Primary school pupils and toddlers in nurseries are being punished for making racist insults, according to a report, even if they don’t understand the terms they use.
Teachers are being treated like counter staff in police stations as they have to fill in forms detailing name-calling and jokes.
Meanwhile diversity “missionaries” are said to be increasing the divide between white and black children by forcing them to see everything through the prism of race.
Adrian Hart, the author of the report published by the Manifesto Club, a civil liberties group, said: “The obligation on schools to report these incidents wastes teachers’ time, interferes in children’s space in the playground, and undermines teachers’ ability to deal with problems in their classrooms.
“Worse, such anti-racist policies can create divisions where none had existed, by turning everyday playground spats into ‘race issues’.
“There are a small number of cases of sustained targeted bullying, and schools certainly need to deal with those. But most of these ‘racist incidents’ are just kids falling out. They don’t need re-educating out of their prejudice–they and their teachers need to be left alone.”
Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Certainly any racist incident in schools should be dealt with swiftly but the definition of racism can be taken too far, especially with young children who clearly don’t understand the connotation behind the words.
“Schools are dealing with ever increasing bureaucracy as they are required to fill in more forms and provide more detail on any number of issues. This government micromanagement must be curtailed.”
After the introduction of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which put a duty on public bodies to eliminate discrimination, schools were told they had to monitor the impact of their policies on the educational attainment of pupils of different races.
They were placed under a duty by the Government in 2002 to monitor and report all racist incidents to their local authority.
Special forms were created that require teachers to name the alleged perpetrator and victim, and spell out what they did and how they were punished. Schools can keep details on file.
Today’s report, called The Myth of Racist Kids, calculates that some 280,000 such incidents have been reported in England since full records began. An earlier investigation using Freedom of Information requests by Channel 4 News found 95,022 incidents between 2002-03 and 2005-06.
Birmingham City Council alone has seen numbers rise from 943 in 2002-03 to 1,606 in 2008-09, while 1,248 were logged by Leeds City Council schools last year following a “big push to make sure that all incidents are reported and recorded”. Essex County Council figures show that most of the children involved in reported racist incidents were aged between 9 and 11.
Schools that send in “nil” returns are criticised for “under-reporting”, and are sent letters telling them to put up posters raising awareness.
Any school that fails to investigate alleged racist incidents risks being seen as “condoning racism”, according to the official TeacherNet website.
Meanwhile those that report high numbers of racist incidents are praised for operating a “zero-tolerance” approach including, according to Essex, “an ethos which actively seeks to identify and eradicate all manifestations of racism, however trivial they may seem”.
Teachers and other school staff are allowed to report racism even if the alleged “victim” was not offended.
In many cases, the “perpetrator” is punished by the head teacher and their parents will be told.
The new report shows an example of a Racist Incident Referral Form in which a girl who called a boy “white trash” during a football game was “severely spoken to” and suffered “loss of lunchtime play”.
Sometimes the police are also called in, with the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuting 2,916 children aged between 10 and 17 for race or religious hate crimes in 2007-08, up from 404 just two years earlier.
In addition, 4,410 pupils were suspended or expelled for racist abuse in 2006-07, 350 of them in primary schools.
Even toddlers at nursery school are treated as potential racists, the report claims, with staff told “the earlier you can pick up any tendency towards discriminatory or prejudicial behaviour, the better chance you have of successfully tackling it”.
Mr Hart, who was hired to make a film about racism in primary schools, says the strict policies undermine teachers’ ability to set behaviour standards for pupils and reduce them “to the level of police-station counter staff”.
He claims in many cases the children involved are friends who have fallen out.
He says they are often too young to understand the insults they are using, but are being treated unfairly for having “inadvertently committed an offence that adults call ‘racism'”.
In addition, Mr Hart says he heard pupils saying that skin colour did not matter to them, but staff believed race must not be ignored and that children would “lose part of their selves” if their differences were not celebrated.
Mr Hart believes race equality “missionaries” who scrutinise relationships in schools are actually increasing division between pupils.
He says “anti-racism workshops” lead to more reported incidents, which means more intervention by officials.
One head teacher told him that an assembly on respect for difference had led to an “awful atmosphere” as “children who used to play beautifully together .. separate along racial lines”.
The report quotes a youth worker who says that when children of different backgrounds fight “it’s not always a race issue”, but when it becomes recorded as such it “causes racism” because the children feel they have been treated unfairly.
Mr Hart recommends that the compulsory reporting of alleged racism is scrapped, and that schools are allowed to develop their own policies of discussing diversity and dealing with playground disputes.
Diana Johnson, the Schools Minister, said: “Bullying in all forms, including those motivated by prejudice, is totally unacceptable and should not be tolerated. No-one should suffer the pain and indignity which bullying or racist abuse can cause.
“Schools can make a positive contribution and help improve all children’s lives, by creating a safe learning environment where all children feel valued and can enjoy and achieve. That is why we have given head teachers and school staff the legal powers and the support they need to tackle bullying, ensuring their authority cannot be questioned. If racist bullying is not dealt with in schools, then this will send a powerful message to children that racism is acceptable–not only in schools but in society as a whole.”