Q&A: Racism and racial discrimination in schools

Racism impacts profoundly on the lives of children and young people with major effects on health and wellbeing, and on education and social outcomes.’ In this Q&A, the lead author of a rapid evidence review on the prevalence of racism and racial discrimination experienced by young people in Australia, shares the findings and implications for educators.

Professor Naomi Priest from the Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods is the lead author of the report, Racism, racial discrimination and child and youth health: a rapid evidence synthesis. This rapid evidence review analysed key data collected between 2016 and 2020 on young people’s self-reported experiences of racism and racial discrimination in many settings, including at school. The report also shares details of effective anti-racism approaches in school settings.

Can you tell me about the significance of your review – what data is it looking at and what do you hope those in the education community take away from it?

This rapid evidence review on racism and child and youth health commissioned by VicHealth is very timely and important. Racism impacts profoundly on the lives of children and young people with major effects on health and wellbeing, and on education and social outcomes. This is particularly the case for children who are targets of racism, but also for children who witness racism. This makes it a critically important task for educators, and for society as a whole, to ensure all children are protected from racism’s harms and that all children learn to recognise and reject racism. We hope this review provides evidence and strategies for action to address racism as a critical child and youth public health issue in schools and in the wider community.

Can you talk us through the types of racial discrimination that were self-reported by young people of different cultural backgrounds in school settings?

Racism has been a foundational part of Australia since colonisation with historical and contemporary racism continuing to impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including children and youth. It is important to remember that self-reported experiences of racism such as those collated in this report are only a tip of the iceberg and do not represent the complex and multiple way in which racism exists and impacts on individuals and communities.

Key findings from the surveys highlighted in the report for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and youth include 50 per cent of 10–15 year olds reported direct experiences of racial discrimination (by peers 43 per cent, teachers 21 per cent, society 37 per cent); 72 per cent reported vicarious racial discrimination; 34 per cent of 15-24 year olds reported experiencing name-calling at least once or twice; 20 per cent were left out by peers; 10 per cent were physically discriminated against; 21 per cent experienced poor service at least once or twice; 25 per cent were hassled by police; and 53 per cent witnessed discrimination of others in the media.

Among ethnic minorities, between 58 and 68 per cent of 10–15 year olds from Pacific/Maori, Middle Eastern, African, South Asian, East Asian and Southeast Asian backgrounds reported direct racial discrimination; and between 67 and 83 per cent experienced vicarious racial discrimination. Another survey during the 2020 Melbourne long lockdown found 85 per cent of 16-24 year olds from a multicultural background had at least one experience of racism or discrimination.

You also share evidence of effective and promising anti-racism approaches. What approaches could be particularly promising for educators?

The report identifies a number of key principles for effective anti-racism. They are:

  • Explicitly name and address racism at a systemic, institutional level
  • Foreground Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty and leadership
  • Make anti-racism action developmentally appropriate throughout the life-course
  • Co-design with community groups as well as children and young people
  • Strengthen collaboration with First Nations and community cultural agencies
  • Evaluate anti-racism to ensure adherence to the ‘do no harm’ principle. Studies have shown that poorly designed anti-racism actions can do more harm than good, including causing distress among those who experience racism as well as reinforcing rather than reducing prejudice and bias.

At structural and institutional levels this includes improving racial literacy regarding race, racism and health together with developmental theories and evidence about how children develop inter-group attitudes and behaviours – and to build commitment to anti-racism; improved reporting and monitoring of racism and racialised inequalities, including responses to racism when it is reported; organisational audits with accountability for inaction; explicit policies addressing racism; senior leadership commitment and communication regarding anti-racism as a priority; First Nations and ethnic minoritised peoples in leadership.

At inter- and intra- personal levels, multi-level, multi-strategy programs that target structural, systemic and institutional change, not only individual-level attitudes and beliefs, and that are grounded in developmental and theory and evidence, are most effective. Specifically, programs that use a combination of intergroup contact and training in empathy and perspective taking are most effective. Effective programs require active involvement of a trained facilitator with provision of materials or unstructured discussions found to be not effective in isolation, and likely to do harm

You outline the Speak out against Racism (SOAR) program in your review as an example of school-based program that has shown promising effectiveness. What is it about this program that makes it successful?

The SOAR program is an example of a multi-level, multi-strategy anti-racism program that has been designed and tested in primary schools. It combines an audit of school policies and practices, training for educators, curriculum materials, and student led anti-racism action within schools and the wider community. A pilot of the SOAR program found the program to be promising with surveys before and after the program showing that students participating in the program had improved prosocial skills and perception of the school inter-racial climate compared to students not in the program. Qualitative data showed that students and teachers increased their knowledge and understanding of racism, their confidence in responding to racism, and that they observed reduced racial discrimination at school.

For school communities looking to address racism and racial discrimination in their school, what are some good first steps? What are some important points to keep in mind?

Recognising that racism is a critical issue in the lives of children and young people is a fantastic first step. Next it’s important to reflect, learn and plan carefully next steps. Read reports like this one, access some training and development, learn from local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders and community groups and local community cultural groups about what they see as priorities in your local community and school, talk to experts in the area for ideas of training and resources and make a plan that is based on good evidence and on strong relationships with local communities and organisations. You can also listen to a webinar co-designed with young people that we held on this topic.


Priest, N., Guo, J., Doery, K., Perry, R., Thurber, K. & Jones, R. (2021). Racism, racial discrimination and child and youth health: a rapid evidence synthesis. VicHealth.

As a school leader, how frequently do you give staff the opportunity to access professional development on the topic of anti-racism? Did this professional development involve members of your local community? How could you improve how you address racism and racial discrimination as a school?