'We're in danger of creating an us and them if we carry on approach to racism' teacher tells Inaya Folarin Iman
Secondary school teacher Ian Burns said we have to tackle racism objectively
“We all want to fight racism, that’s a given.” asserted Ian Burns, a state secondary school teacher I spoke to when discussing whether there is a problem with politicised teaching in education.
“If we’re going to talk about a theory [about how to tackle racism], we have to do so objectively, we have to do so in a way that allows students to question perceived orthodoxies without feeling like they’re going to be judged…because of their own identity group.
“There’s a difficulty because if you challenge it, you sound as if you’re saying there isn’t a problem [with racism]. But you can’t assume there is one way to approach the problem of racism. You must have viewpoint diversity; you must assume people are good-faith actors unless there is some overt reason to believe people are manipulating it towards a racist end.
“[We’re in danger of creating] an ‘us and them’ dichotomy and we don’t have to do that.
“It increases tribalism. It increases the idea that if you belong to [a specific racial] group, you must hold [particular] views. We’re creating a culture where everyone is treading on eggshells rather than being able to speak clearly about what they think.
"The complexity and nuance that is needed is being undermined. Down the line, it could create all sorts of problems, including increased division rather than building the bridges that we all want to see built."
Following the tragic death of George Floyd by a police officer in America in the summer of 2020, the subject of race and racism shot to the top of the political agenda across the globe through the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the UK, education became the primary target for reform. Demands grew to change the way British colonial history was taught in the National Curriculum, frequently known as “decolonising the curriculum”, and there were growing calls by some for schools to “do more” to combat racism in education.
However, since then, many parents, teachers and educators have expressed growing concern that, under the guise of anti-racism, very contentious ideas are being promoted in schools and being taught as fact – amounting to a form of indoctrination, and that there are often harsh consequences if you challenge or disagree.
In 2020, this led the Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch to make a stance against teaching critical race theory in schools in the House of Commons.
However, since the intervention by the equalities minister, media reports have continued to reveal examples of possible politicised education.
This led Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, in February 2022, to issue guidance on politicised teaching in education: stating that while teachers should be clear “that racism has no place in our society”, the demands of campaigning organisations such as BLM “go beyond the basic shared principle that racism is unacceptable”.
Whilst many welcomed these interventions, GB News has carried out further investigation, and has found that politicized teaching may potentially be widespread and gaining momentum.
GB News has obtained dozens of school PowerPoints, teaching materials, posters and leaflets distributed to children as young as three-years-old, that may contravene schools' legal duties on political impartiality.
For example, in a leaflet we saw for primary schools, parents are told that, in spite of statements to the contrary, children too have in-born racial biases. In order to eradicate prejudice, parents should use roleplay, board games and children’s books with their kids to discuss their own “white privilege” - a contentious notion that there are inherited societal privileges within society that specifically benefit white people.
In slides for a primary school, widely contested notions such as “systemic racism”, “unconscious bias” and “intersectionality” are taught as fact, even using definitions of these terms offered by controversial American scholars such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo.
In several presentations and materials, it is suggested that to say that one “doesn’t see colour” could count as a microaggression. Another states: “If you claim to not see colour it can mean you're not acknowledging a young person's identity and lived experience.”
An extract of a book distributed to primary school children stated that “Racism is about systems in society that are deeply embedded and are about power.”
Repeatedly, it is forwarded that not being racist is not enough, but instead, one must become an activist against racism. Several schools distributed guides for parents on how to raise “anti-racist children”:
One guide stated that: “This is a great window for children to become agents of change. They can now take ownership of the antiracist part of their identity and their own allyship. They should now be able to ‘call out’ racism and confidently challenge others with facts. This is also the time to discuss their own white privilege and the responsibility within this to amplify marginalised voices.”
For many, content like this should not be promoted in schools at all, whereas for others, the problem is that it only presents one view rather than a range of perspectives, leaving no room for critical thinking.
I spoke to Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, Head of Education at Don’t Divide Us, a group that campaigns against identity politics in education.
“If you look at a lot of the content being proposed, educationally it is pretty valueless”
“Pupils aren’t being introduced to understand that there is a difference between a knowledge-fact, a belief and an opinion, that’s why it’s fundamentally anti-educational.
