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Don’t Divide Us Response to the Department for Education guidance on political impartiality in schools
We welcome the governments new guidance on political impartiality in schools as a first step towards a much-needed public conversation about the importance of impartial education. However, we think the current formulation of the guidance is unable to deal with the nature and extent of race-based indoctrination taking place in many schools with little or no public scrutiny. The actions of Brighton and Hove City Council (BHCC) have made national news and are, in our view, evidence of extremely worrying developments which we have reason to believe are not confined to BHCC alone. Our case study shows that BHCC’s actions have:
- Circumvented the norms of local democratic governance
- Politicized the role of schools themselves, which extends beyond issues of curriculum selection or its delivery
- In the name of an older commitment to anti-racism based on colourblind or classically liberal values of equality, introduced an ideological approach to teaching anti-racism that depends on teaching children to see and attach moral and intellectual value to skin colour. In other words, BHCC has introduced racialised thinking into schools
- An umbrella terms for this new ideology is Critical Race Theory (CRT), but the substantive beliefs have become part of many schools equality and diversity policies and statements without necessarily adopting the explicit label of CRT
Breaches the Guidance Does Not Reach
In Brighton, activists such as Save Our Schools propose that the political and social problem of racism should be resolved in schools, with little or no thought as to how this might adversely affect pupils or the public mandated role of schools to educate impartially. This hyper instrumentalised view of schools is not confined to Brighton alone. As such, we do not think the guidance adequately identifies the nature and extent of the problem. Consequently, it will be unable to offer the support it intends to provide for those teachers and schools who hold philosophical- political beliefs about based on classic liberal values of equality and tolerance that underpin a colourblind approach to anti-racism. The guidance provides model scenarios, but it lacks a statement or description of the fundamental principles that impartiality requires. It also lacks information as to how impartiality is to be encouraged and, where necessary, enforced.
Events at a BHCC meeting on Monday 7th March illustrate the problem well. Following an informal inquiry from the Department for Education (DffE) the council has been reassured that its highly divisive Racial Literacy 101 (RL101) training for teachers is well within the new guidelines. We do not yet know the details of the inquiry, what documents or materials were scrutinised, or what the reasons are for its approval. We can only assume that the DfE are under the misapprehension that RL101 falls within the parameters of a broadly liberal, colourblind anti-racism, based on equality before the law, and is therefore unobjectionable.
But one of the reasons given by councillors for supporting a strategy that demands we see and place moral significance into race is that colourblind, equality focused approaches have ‘failed.’ The evidence for this conclusion is the claim that ‘endemic racism’ continues to exist in Britain. Very little support other than the lived experiences of some black people and reference to a recent You Gove poll was offered to justify this astonishing view of a philosophy that has arguably brought about the greatest improvements in racial equality ever seen. If a council is committed to spending £500,000 on training that endorses pedagogic practice based on esoteric, critical theories of mainly American society, which stand explicitly opposed to existing conventional approaches to anti-racism, a higher standard of evidence needs to be applied. This much is suggested in the government’s Commission on Racial Disparities (CRED) Report, which requires, at the least, multi-variate study to substantiate the rightly stigmatised accusation of institutional/structural/endemic racism.
The CRED Report also suggests that where social problems exist, including that of discrimination, then policy based on approaches that encourage cross-ethnic unity are likely to be more successful than those that assert a rigid racial hierarchy. So it is particularly worrying that the DfE has essentially given a clean bill of health a council-wide strategy that endorses teaching children to actively ‘see’ colour and accept concepts like ‘white privilege,’ ‘systemic racism’ and ‘black victimhood’ as though they are uncontested facts. As Ofsted’s recent inspection report of the American School in London found, teaching within a social justice frame can easily distract from a school’s core aim of providing a curriculum based on subject knowledge and ensuring all pupils feel they can express their views freely. It is difficult to see how schools who adopt RL101, with its embedded critical social values, will be able to meet these requirements satisfactorily. It is based on an a priori rejection of a philosophically respectable viewpoint and values held by many parents, consequently its adoption is likely to erode the tacit trust of parents. This trust is necessary for schools to educate. Another unintended consequence where schools do adopt this kind of strategy is a greater self-consciousness of skin colour among pupils and endorsement of the attribution of moral or intellectual worth on this basis, rather than on the contents of an individual’s character. In effect, such approaches come close to re-racializing schools, but this time with ‘white’ as a negative signifier and ‘black’ the positive.’
