolments of non-Indigenous students, and faster than Indigenous enrolments in mainstream.

In other words, the rise in Indigenous special education placements cannot be explained by Indigenous population growth.

This research also found that Indigenous students were already over-represented in separate settings back in 1997, and that the degree of over-representation has increased significantly since. Particularly worrying was the finding that the disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous students had accelerated in the 6 years since the Review of Indigenous Education (2004).

Enrolments in NSW government special schools

So, we know that Indigenous students are over-represented in special schools and that their enrolments are increasing relative to non-Indigenous students. This doesn’t appear to have stirred much in the way of public outcry, so I investigated whether Indigenous disproportionality differs by special school type.

There are three broad types of special schools in the NSW government school sector:

  • Traditional special schools enrolling students with moderate to severe intellectual impairment, physical and sensory disabilities, and autism;
  • Mental health special schools enrolling students with emotional disturbances, severe psychiatric disorders, or behaviour disorders; and
  • Juvenile justice special schools within juvenile justice detention centres.

In 2009, traditional special schools enrolled just over two thirds of special school students, mental health special schools enrolled almost one quarter, and juvenile justice special schools enrolled just under 10 per cent.

Indigenous representation varied significantly by school type with 1 in 4 kids in mental health special schools and almost 1 in 2 in juvenile justice special schools identifying as Indigenous. Less than 6 from every 100 students in Traditional SSPs were Indigenous.

This means that Indigenous disproportionality in special schooling is explained by over-representation in particular types of special schools; namely mental health special schools and juvenile justice special schools.

Now, I know that still might seem unremarkable to some, so I looked a little more closely at mental health special schools. There are two broad types in this group:

  • special schools for students with verified mental health issues, and
  • special schools for students with disruptive behaviour.

The former requires a confirmation of disability (under the category of mental health problems) prior to entry, the other doesn’t.

Indigenous students accounted for 18.8% of enrolments in the type that requires confirmation of disability and 27.1% of enrolments in the type that doesn’t.

In my field of research, that’s more than the proverbial tip of an iceberg.  It’s the equivalent of a smoking gun.

At the very least, these trends tell us that our school disciplinary practices are affected by racial bias and that we need to more carefully examine how discipline is applied, to whom, what for and in what ways.


Linda GrahamAssociate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030). She is presenting this research at the NSW Aboriginal Education Council’s 50th Anniversary Conference, Saturday August 30, 2014.


2 thoughts on “Shocking evidence of US-style racial bias in Australian schools

  1. Schools mirror the communities/societies they serve. If there is racial bias or bullying in schools they reflect the racial bias and bullying in the community and our society. The other indicators are obvious. Prison (and crime) stats, unemployment figures are biased towards particular racial groups – as are other measures of disadvantage, I am sure, and bullies prosper in our society. Just look at our parliamentary representatives and captains of industry. So, you see, the bias on which you report is simply another symptom of the broader disease of social inequality and disadvantage. You can try, but you cannot eradicate the symptoms in isolation from the disease.

  2. David Zyngier says:

    This excellent research as shocking as it is should not surprise. Australia like all other colonial settler societies has a racist underbelly reflected in this statistics. I agree with Irene that the disease needs to be tackled at its source – from the top down – starting with our leadership – when we try and teach about these issues too many of our students say “well I will never teach any Aboriginal kids so why do I need to know this”.

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