“Pupils are being encouraged to respond emotively to a given stimulus, they’re being encouraged to accept a given view and they are not being introduced to the idea that it’s possible and in fact, necessary to ask questions and to give and ask for reasons for why people say things and believe the things they do.
“I fully support an anti-racism that aims to better fulfil the demands of equality and freedom. The problem I have is with the re-racialisation that is going on, in the name of anti-racism, and the forcing of even young toddlers to actively see colour and put people on a moral grid, according to the colour of their skin, this is really going backwards.
“It’s not encouraging us to produce and value independent thinking citizens…this is not the mark of a liberal culture at all
“I really think it’s going to be pretty disastrous. It’s going to lead to resentment and division, on both sides of the colour divide and let’s be clear, this is reinstituting a colour divide, at the very time when, empirically, [colour] seems to be the most meaningless thing”
“There have been brave efforts on the part of individual [politicians] to speak out against this, but it’s nowhere near enough. They don’t really get to grips with the nature of what is happening.
“Someone with access to power needs to be able to articulate a positive vision for a truly liberal and liberating education and to act to make that a reality for all. If we can popularise this…it will make it easier for more people to spot the ideologues and the indoctrination when it happens, and to tackle it.
“Someone needs to take responsibility. I don’t think we can rely on the profession itself to police itself on this, there are too many people in positions of power that believe this."
We spoke to several parents and teachers to find out what they thought about these issues.
One parent of a primary school child said: “After George Floyd, it became clear that concepts that many knew as “anti-racism”, no longer meant the same thing that we understood. We understood opposing racism to be treating all people equally and not judging different “racial groups”. However, it became increasingly clear that under the widely supported endeavour of tackling racism, other, more controversial ideas were being brought in.”
Another parent of a primary school child described feeling “blacklisted” after sending an email and receiving no response from the school. This was echoed by another parent of a primary school child who stated that concerns raised “fell on deaf ears” and that they felt “isolated” and “demoralised”.
One parent of a secondary school child told us that when they sent an email asking about some of the materials being taught about racism, they received a reply saying “so, you don’t believe in equality then?”.
A state secondary school teacher we spoke to on agreement of anonymity said: “The adult world is forcing conversations and debates that should be had in the adult sphere, onto children.
“Many teachers just are not plugged into wider conversations about race and racism and therefore, don’t know or are unable to discern the assumptions and implications of many of the concepts that are being taught. They do not know that it is political and deeply contested and the teachers who are aware, they are very activist-oriented, rather than led by subject knowledge."
Another state secondary school teacher stated “There is a sense that the culture is changing very quickly and it’s not obvious where it is coming from.
“External consultants are often brought in where their materials are not properly checked."
Many state and private school teachers told us that, in spite of the recent uptick in anxiety about the pervasiveness of racism, the schools they taught in had very few or even no recorded racist incidents.
It was telling that all but one of the people we spoke to agreed to waive their anonymity, out of fear of reprisal.
Mr Burns, when I asked what can be done about this problem, emphasised that government needs to take a greater role.
“There is a direction of travel with policies, with the way ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ is being implemented in schools, that is inevitably ideological. There needs to be clear directives from the Department of Education about what can and can’t be taught in schools and how. Otherwise, you will get a plurality of inconsistency across the country and it will depend very much on the political biases of the teachers themselves…The role of teachers is to be impartial, regardless of what they may personally believe about any political issue”
We reached out to a number of organisations to defend the potentially controversial content in the teaching materials we obtained. None of the people or organisations we reached out to responded to our request for comment.
However, from our investigation, it is clear that what many find a problem with is not engaging students in societal debates about social and political issues from a wide range of perspectives but teaching one view as the uncontested truth. What is also clear is that the fevered environment around these subjects makes it much harder for people to navigate these complex issues with openness, balance, and rigour.
As a society, we have to question whether it is fair and right to encourage children, at an already tumultuous period of their life, to take on the burden of becoming activists for complex issues that remain deeply divisive, even in the adult world?
It remains, like many issues that have become engulfed by the culture wars, that unless there is clear political leadership, a moral clarity about what the purpose and direction of education should be and a willingness to take responsibility for it - education will remain a key battleground of the culture wars.