children branded racists
© Alamy
Confusion: Experts fear young children often do not understand the significance of what they are saying, and dealing with them in an overblown manner risks exaggerating a minor issue.
Summoned to a meeting at her seven-year-old son's primary school, Hayley White was prepared for a quick chat about his behaviour.

But when she was told that Elliott had been at the centre of an 'incident' with another pupil that was so serious she would have to sign an official form admitting he was racist, she refused to believe what she was hearing.

'When I arrived at the school and asked Elliott what had happened, he became extremely upset,' said Ms White, who is a 32-year-old NHS worker. 'He kept saying to me: "I was just asking a question. I didn't mean it to be nasty".'

It turned out that while in the playground Elliott had approached a four-year-old boy and asked him whether he was 'brown because he was from Africa'. On returning home, the younger boy had told his mother about the comment, and she had informed the school, hoping that they could have a quiet word with Elliott.

Instead, the school's anti-racism policy swung into action in full force.

At a meeting with Elliott's teacher and the deputy head of Griffin Primary School in Hull, Ms White was asked to read a copy of the school rules, and in particular its zero-tolerance policy on racism.

'I was told I would have to sign a form acknowledging my son had made a racist remark, which would be submitted to the local education authority for further investigation,' she said. 'I refused to sign it, and I told the teacher that in no way did I agree the comment was racist. My son is inquisitive. He always likes to ask questions, but that doesn't make him a racist.'

It was a point echoed by Karl Turner, Labour MP for Kingston-upon-Hull East. 'It seems the matter has been taken out of all proportion, and common sense seems to have gone completely out of the window,' he said.

No doubt that is a conclusion that most right-thinking people would also reach.

But the reality is that across the country each year, thousands of children as young or even younger than Elliott are being branded racists, homophobes and bigots over minor school squabbles, or even innocent questions.

Few such incidents are ever discussed, because unlike Elliott's mother - who bravely spoke out about his treatment three years ago - most parents are so shocked by the accusations levelled at their child that they dare not challenge them publicly.

An obsession with equality and diversity also appeared to be at the root of a news story this week about Ofsted inspectors who asked children aged ten at a Christian school if they knew what lesbians 'did'. They are also said to have questioned pupils about transsexuality and asked if any of their friends felt trapped in 'the wrong body'.

But there is something particularly toxic about allegations of racism, not least because there is a danger that the more children are branded racist, the more divisions will be sown between children of different colours and creeds where none existed before.

Shockingly, thanks to a desperation to satisfy equalities legislation, one-off comments by pupils aged just three or four are being officially recorded by over-zealous teachers.

And while in the past these reports might have simply focused on supposed 'racism', in some areas of the country teachers are now being encouraged to note down an ever-growing range of so-called 'prejudice-based' incidents.

This includes behaviour deemed offensive on the grounds of 'gender identity', 'appearance' and even 'home circumstances' - for example calling a male fellow pupil a 'girl', or 'posh' can count as abuse.

Experts fear that young children often do not understand the significance of what they are saying, and that dealing with them in such an overblown manner risks exaggerating a minor issue.

Worse still, they warn that there can be serious consequences for young children, who can effectively end up being branded as bigots throughout their school career.

This is because some primaries are passing records on to each child's next school, which means the damaging allegations stay with them into their secondary education.

Once you start recording in this way, a label is attached to a child which in many, many cases is grossly unfair because the child does not understand what they said

'It can also create a climate of fear because the child does not then know what they can or can't say. The politically correct agenda dominates over the interests of children - if the label carries on through the rest of their school career, it can be very dangerous.'

To get an insight into the way in which children's behaviour is being monitored, a detailed look at the policy being pursued by one local education authority - Brighton and Hove City Council - is revealing.

It expects all secondary and primary schools to record and report bullying incidents centrally.

For this purpose, in September 2012 it produced a two-page document entitled 'Brighton and Hove Schools bullying and prejudice-based incident reporting guidance form'.

The first page - running to several hundred words - offers teachers no less than nine separate tick-box options with which to describe the bullying. With each option, examples are given of language or behaviour that might have been used.

So it is that next to the category for 'disability/special needs/medical condition', examples of derogatory language are given as 'retard/ spaz/geek/nerd'.

For 'gender identity' bullying, the words suggested are 'sissy/butch, she/he, gender bender'. Another category is 'home circumstances', where bullying might involve the use of the words 'chav' or 'posh'.

Teachers are also asked to tick the type of behaviour involved in the bullying. Again, multiple options are spelled out in minute detail. These include directing 'dirty looks', 'jokes' and 'sarcasm' at another pupil.

On the second page of the form, teachers are expected to fill in by hand a description of the incident in question. I have seen a number of these reports.

One, for instance, submitted by a primary school teacher, reported that a mother had complained pupils aged six and seven had called her son 'Chinese boy' at playtime because they did not know his name.

Another relates how a child was teased because of her appearance. It reads: 'Xxx was called "doughnut", "fat bucket of KFC", "fat custard cream" whilst joining in a game'.

In another case, at a Brighton nursery, a child aged three or four was the subject of an incident report and subjected to 'counselling'.

This was, apparently, in response to an incident when she was 'looking at pictures of people with different eye colours and said "yuk not black" and discarded all the black faces, then said "I want a boy".'

