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I didn’t become a teacher to ban independent thought. Anti-racist education should not be up for debate

Discouraging state-educated pupils from challenging the status quo will mean that our innovators of the future will be cut from the same elite cloth

Camille London-Miyo
Thursday 01 October 2020 14:11 BST
The latest DfE guidance for PSHE programmes states that ‘schools should not use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters’
The latest DfE guidance for PSHE programmes states that ‘schools should not use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters’

As an experienced black educator, I was not surprised at the latest pushback against the development of a truly anti-racist and inclusive national curriculum. The latest DfE guidance for PSHE programmes states that “Schools should not use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. Examples of extreme political stances include ..a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, opposition to the right or freedoms of speech .. or organisations that promote victim narratives that are harmful to British society.”

With the growing rise of social justice causes that seek to highlight the inequality that continues to exist in British society, in my view, this guidance can only be interpreted as a right-wing response to defend the interests of the few against the rights of the majority population that live in this country.  

I joined the teaching profession as an English teacher to make a difference, to challenge the status quo that suggested that great English literature was only white and male; that suggested that poetry did not include poetic forms such as rap or spoken word. Thirty years later, we have only one exam board that includes black British literature in its programme of study. This, combined with the fact that only 4 per cent of children’s books published have a black character implies there has been very little shift.

The death of George Floyd, the acceptance across the world that racism exists and is intolerable has brought the issue of institutional racism in education back to the table. But instead of supporting Black Lives Matter and the right of communities to voice their concerns and hold institutions to account, the DfE seems to be attempting to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.  

Education is not free of politics, you only have to look at educational policy over the last 30 years to see that. So when DfE guidance refers to barring the use of “victim narratives” that would be harmful to British society, it begs the question: which “victim narrative” does it identify as being harmful? And do specific “narratives” that are considered harmful mainly relate to the inequalities that exist within our education system? Does it depend on whether it is a “white narrative “or a “black narrative”? Some may argue that the guidance is “colour blind”, others would beg to differ.  

The latest DfE guidance bars educators from using any material which fails to condemn illegal activities or supports violent actions against people or property. This would mean that actions like the pulling down of the Edward Colston statue or the poll tax riots of the 1980s could not be discussed by young people. It would also mean that as educators, being relevant, encouraging our young people to think, be critical and analytical won’t have a place in the classroom.  

That is not what state education is or should be about. I make that distinction very clearly because encouraging independent thought and growing leaders is one of the core purposes of independent and private sector education. For children who do receive their education in state schools, the message seems to be that they should be taught to accept the status quo – to fear to question, challenge, or have independent thought so that our innovators and radical thinkers of the future will all be cut from the same elite cloth.  

This guidance suggests that we should teach Eurocentric ideas about democracy and should not promote socialist ideology because (in this guidance at least) democracy and capitalism are synonymous, and the idea that the state and its education system should profit the many, not the few is anathema. How different is this latest DfE statement to apartheid regime education policy statements of yesteryear or of anti-civil rights education policies of the 1960s? Or even the rhetoric during the 1980s civil rights disorder here in the UK? The list goes on and on.  

The DfE guidance refers to barring any resources that express a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism or to end free and fair elections. This clearly suggests that democracy is synonymous with capitalism, whereas, to me, the DfE would have shown more objectivity if they had encouraged critical discussion and enquiry, instead of more of the same.

Instead, the department should have encouraged free debate and discussion about social justice causes that have challenged traditional ideas about freedom and democracy and have provided alternative perspectives about the economy, as well as examining the impact of Covid-19 on all communities within British societies.

As Black educators, we have fought too long and too hard to get rid of racist practices in education. In 2020, some things should not be up for debate. Black Lives Matter is not a slogan, it is a necessity. Anti-racist education is not a want, it is an urgent need in these uncertain times and the rise of far-right movements.

As educators, we have the responsibility but also the privilege to encourage minds to enquire, analyse and challenge traditional ideas for us to freely and successfully move forward for the benefit not only of the human race but of our planet

In my opinion, the DfE needs to rethink and revise its present PSHE guidance so that it benefits and truly educates all young people regardless of class, status, where they live or how much their parents earn. It needs to rethink its guidance to make a positive difference in the lives of all of our children.

I agree with the recent statement from CARE – the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators. Time enough for all of us to stand up and be counted, for us to all call out injustice and discriminatory practice every time it rears its ugly head,  

Should we be putting the DfE on notice – I think so – but do you?

Camille London-Miyo is co-founder of the Black Educators Alliance (BEA) as well as an experienced secondary English teacher and former president of the National Education Union for the  City of Leicester

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