If the government wants open debate in universities, why stifle it in schools?

Having spent more than 20 years of my career looking at education systems all over the world, including in countries such as China and Singapore, I know first hand the role of the classroom in shaping the way that students understand society.

That’s why I was disappointed to see the Department for Education’s new guidance for England on political impartiality in the classroom this week, which threatens that understanding. The confusing new advice will make it harder for teachers to tackle vital subjects such as the climate crisis and racism, by pushing for them to be “taught in an impartial manner”. In particular, the guidance singles out the antiracist campaign Black Lives Matter – which has been central to forming societal attitudes around racial injustice – as having no place in the classroom. In the words of the Department for Education, the campaign goes “beyond the basic shared principle that racism is unacceptable”. The history of the empire, meanwhile, should be taught “in a balanced manner”.

Rather than restrictions, teachers need support and encouragement in teaching about these issues. Research published last year by the Runnymede Trust and Penguin Books found that fewer than 1% of students in England study a book by writer of colour at GCSE, with a key barrier to introducing more diverse texts being teachers’ lack of confidence in talking about race and racism in the classroom.

Only 12% of primary and 13% of secondary school English teachers who we interviewed reported having had training on how to talk about race, with many teachers asking for further support on how to tackle the subject. Just last month, more than 1,000 teachers registered for a Lit in Colour webinar focusing on ways to approach teaching race in the English classroom, hosted with the Times Educational Supplement and the National Association for the Teaching of English. Teachers need support and there is more we can do to provide it.

A separate Runnymede Trust survey of history teachers in 2019 found that 78% wanted training on teaching about migration and 71% on teaching about empire. Racist bullying in schools has been a serious issue over the past five years, with 60,000 recorded incidents since 2016 – which is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.

That this guidance threatens those conversations in the classroom is profoundly disturbing. After the events of the past year, in which Covid has exposed the extent of the structural inequalities facing Black and ethnic minority groups, there could be no more important time to talk about race and racism in the classroom – yet the government proposes limiting these dialogues. Without a clear understanding of racism, pupils will not be taught to become antiracist citizens and will lack vital knowledge of how race, migration and empire have shaped the UK.

Politicians across the spectrum agree that we must stamp out racism. They have all pledged to deal with inequality. Yet progress continues to be stymied by a purposely vague war on “wokeness”, used to remove the tools that could actually address these challenges. We need to be teaching about the harmful effects of racism, instilling in our children the fundamental value of racial equality and broader social equity, and ensuring schools have antiracist strategies.

Is it contradictory that the government is trying to prevent the stifling of open debate in universities, but appears to be imposing a standardised conformity with very little room for difference of opinion in our schools? Promoting diversity of thought is where the strength of our education system lies, and the government is threatening that by introducing confusing guidance that may well shut down conversations about race in their entirety.

In recent years, language of “impartiality and balance” has been used to stifle work on race equality and exposing the ugly history of colonialism. Alongside our colleagues at Barnardo’s and the National Trust, our work supporting ethnic minority communities has often been challenged on grounds of imbalance in this debate. I am deeply concerned that this guidance will introduce this thinking in schools, and make the teaching of race and empire political, or a facet of a culture war none of us want to be fighting – least of all our students.

Comments are closed.