The scene is a classroom in a high school in Lewisham. The year 9 students are awaiting the arrival of Ms Bouquet, who will be taking the Citizenship class. Although she is new to the school, she has many years teaching experience and is confident in holding her own in a new class. Ms Bouquet enters and greets the class.
Ms Bouquet: Good morning, year 9. My name is Miss Bouquet [She pronounces it “Bucket”.]
All students: Good morning, Ms Bucket. [There is some murmuring and a few students open their bags and pull out timetables which they consult.]
Ms Bouquet (studiously unemotional): That is Bucket. B-o-u-q-u-e-t. I will be taking you for Citizenship classes this term. Now as you have already been studying this subject for two years, I wonder if anyone would like to remind us what the purpose of citizenship classes is?
[Ernest, who is sitting at the back, raises his hand enthusiastically. As no one else offers, he is invited to respond.]
Ernest: We learned in year 7 it is to learn about the UK political and legal system and how to do financial planning and volunteering.
Ms Bouquet: Very good. And can anyone describe for us some of the important features of the political and legal system?
Ernest (without further invitation): Yes. Miss Marks explained in year 8 how the most important thing to know is that they are systemically biased in favour of a group of people called the “elite.” [He pronounces it “e-light”.]
[Ms Bouquet nods approvingly as she hears this further explanation.]
Ms Bouquet: And can anyone explain in more detail what systemic bias is? [At this the whole class looks perplexed and there is no response, so she goes on.] I see we have some work to do here. Let’s start by talking a bit about bias and how it works. For example, Susan, what did you have for breakfast this morning?
Susan: Corn Flakes.
Ms Bouquet: And how many times did you eat Corn Flakes last week?
Susan: Every day.
Ms Bouquet: You see, given all the other possibilities, the fact that you always chose Corn Flakes shows bias.
Susan: But I don’t really like Corn Flakes.
Ms Bouquet (quickly composing herself): Ah, that is interesting. It means that there must be unconscious bias operating here. Otherwise why Corn Flakes, rather than, say, muesli?
Susan (looking sheepish): Em, maybe if I get my mum to ask the lady at the food bank…
Ms Bouquet (quickly moving on): As I was saying, bias is where people choose one thing unfairly over another.
Boman (At the back): Is that why all the girls say they fancy Justin Bieber even though he can’t sing? [The girls all turn around and look angrily at him, while the boys laugh.]
Ashanti (to Boman): And why all the boys think Charlton Athletic are such a good football team? [A minor ruckus ensues.]
Ms Bouquet: This is a serious topic, class. There is a difference between liking a person or a thing and showing bias. We can all agree on that.
Boman: Yes, the girls are obviously completely biased about Bieber’s music.
Ashanti: As are the boys about their football team.
Ms Bouquet (after a moment’s pause): As I was saying, a very important aspect of bias is systemic bias. For your understanding, that is when a system is biased.
Aisha: Does that not just mean the people deciding things are biased?
Ms Bouquet: Ah, not necessarily. You see, people don’t always choose the unfair outcomes.
Boman: But miss, didn’t you just say that bias was when people choose something unfairly.
Ms Bouquet: Did I say that? What I meant was people or systems choose unfairly. The choice can be unconscious.
Neville: I don’t understand…
Ernest (butting in): Can’t you see, it’s easy. If the result is unfair, there must have been bias!
Ms Bouquet: Exactly! Thank you, Ernest. We infer the bias from the unfair outcome.
Boman: Please miss, does that mean that the fact Ernest is always top of the class shows the tests must be biased?
Ms Bouquet (confidently in her stride now): Not at all. Just because you feel the test results are unfair, Boman, doesn’t mean you can say there was bias in the tests.
Boman: But I thought you just said…
Neville: I still don’t understand.
Ms Bouquet: What you need to understand here, is that there might be other reasons why the test results are biased in Ernest’s favour, for example the fact that he is the beneficiary of white privilege.
Ashanti: And he writes with a posh accent.
Ms Bouquet: Well, I am sure if that is the case, it would be another contributory factor. [Neville has raised his hand as there is obviously something else he doesn’t understand.] As you can see, once you understand how bias works, you understand so much better why things are the way they are and why some people appear to be more successful than others. I think that is perhaps a good place to end today’s lesson.
[She exits followed by the students. Ernest is left seated, looking a little shell-shocked. Ashanti approaches him.]
Ashanti: Hey Ernest, don’t take it personally. There are plenty of people in class who are jealous of you. [Ernest looks up hopefully on hearing this.] And besides, I quite like your posh accent.
Ernest (visibly brightening up): Do you really? Well, thanks. That’s … [He stands and they exit together.]
[to be continued]