Definition of Racism
RL101, and similar EDI/active anti-racist strategies being adopted to varying degrees by many other schools, rely on a definition of racism as an attribute of systems, and therefore system level change is justified, often at the expense of all other aims. But no compelling argument has been given for accepting this definition over the conventional understanding of racism as an attribute of individuals. The guidance implicitly seems closer to the latter understanding when it states:
“Challenging intolerant, racist or discriminatory views where these are shared at school should be seen as part of schools’ wider anti-bullying and safeguarding duties.”
It would be helpful, therefore, if the DfE were to clarify its position on the following questions arising from the distinction between a liberal, colourblind definition and the more recent CRT inflected ‘active’ version of anti-racism:
- Does the UK government remain committed to its opposition to CRT in the education system? If so, then work must be done to explain exactly what CRT is and how it is manifest in a variety of ‘racial literacy’ and diversity’ training programs currently in UK schools, in many cases without the explicit or overt label of CRT being attached to them. Please see the DDU Portfolio of Examples of Partisan Teaching Materials.
- If the UK government is not committed to opposition to CRT, then it would be helpful if a public statement were issued to the effect that colourblindness as an alternative approach to race relations is an intellectually and ethically respectable world view. This is necessary to provide some protection to parents, teachers and governors who, because they dissent from the minoritarian orthodoxy of CRT, are often accused, as Councillor Alistair McNair has been in BHCC, of promoting or ignoring the importance of anti-racism.
- There is also the question of age appropriateness. If it is the government’s intent that CRT based teaching be limited on grounds of age appropriateness, then the government must clarify at what age CRT and CRT based training is permitted. Of course its introduction as one theory among others at higher education levels does not justify changes in the institutional practice of universities. To do so would place staff who do not share the theoretical premises of CRT in a position of being against the institutions where they work.
Impartiality and the Importance of Viewpoint Diversity
The guidance refers to Section 407 of the 1996 Education Act that requires students to be presented with credible alternative viewpoints in the classroom. A commitment to viewpoint diversity is implied in the Minister’s foreword when he writes:
“Legal duties on political impartiality ultimately help schools command the confidence of our whole diverse and multi-opinioned society.”
And in 2020 Minister for Equalities Kemi Badenoch stated that the government was opposed to the uncritical teaching of CRT, that is when its core beliefs are presented to students by teachers as if they are uncontested truths. While the meaning of CRT, and the extent of its influence, remains unclear in the view of both the public and the teaching profession, its often-unannounced tenets are becoming familiar. They are:
- Most white people are intentionally or unintentionally racist
- Statistical discrepancies in social outcomes, subjected to univariate analysis, is sufficient to prove that a nation’s public and private institutions as intrinsically racist
- A qualitative distinction between children and adults with regards to their contribution to, and culpability for, discriminatory acts that are already illegal, and already apply to all adult citizens, is ignored. Children and education, rather than adults and politics, are seen as legitimate tools with which to change society’s normative values
- Interpersonal relationships and interactions between pupils, pupil-staff relations and inter-staff relationships are seen as legitimate sites of micro-management, especially via policing spontaneous language
In our judgement the current formulation of the guidance is insufficient to prevent indoctrination in schools which may fall short of the egregious example of ASL but which nonetheless fall far short of existing standards and legislation. Without strong, explicit definitional clarity about both the definition of racism and the level/type of evidence required as proof of its existence in particular schools or local areas, schools will be at risk of breaching impartiality: CRT influenced anti-racist policies will be seen as innocuous variations of conventional normative ideas and values about racism/anti-racism.
