Dr Jo Trevenna portrait

Written by Dr Jo Trevenna

Dr Jo Trevenna has over 20 years' experience of educational leadership from early years to post-graduate level. Her ongoing academic interests centre on Leadership and EEDI. Her company, Potential Education, offers leadership reviews, support and training and EEDI-focused school support.

There can’t be many of us still thinking that human identity is singular. Right? Aren’t we a combination of diverse characteristics that create and impact on our existence? Expectations and assumptions around combinations of characteristics are increasingly illuminated in societies, with light thrown on those who experience multiple discrimination and shade thrown on those who discriminate against those with different combinations of characteristics. The complexity around identity is foregrounded in explorations of intersectional discrimination. Yet intersectional disadvantage is not generally a focus for English schools. 


Is it a lack of understanding and awareness or the lack of external accountability? 

The Law 

Critical awareness of the vulnerabilities faced by those with exact combinations of identity characteristics was first associated with the legal work of Kimberlé Crenshaw which looked into the discrimination experienced by African-American women in terms of ‘intersecting patterns of racism and sexism’ (Crenshaw 1991, p1243). Crenshaw asserted that anti-discrimination legislation in the United States did not actually protect African-American women because, when making legal claims against an employer, this particular group had to choose between a focus on either their race or gender, even though the discrimination they faced came at the ‘intersection’ of these two identity characteristics. 

Section 14 of The Equality Act (2010) recognises the potential for discrimination pertaining to ‘combined discrimination: dual characteristics’ (Legislation.gov.uk 2010). The focus here is limited to direct discrimination against the combination of only two characteristics. More significantly, Section 14 has never, in fact, come into force. It just sits there in provisional status. 

As it stands, therefore, the law does not adequately protect against intersectional discrimination and, in terms of English schools, there is no legal imperative to tackle intersectional discrimination.

Publicly Available Data

Published performance table data is hugely significant for schools. The first stage of the high profile ‘school and college performance measures’ website offers only a single-axis approach to pupil data. Some basic intersectional data is available on the ‘Explore Education Statistics’ section of the platform relating to ethnicity and disadvantage, disadvantage and gender, SEN and ethnicity. However, the data remains on cohort numbers and does not provide any information which may indicate the impact of those intersections on pupil academic performance, exclusions/suspensions and attendance. FOI requests can be made and the GOV.UK website also offers the facility for researchers through its new Grading and Admissions Data for England (GRADE) service.  This service may be a significant step forward in terms of higher level transparency but it does not provide readily accessible data to the public on intersectional discrimination affecting pupils.

Data revealing the intersectional factors affecting pupils is available to school leaders and governors, local authorities and Ofsted via the ‘Analyse School Performance’ (ASP) secure access platform. Filtering mechanisms enable reports combining specific pupil characteristics, eg: boys with SEN, and scatterplot graphs make it relatively easy to identify patterns of underperformance because of key combinations of protected characteristics thereby highlighting potential impact of discrimination and flagging up need to address.  Another school performance document is the Inspection Data Summary Report (IDSR), which is accessed on the secure ASP portal. The IDSR is a key document for Ofsted Inspectors when preparing to inspect a school and informs initial discussions with headteachers. Like the ASP tool, the IDSR does provide schools and Ofsted with a retrospective mini intersectional tool in its coding on scatterplots of the progress and attainment of pupils by binary gender classification and SEN status and deprivation status. However, there is no public access to this data.

To sum up: disadvantages experienced by pupils with specific combinations of identity characteristics  in English schools are not readily flagged in publicly published school data. Perhaps Ofsted, which does have access to this anonymised intersectional data via the ASP and IDSR, has the potential to be the driving force in helping schools engage with intersectional discrimination. 

Taking a sample of 68 Ofsted Section 5 inspection reports published in a six month period (not including those which inspected an already ‘Good’ school), there are only references to single-axis identity characteristics. In this sample, Ofsted, as the key inspection mechanism for schools, does not engage with the impact of intersectional discrimination on pupils. The lack of referencing in this sample of reports is not surprising given that Ofsted’s School Inspection Handbook only relates identity characteristics on a single-axis framework. 

As it stands, then, there is no legal accountability, no easily accessible public data to enable transparent exploration of the impact on pupils and little Ofsted engagement with intersectional discrimination and disadvantage. Right now, without the external accountability structures, it is the choice of school leaders whether or not to adopt an intersectional approach to their schools. Given that most of us agree that identity has multiple components, it is surely time to explore how an intersectional approach can throw light on intersectional disadvantage and discrimination and therefore help schools to tackle it head on despite the lack of an external accountability framework.