In December 2019, the National Education Union (NEU) held an inaugural decolonising education national conference. With over 200 attendees, the event was a resounding success, according to Daniel Kebede the then vice president of the NEU and now NEU national president, bringing together educators, academics, policy writers, young people and creatives to share and learn together. The event may have been enthusiastically received, but if the ideas that came from it are adopted it can only lead to discontent, division and failure for students and educators.
The Scottish Education department has just urged all teachers to decolonise the Scottish curriculum. This is a terrible approach for the teachers of a whole country to be urged to do. In England similar initiatives are under way in Brighton where its council are urging teachers to tackle racism by using concepts from Critical Race Theory and Social Justice. Such recent developments may lead to the approaches discussed at the NEU Conference being adopted more widely in England and other councils following the Brighton example. At the very least, it is now more likely that the NEU will use the Scottish and Brighton examples to promote the ideas generated at their 2019 decolonisation conference.
The aim of the conference was to:
- Bring together educators who want to make positive change happen for young people.
- Share the knowledge and skills already within the profession to increase the capacity of teachers and education staff to understand the structural inequalities across the education system, and what historical attitudes and events have created the inequality which still today harms, limits and disadvantages Black students and Black teachers.
- Deepen understanding of how Britain’s colonial history and Commonwealth history affects how we think today, the development of ideas and laws on immigration and many other aspects of contemporary British society – and what this means for teaching, education and young people’s sense of belonging in school.
The first aim presented in this way could be read as about making improvements for all students. The second aim seems to be pointing in the direction of unequal educational outcomes and suggesting that attitudes still presently held because of a colonial past have created structures that disadvantage black students and teachers. The third aim is about understanding what the structures are that disadvantage black students and prevent their sense of belonging.
It is then explained in the report summing up the conference written by Daniel Kebede, that:
Decolonising education in schools and colleges builds on the work of union activists challenging racism and inequality and demanding fair employment and inclusive education. The NEU has a proud history of Black activism and international solidarity work and decolonising education connects strongly to both those aspects of union activism.
The report then goes on to explain what was learned from the conference and includes quotes from the panellists invited to speak. Dr Muna Abdi described “decolonising education in schools and colleges as “stripping educational institutions of racism”. Zahra Bei spoke about the urgency of decolonisation, linking the campaigns against the pattern of exclusions of Black children to colonisation and wider abolitionist movements. This gets closer to the heart of what some of the invited guests actually believe. They believe that the education system is institutionally racist and that unequal outcomes prove it is systemically racist.
Even more telling were the comments from Panellist Professor Kehinde Andrews, well known for his comments on Good Morning Britain and disagreements with Piers Morgan and Calvin Robinson. He questioned whether decolonising educational institutions is even possible as they form part of the establishment. Instead, he presented a challenge to Black educators asking them to reflect on how they might ‘colonise’ the institution as part of their resistance. He seems to believe that the system is impossible to change; is only about power dynamics, and the system itself needs colonising, presumably by an entirely new system of the de colonisers’ making. It turns out for Andrews, decolonising actually means re-colonising in pursuit of greater cultural and material resources for a clique of black professionals. Hardly the stuff of radical, revolutionary politics.
Professor James Lindsay, a critic of this approach, states that the phrase “decolonise the curriculum” raises three questions:
- what is the curriculum?
- what could possibly be meant by “decolonizing” it? and
- how did the curriculum come to be “colonized”?
Lindsay adds that the worldview that underpins the concept of decolonisation:
. . . is only ever communicated to us in reformulated perversions of our own concepts. I mean words like “racism,” which no longer only describes intentional acts of racial prejudice but instead sees what is generally understood as racism as just the most obvious symptoms of a mysterious set of systemic power dynamics that pervade all of society, always operating from “whiteness” and always oppressive.
He goes onto explain, “this understanding of racism is believed to be so deeply and permanently embedded in the system that even when no genuine racists or overt acts of racial prejudice are present, the system itself can and will be regarded as racist. The system, of course, includes schools and even nurseries.
Lack of Democratic Accountability
None of this was spelled out in the aims of the original report to the NEU from the conference. Neither was it made explicit by the now national president of the NEU Daniel Kebede. It is however, made more explicit by the invited panellists who seem to hold to this view connected to Critical Race Theory. Decolonizing the curriculum for Kehinde Andrews, I would guess from his statement, is just one step in a “long march,” to replace (colonise as he stated) liberalism and Enlightenment rationality with a utopian dream or equity-based utopia based on “inclusion equality and diversity” (IED).
When making such grand claims, basic definitions of concepts need to be agreed upon. But there was no discussion at the conference of the kinds of questions Lindsay highlights. This didn’t stop the panellists from concluding that a colonised curriculum is an ‘ideological project devised by the powerful in society—meaning mostly straight, white, Western men with a “Eurocentric” bent on things like science, reason, and rationality, among other proven epistemological and pedagogical frameworks—that was made the way it was to continue to promote and serve their own interests at the expense of everyone else, either by intention or by failing to understand that they’ve internalized their dominance and come to believe it right and natural.’ If any NEU members dissented or even had questions about such a dogmatic verdict, they did not speak up, maybe there was no opportunity for questions, or maybe any criticism were deemed unworthy of recording. Or maybe such events are self-selecting and those with more liberal views were not there.
