English schools must not teach ‘white privilege’ as fact, government warns

English schools should not teach “contested theories and opinions … such as white privilege” as fact, the government has said prior to the publication of new guidance outlining how teaching certain political issues could break the law.

Schools should avoid promoting “partisan political views” and must instead teach racial and social justice topics in a “balanced and factual manner”, according to the government’s official response to a report on the educational disadvantages faced by white working-class pupils published by the education committee in June.

The Department for Education is working with schools to develop new guidance on how “to teach about complex political issues, in line with [schools’] legal duties on political impartiality, covering factors including age-appropriateness and the use of external agencies”, the response said.

Kim Johnson, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside and a member of the education committee that produced the report, said the response failed to provide a serious plan to tackle widening educational inequality in England. “Instead of manufacturing a culture war focusing on the use of terms such as ‘white privilege’, this government needs to wake up to the harsh realities facing the lives of people every day. The education sector is facing a crisis of funding, and regional inequalities are widening despite this government’s talk of levelling up,” she said.

At the time of publication she had disowned the education committee report on the grounds it had “cherrypicked data”, and had submitted her alternative version calling for “an end to the divisive framing” and for the government to focus on the root cause of widening educational inequalities, chiefly cuts to education and welfare services.

Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, said that teaching race discrimination was “not a political matter”. She said: “Preoccupying teachers and school administrators with politically charged discussions about ‘white privilege’ would appear to have very little to do with the primary issue of addressing socio-economic disparities.”

Natalie Arnett, senior equalities officer at the National Association of Head Teachers said schools should be trusted to have conversations with pupils “that are right for their contexts and communities”, adding that “simplistic diktats like this from central government are unhelpful”.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said schools were “very experienced at teaching controversial and challenging subject matter and helping young people to understand complex issues”, including by exploring topics from different viewpoints. She said the legal requirement for teachers to remain politically impartial was already well understood. “We are not convinced that further government guidance in this area is either necessary or helpful,” she said.

The report from the Conservative-dominated education committee argued that terms such as “white privilege”, defined as white people benefiting from particular advantages in society, may have contributed towards systemic neglect of white disadvantaged communities. It also stated that schools teaching the concept could be in breach of the Equality Act 2010.

Last year Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, warned that schools teaching pupils that white privilege was an uncontested fact were breaking the law.

The government’s report, titled The Forgotten: How White Working-class Pupils Have Been Let Down, and How to Change It, looked at the poor educational outcomes for white British pupils eligible for free school meals because of persistent multigenerational disadvantage, regional underinvestment and disengagement from the curriculum.

The document included findings that just 53% of disadvantaged white British pupils met development expectation at the end of the early years foundation stage, while only 17.7% achieved grade 5 or above in English and maths, among the lowest proportions of any ethnic group. White working-class pupils were also the least likely group to go on to higher education.

The government said it planned to consider including additional funding in the comprehensive spending review for free schools to be established in parts of England with the greatest need, as well as longer-term funding for early years, two areas the committee highlighted as needing additional investment.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, said the government should also consider increasing the pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils and extending it to those aged over 16 in the spending review, which he said would be a “landmark moment for the government to show their commitment to disadvantaged children and young people”.

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