NORWICH SCHOOL’S CULTURE OF RACISM

By Sean Meleady

Content warning: racism, examples of racist abuse

Norwich School has been caught up in a publicity storm this summer after a letter was sent to the school Governors from 264 former pupils and parents in June detailing numerous cases of racist behaviour by pupils and staff at the selective private school.

Former as well as current pupils and former teaching staff collated their experiences of racism anonymously in a public document. A selection of these experiences were mentioned in the letter, which accused the school of ‘rampant racism’. In a second letter they describe the response of the school to the accusations as ‘extremely disappointing’.

Located between Tombland and the River Wensum in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, Norwich school was founded in 1096. After the 1944 Education Act Norwich School was also a Direct Grant Grammar School until 1975. Boarding was phased out in 1989, girls were admitted to the Sixth Form in 1994 and the school became fully coeducational in 2009. Old Norvicensians, as alumni are called, include Horatio Nelson, former Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood and Tory donor Lord Ashcroft. The school currently charges annual fees of up to £16,941.

Following the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide, the authors of the letter felt compelled to act about the racial abuse at the school. They called for ‘everyday racism and microaggresion training’ to be added to the curriculum, the establishment of a system for reporting incidents of racism and Bystander Intervention Training for staff and prefects. In a separate letter, another former pupil called for the school curriculum to be decolonised.

The letter also pointed out that the school appeared more concerned about their reputation than about dealing with racism

Headteacher Steffan Griffiths said that the experiences were ‘troubling to read, both in the nature and number of instances listed’ and that he viewed the suggestions in the letter favourably. He also argued that changes had been made to the curriculum in recent years to make it more ‘multicultural’.

However, in a follow-up letter co-signed by Norwich South MP Clive Lewis, ex-students were critical of the school’s response, saying it had ‘dismissed and disregarded’ the accusations. This letter listed 10 suggested reforms the school could make to tackle racism, including forming a student led BAME society and an Equalities Committee of Governors.

The letter also pointed out that the school appeared more concerned about their reputation in the community and amongst parents than about dealing with the issue of racism head on, citing a letter written by Griffiths to parents arguing that pupils from all backgrounds had positive experiences at the school and criticising the media for a lack of balance in its reporting of the issue. The school seems reluctant to accept that the internal culture of the school itself contributes to the problem, not just broader racial prejudice in wider society.

According to the anonymous submissions, incidents of racism at the school were perpetrated by both pupils and teachers. Examples given include many uses of racial slurs, frequent microaggressions and occasional incidents of open institutional discrimination – in one case, a Jewish student was told directly by a teacher that their grade had been altered because of their background. Black students, Jewish students and students of Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian backgrounds all reported being targeted by racism, in some cases on a “near daily basis”.

Amaka Elumogo, who attended the school from 2010 to 2017 and now studies at Warwick University, co-authored the letter. Elumogo experienced racism on numerous occasions, including being called the ‘N-word’, given the nickname ’12 years a slave’ and being referred to as a ‘monkey’. She recounts that many students wanted to report incidents of racism during her time at the school but were discouraged by the school’s reluctance to take such complaints seriously:

“The school launched investigations identifying everyone involved but then nothing ever came of it. They would give out punishments that were the equivalent of forgetting your sports kit for 2 weeks”.

The lack of ethnic diversity at the school during Elumogo’s time there bred a culture where racism was tolerated, as she recalls:

“I maybe had 1 or 2 non-white teachers and we had one report from an ex teacher who mentioned they only worked with four non-white teachers in their entire time at Norwich School. It [racism] would get reported and then nothing would get done so more people would feel empowered to act in this way. Teachers in positions of authority argued that they should be allowed to use the ‘N-word’ as they had a black friend and told minority students they would grow up to be drug dealers. That’s when [pupils] feel empowered [to engage in racist behaviour] as they know there is no fear of repercussions.”

A Black Lives Matter mural in Grapes Hill Underpass, Norwich. The mural was later painted over by council contractors in a move the council has since apologised for. Credit: Evelyn Simak

Elumogo points out that this lack of diversity is also reflected in Norwich and Norfolk as a whole, with the culture at Norwich School to some extent being a reflection of attitudes towards race in the area.

“Norwich and Norfolk as a whole is majority white, something that is reflected in the school. There is this mind-set that it’s Norwich it’s never going to change, which is carried into the school environment. It’s definitely a reflection of the county’s demographics; it’s like a social experiment. If you said some of the things I’ve had said to me in Norwich in London you’d probably get decked.”

Elumogo is also very critical of the the curriculum at Norwich School, which ignores the atrocities of the British Empire: “It’s all about ‘we helped these uncivilised people’, but no, you massacred people and took land that wasn’t yours. This is why people have this inflated sense of Empire, they completely ignore the atrocities”.

Issues of race and racism in Norwich have been repeatedly highlighted in 2020, from the fire-bombing of a Mosque and anti-immigrant postering to the removal of a Black Lives Matter mural. Norwich School must accept the reality and severity of the culture of racism that has developed within its walls, and take real action towards change, if it is to live up to its self-proclaimed values of ‘love, care and compassion’ and the claim of the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) that it teaches its pupils to be ‘ responsible, tolerant, law-abiding citizens’. Only then can the school become the “safer environment for all the students to enjoy” that Elumogo and her co-campaigners envision.

Featured image credit: Evelyn Simak


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