After breaking into work-shops the groups reported on the valuable lessons learned and how their ideas for decolonising could be made practical and taken into schools. The summary was condensed into four statements about the deficiencies of the current system with points that need to be acted upon if the curriculum is to be decolonised.
The conference concluded that decolonisation was important in order to provide:
A complete education: The silence around British imperialism and racism in the British education system, as well as lack of histories from around the world, does not constitute a broad and balanced education. This absence denotes a lack of honesty and transparency in the education we offer to the next generation.
This statement is itself lacking in honesty as anyone who teaches history will know. It is telling though, in that it attempts to identify what a colonised education is. The workshop claims it is not having enough discussion about imperialism and racism. This begs the question are we supposed to tell children that they live in a deeply racist society and everything is stacked against them if they are from “marginalised group”? This approach fits with Critical race Theory and Social justice ideology. It is not about equipping children with the ability to think and be rational but to make them acutely aware of the prevailing power dynamics, and to close off the possibility that there may be other credible interpretations of disparities in educational outcomes. What the conference means by honesty seems to be understanding how bad “whiteness” is and its role in the history of the world, and to ensure acceptance of the narrative that whiteness prevails today in order to preserve and advance its own power. This is divisive and likely to alienate black and white students from each other, their teachers and society at large.
A Better Educational Alternative to Understand the History of Inequalities
The causes of the many inequalities that exist in Britain and globally would be better understood if the curriculum examined the philosophy behind, and impacts of colonisation, and the perspectives and rights of those who were colonised. This would mean reading and engaging with a wider range of scholarship than today’s Critical Race theorists.
Improving or enriching the history we teach pupils does not mean telling a one-sided tale in which all the different outcomes between different racial groups are blamed on colonisation of the globe by European powers in the past. This itself is highly ‘Eurocentric’ as non-white people are defined purely ciphers whose meaning lies in the oppressor’s power rather than in their own right.
It is overly negative, divisive and deterministic to explain to those from backgrounds where colonization took place that they are unable to escape the legacy of colonisation. It can provide an excuse for doing less well academically and promote resentment of the system that educates them. It seems more likely that the intention is to turn students against the system and evoke such a sense of unfairness that they want to replace the “colonised system”. If educational failure and a justification for it, is the aim, then this approach may well help to promote the problem it claims to want to address. A fly in the ointment for those advocating this ideological approach is reality itself. For example, black African and Indian students seem to thrive in the education system as cited in the report from the Commission for Racial and Ethnic Disparities.
A Sense of Belonging in Education
It is claimed that Black pupils and workers are not represented in education’s content or spaces, thereby rendering those spaces less accommodating and even hostile to Black students. The hierarchy perpetuated by racism – that whiteness is superior- continues to have deep and serious consequences for Black children, and how they fare within education. Debates about Black children are often stereotypical and stigmatising, and Black communities are often viewed in deficit terms.
Behind this assertion is the concept of the “hidden curriculum.” James Lindsay states that it was “coined by the critical pedagogist, Philip Jackson, who first used it in his 1968 book, Life in Classrooms. By the “hidden curriculum,” Jackson meant the ways that behavioural expectations for citizens, including values related to orderliness and obedience, were an intrinsic but not explicit part of the school experience. Order and obedience are not about the necessary disciplines and dispositions needed to learn, but are no more than the tricks of “whiteness” and should be replaced. It is not clear how this can be done and what the results would be. In stigmatising educational values and dispositions, black pupils are being told it is acceptable for them
Challenging racism: Colonisation was both predicated on, and reinforced, racism. If all British people learnt about colonisation, we would have a better collective understanding of how race is constructed and used. This would mean we would all be better equipped to challenge racism more effectively. The problem with the assumptions that have been endorsed by the conference is that however inaccurate the racial categories of old were, they have not been used as a justification for colonialism and slavery for many decades. The Critical Race/Social Justice approach deconstructs racism today as it allegedly manifests in systems dominated by whiteness and caused by a colonial past. In reality this approach restores the social and cultural significance to racial categories that liberalism had significantly, but not completely, eroded.
It is not known how steeped the delegates at the conference are in the theories that the panellists hold to and want to implement. A conference such as this is likely to affirm some ideas and give shape and direction to the participants, who at the very least are probably worried about underachievement of some racial groups and want to address it. For others who identify as “politically black teachers” they are likely to be open to the idea that racism is all pervasive and has been the reasons for any difficulties they have faced in a teaching career. Whatever the level of immersion the participants had in Critical Race and Social Justice ideas, instruction from a conference like this was and is a dangerous path to take. It is one that the NEU would be wise to avoid. Critical Theory asserts that the curriculum is a matter of power and the powerful (government, administrators and teachers) who wish to preserve it along with their power. The curriculum is that which power and privilege have decided should be taught because it is in the interests of the powerful and privileged to teach it. This form of radical constructivism denies any reality or autonomy of knowledge itself, and disrupting these dynamics is considered of far more importance than equipping students with knowledge. The NEU should not be endorsing or adopting such beliefs, or at the very least, opportunities for fuller, wider discussion where opposing arguments can be heard and voted on, should be provided before such policies are adopted.
Patrick Stevens – DDU Supporter