Think Before We Leap – Schools and Anti-Racist Policies

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert argues that schools should pause, think and discuss before implementing new anti-racist policies

No doubt since the events of last summer, schools, or at least some heads and senior leadership teams, have felt a new urgency to show that their school is, in the words of one London school’s freshly penned anti-racist policy, a ‘consciously anti-racist school’. Our current state of public discourse does not really encourage us to think before we leap into some plan of action that we believe to be a no brainer – who could be against such a thing unless they were either racist themselves, or so tradition-bound that they are on the point of total social irrelevance? The crucial point for schools, or any educational institution, is that prior to endorsing and implementing an anti-racist policy, there should be the widest, most open discussion among all adults concerned, with the aim of creating the widest possible consensus. This means people need to hear the range of views and understandings available, and not only the one that currently dominates our media landscape. The point is not that the existence of racism, or need for anti-racism, has to be proven. No teacher I know is denying the existence of inequalities or personal prejudice. But today more than ever, meanings of political terms such as ‘systematic racism’ and ‘white privilege’ are contestable. Yet in some schools, these and other neologisms are being endorsed as incontrovertible facts. Teachers are being asked to accept a particular belief system as if it were the only way of understanding what both racism and anti-racism means.

To assume a consensus where none exists makes it hard for individual teachers who may disagree with some of the beliefs or assumptions involved to raise questions. Or if they have the courage to have that meeting, or send that email where they raise their doubts, they are met with a curt acknowledgement followed by stony silence. Objections are seen as private interpersonal disagreements rather than symptomatic of profoundly differing political values and therefore requiring public scrutiny. In times of socio-political stability, and a strong consensual culture, schools may have less need to pay such careful attention to political values, or to make the effort to provide conditions of good faith discussion. But today’s political and cultural contexts are very different, and such a consensus cannot be assumed.

We definitely do need to think more deeply, and be prepared to question everything – the existence or prevalence of ‘woke mobs’ as well as ‘white privilege’. We need to do this as citizens in general, and even more so as teachers or those working in educational institutions. And if the monitoring, predicting and recording that are a feature of contemporary school life leave staff with little time or energy, then maybe it’s those tasks that need to be trimmed or pruned to make room for proper discussions about questions that cut to the heart of what education should be, what it is, and where it might be heading.

What, for example, are we to make of an anti-racist policy that contains the now ubiquitous phrase ‘respect for diversity’ yet, a few sentences along, declares that it ‘is committed to identifying and removing discriminatory practices and any form of racism or racist behaviour’? Clearly there are limits to the kind of diversity the school is prepared to respect. This is fine, and I am not arguing for racism to be respected. But even apart from the fact that there is more than one intellectually respectable definition of racism, ‘identifying and removing’ does not sit well with the older aim of education which is to argue with, and persuade, and only in the last resort, discipline. It’s worth remembering Wittgenstein’s words, ‘At the end of reasons comes persuasion’.

A school’s policy on something which is important and affects the institutional norms in which teacher’s daily work in undertaken should have a semblance of logical consistency. Yet the following contradictory key policy statements at one school indicate this is not necessarily the case. Consider the following statements from one school’s policy:

            ‘To develop pupils’ self-confidence and independence so that they are well equipped to play an active role in society’

           ‘…if the behaviour is treated in isolation without taking into consideration the issues and effects of racism, this can be described as institutional racism.’

The first aim does have a large consensus – that’s why it seems obvious to the point of being a platitude.  The second aim effectively negates the principle of independence, certainly in relation to independence of thought. It is effectively saying that the only contextual features permissible when judging a particular act are those of ‘the issues and effects of racism’. Furthermore, it implies that to do otherwise – consider other non-race related circumstances of the pupil/s involved – would be evidence of institutional racism. Such a view does not have a similar level of consensus. This anti-racist policy, intentionally or not, limits the space for teachers to exercise their own professional judgment.

A similar prohibition of individual judgment is extended to pupils themselves when the policy states:

            ‘Pupils should never just be a ‘bystander’; a witness who sees or knows about racist behaviour to someone else and does nothing, supports the behaviour’

And this instruction is facilitated by providing ‘confidence boxes’ for anonymous reporting. The effect is to encourage conformity to an external rule rather than helping pupils to develop their own independent thought and judgement. Virtuous dispositions including independence of thinking, compassion, tolerance and perseverance are not things best taught propositionally; they need to be encouraged by adults who exemplify them in their words and acts. If curiosity, imagination, independent thought and judgment remain rhetorical, while the practical norms emphasise delegation of thought and judgement to external rule derived from self-appointed race or diversity experts, then the result is likely to engender conformism rather than education. Schools need rules, but which rules and to what ends are things that need the fullest, deepest thinking and discussion among those who are called upon to enforce them.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is an educator, researcher, writer and member of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum. She is co-editor of What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth and a founding signatory of the Don’t Divide Us campaign.