Most people rightly abhor racism and welcome the legal and attitudinal progress Britain has made, but they remain unconvinced that the colourblind/universalist principles that have informed past struggles have failed so conclusively as adherents of CRT based anti-racism assert. If schools are allowed, by design or negligence, to pursue the activist route, they will find themselves at ever greater odds with the public they are meant to serve. The underlying political and philosophical shifts involved in moving from a universalist, colourblind approach to a view based on skin-colour/culture-based identities needs to be fully and freely discussed before public institutions like schools effect such major changes.
Suggestions to Strengthen the Guidance
In order to strengthen the guidance so that high standards of impartiality in schools are restored or maintained, and public trust in schools protected, we recommend the following:
- Where there are conflicting imperatives, we think the DfE should direct schools to prioritise those which are specifically educational in nature over those related to social justice. Social justice should, properly, be addressed by adults who are equal citizens in the public political sphere. Schools need to consider the intergenerational nature of education and there is a case to be made for stronger insulation of the unique educational function of schools from wider social pressures.
- To provide a working definition of racism and the level/type of evidence required to mandate school level changes of anti-discrimination policy
- To provide an explicit recognition that colourblind approaches to racism/anti-racism in schools are intellectually and ethically respectable
- To mandate the use of criteria for impartiality found in the Independent School Standards, Part II of the Schedule on the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development of pupils, as used in case law:
“a. superficial treatment of the subject matter, typified by portraying factual or philosophical premises as being self-evident, with insufficient explanation and without any indication that they may be the subject of legitimate controversy
b. the misleading use of data; misrepresentations and half-truths
c. deployment of material in such a way as to prevent pupils meaningfully testing its veracity and forming an independent understanding as to how reliable it is
d. the exaltation of protagonists and their motives coupled with the demonization of opponents and their motives
e. whether a particular view is advocated as being the ‘right’ view which must be adopted because otherwise certain presupposed consequences follow”
- Direct Ofsted to make impartiality a sui generis criterion for inspection
- To conduct a thorough review of the reporting routes for parents and teachers who wish to pursue complaints of breaches in impartiality. As it stands, parents inform us that the current provision is not fit for use. It is not at all clear where individual complainants should go if their complaint is unresolvable at school or governor level: is it Ofsted, the DfE, local education authorities or the Teacher Regulation Agency? The threshold criteria for identifying a breach need to be clearly articulated and readily available for the public.
While we welcome the fact that the DfE’s publication of the guidance has brought the issue of impartiality into the public domain, we fear the nature and the extent of the problem is underestimated and/or unevenly understood among those public bodies responsible for our education system. Specifically, what is not fully recognised in the guidance is the wider context where the cultural stigmatisation of universal, classic liberal approaches among influential professional groups, teacher education institutions and teaching unions makes it very difficult for a full range of opinions, including majoritarian colourblind approaches, to be considered. The examples from Brighton and Hove and other schools show us that any meaningful idea of public scrutiny or consultation has to include active solicitation of opposing views (including colourblind approaches), not their stigmatisation. Mere socio-demographic diversity does not guarantee ‘multiple opinions.’
It is our view that schools dedicated first and foremost to providing an education based on knowledge in the pursuit of truth should be value enough for democratic societies. Of course, schools have secondary functions too, but their main role as a public good whose fundamental ethos is to educate is at risk of being supplanted by an ethos of activism. If schools educate well, and avoid indoctrination, they will have fulfilled a valuable public service and there should be no need for further demands or legislative add-ons to burden them with extra-educational imperatives that impede their core role. The breaches of impartiality we are seeing in schools are having a negative effect on parents’ trust in schools. In Britain this has rested on a mainly informal agreement which has been an important factor in schools enjoying a relatively high level of professional autonomy until the recent past. Developments in America show the disastrous consequences when the tacit, but hugely important, element of trust between parents and schools is broken.
 Somerville. 2022. ‘Children aged seven to be taught that they are not “racially innocent.”’
 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. 2021, p.36. ‘Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report.’