According to a spokesman for Brighton and Hove, all these reports would be submitted and analysed by the council.

'Our city-wide approach enables us to work with schools to address issues and provide support where needed,' he said. 'This helps tackle bullying in the most appropriate way. Responding according to type of bullying provides an effective way to tackle the complex issues.'

But author Adrian Hart, who obtained the reports via a series of Freedom of Information requests while researching his new book That's Racist!, disagrees. He believes that the authorities' obsession with 'racist' and 'prejudiced' behaviour has resulted in trivial playground arguments being taken out of context and exaggerated beyond their real meaning.

'In the real world of schools, the playground is a frenetic, messy place colonised by children who will insist on behaving, well, childishly,' he says. 'The customs and tradition of this social group dictate that they fall out, make up, fall out again. They show off, use "inappropriate" language and are notorious for their flippant cruelty.'

He adds: 'Children's everyday games, interactions and fallings-out are being elevated to a level far beyond playground banter. They are perceived as mini-adults, investing words with a prejudice and power that bears no relation either to their age or the context in which they are living and playing.'

Of the 13 Brighton primary schools he surveyed, five said they would attach incidents of prejudice-related bullying to the child's reports submitted to the next school.

© Alamy
Sensitive: Many schools are still reporting racist incidents, despite an edict by the coalition government that they need not, simply out of a desire to satisfy Ofsted inspectors, said one campaigner.
The latest research by Mr Hart is particularly interesting because it had been widely assumed that schools were no longer collecting such detailed information.

Under New Labour, the reporting of 'racist' incidents became recommended practice in education authorities across the country.

As a result, when Mr Hart previously investigated the issue for civil liberties group the Manifesto Club in 2011, he found that schools in England and Wales were routinely submitting 30,000 reports a year.

But that year, the coalition government made it clear it no longer expected schools to act in this way, leaving it to their own judgment as to how they recorded bullying incidents.

So when Mr Hart revisited his research, the expectation was that this change of attitude would be reflected in the figures.

Focusing on the 30 local authorities that had reported the most pupils under Labour, he found that while 17 had ceased collecting 'racist' incident reports, 13 continued to do so. Six of these had actually expanded their reporting criteria to take in a wider range of 'prejudice-related' bullying.

He discovered that in 2012-13, schools had reported some 4,348 incidents to the 13 authorities. But what also emerged was that even schools who were not required to report to local authorities were still collecting such reports.

The reason, Mr Hart believes, is their desire to satisfy Ofsted inspectors.

'Any schools seeking to gain or maintain "outstanding" Ofsted ratings have quickly learned that demonstrating compliance with equalities duties means inspections can be faced with confidence,' explains Mr Hart. 'It's absolutely fair to say that schools across the country are continuing unabated in their practices,' he said.

So it is that Mr Hart learned that at individual primary schools in Birmingham - an authority which no longer requires its schools to do so - incident reports were still being logged.

One report he obtained under an FOI request read: 'Xxx said she hated Christians during a discussion with Miss xxxx.'

Another begins: 'Xxxx called xxxx an African rat. Xxxx said: "I know I shouldn't have called it her because I am black as well." '

The impact these formal accusations of racism or discrimination can have on pupils and their parents should not be underestimated.

On websites dedicated to parenting matters, discussions abound about such incidents.

In one, a mother called Kelly tells how her eight-year-old son had got into trouble after playing a game of tag in which everyone who was 'it' was given the name of a sikh guru, a subject about which they had been learning in class.

It almost appears that you cannot say anything without someone misinterpreting it as a racist comment

When an Asian boy was tagged, he complained to a teacher.

'My son and his friend have now lost two days' worth of break and lunch playtimes and I received a letter on Saturday advising that it's a racist remark and will be reported to the LEA to stay on my son's file,' she wrote.

'In my eyes it was a game. OK maybe the boys should have been told off as it upset the other boy, but to be labelled racist when it's a name they've been learning about at school through the week? I'm mortified.

'I'm starting to wonder what this world is coming to, it almost appears that you cannot say anything without someone misinterpreting it as a racist comment.'

Another mother wrote about how her five-year-old child had got into trouble for referring to her best friend as 'brown'.

'They said as this is the 2nd time she has made a "racist" remark it will be put on record and reported to the council,' she wrote. 'I was so upset! My daughter is NOT racist, she is five years old, she has coloured family members and family friends. Now it is down on record that my child is racist. I spoke to my daughter and she does not understand what she has done wrong . . . she said "mummy but she is brown, she has brown skin".'

But Chris McGovern, of the Campaign for Real Education - himself a former headmaster - fears that the 'offending' child's interests are instead being sacrificed for the sake of political correctness.

'In many cases in many schools we have over-zealous bureaucrats who have responsibility for politically correct behaviour, who are almost brain-washed by their teacher training and put upon by their local authorities,' he said. 'As a result, they are looking for examples of racist or homophobic comment which may not in fact mean anything to the child.

'The enforcers of these politically correct positions need to justify those positions: they look for evidence and find what they are looking for. It is a bit like witch-finding - they are seeking out examples to justify their position.' With the end result, of course, that pupils find themselves being treated like criminals.