One year ago, hundreds of thousands of people took to Britain's streets to protest structural and institutional racism. One area of focus was racial justice in education. Sophia Purdy-Moore, an organiser in the anti-racist coalition movement No More Exclusions, explains how much has changed in the last year, and how far we still have to go.
This week marked a year since the racist murder of George Floyd, which sparked a global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the midst of a pandemic. In Britain, protesters organised under the rallying cry “the UK is not innocent”, highlighting the institutional racism that persists in our society.
From education, policing and the justice system to healthcare and the hostile environment, their urgent calls for change brought the realities of race and racism to the forefront of national consciousness. Unfortunately, demonstrators’ efforts were met with a knee jerk reaction from the government, exemplified by its recent race disparities report, which falsely painted Britain as “a beacon” of racial equality.
This year, the government has also made sustained attempts to undermine progress in the education system – which sits at the heart of Britain’s culture war. But we have also seen countless young people, parents, educators and organisers pushing for meaningful change towards racial justice in education.
Decolonising the curriculum
During Black Lives Matter protests, students raised longstanding concerns about a school curriculum that fails to reflect the world we live in. Under mounting pressure, the Welsh government announced that Black history will become mandatory in Welsh schools from 2022. But while calls to make England’s National Curriculum more inclusive have gained widespread support, the government has not taken steps to make this a reality. In many cases, politicians have actually pushed back.
In September, the Department for Education (DfE) released new guidance for schools setting out that they cannot teach materials from anti-capitalist groups. The government has since reviewed this guidance, under threat of legal action led by the Coalition of Anti-racist Educators (CARE) and the Black Educators Alliance (BEA). Meanwhile, in its race disparities report, the government set out offensive plans to tell a “new story” of the slave trade – a line it has since amended under pressure from individuals and organisations.
Rather than waiting for the state to implement positive change, grassroots campaign groups such as Black Learning Achievement Mental Health (BLAM UK) and The Black Curriculum have taken matters into their own hands, creating antiracist educational resources and teaching Black history in British schools.
Before the pandemic, there was overwhelming evidence demonstrating that school exclusions don’t work, and were being used unlawfully and disproportionately against marginalised children. Studies demonstrate a clear correlation between harsh zero-tolerance and push-out policies in schools and low academic achievement, entry into the criminal justice system, low-paid job opportunities, unemployment, and a myriad of other negative outcomes.
Although the government highlighted concerns about supporting children through their difficult return to school in September, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson urged schools to “discipline” unsettled children, rather than support them. Reflecting Williamson’s calls for a “behaviour crackdown”, a report by No More Exclusions (NME) revealed that schools continued to exclude children excessively and disproportionately, with a staggering 3,628 exclusions reported by just 32 secondary schools between September and November 2020. Children from Pakistani, Black Caribbean, mixed white and Black Caribbean, and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds were overrepresented in these exclusions. Almost half of these excluded pupils were eligible for free school meals, and almost half of them were registered as having Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND). NME found at least 10 fixed-term exclusions issued by schools for students’ “failure to follow COVID rules”.
In response to this growing crisis, NME is calling for an end to all school exclusions. In the meantime, the coalition seeks a moratorium on school exclusions – a legal temporary ban on headteachers’ power to exclude pupils. Organisations including the Runnymede Trust, the National Education Union, and Psychologists for Social Change have spoken out in support of this temporary measure to protect vulnerable children in the wake of the pandemic.
Police in schools
In 2019, the government announced plans to introduce more police in schools as part of racialised initiatives to fight “knife crime” and terror. Led by Kids of Colour and the Northern Police Monitoring Project, young people, parents, educators and campaigners warned that police presence in schools will only serve to criminalise children, and disproportionately impact working-class pupils from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds – who are already overpoliced and underprotected. In spite of this, over 650 officers continue to operate in schools across the UK – predominantly based in schools which serve working-class communities of colour. And in February, London Mayor Sadiq Khan pledged to fund even more school-based police. The campaign to “decriminalise the classroom” continues to grow.
One of the most concerning developments in education this year is the government’s plan to launch “secure schools”, in which 12-17 year-olds will be incarcerated. This plan comes as part of the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which seeks to further increase police powers. The draconian bill has been met with widespread opposition from a broad-based coalition of movements.
The bill proposes to make setting up and running a secure school a “charitable activity” for autonomous trusts, including multi-academy trusts. Reflecting their punitive rather than educational nature, secure schools will be accountable to the Ministry of Justice rather than the DfE. Oasis Academy Trust – which has one of the highest permanent school exclusion rates in the country – will run the UK’s pilot secure school. It will be based at the site of the Medway Secure Training Centre, the former youth prison with a history of physical and sexual abuse.
Campaigners have highlighted that this model of state surveillance and punishment will criminalise children and fail to deal with the root causes of their trauma, intensifying Britain’s school-to-prison pipeline. As CARE and NME member TJ Coati highlighted, the secure school model “creates the conditions for youth prison expansion with longer sentences, criminalisation of Gypsy Roma and Traveller children for living in ‘unauthorised encampments’, and arrest of anyone engaged in protest deemed to be causing ‘serious annoyance’”. Coati adds that the government’s plan to expand the youth carceral state comes “at a time when child incarceration is at its lowest for decades and could be abolished”.
Despite these frightening proposals, this year there have also been some significant wins. Pimlico Academy pupils demonstrated that direct action works to bring about change – organising to oppose a racist, Islamophobic, misogynistic, homophobic and classist school culture. As a result, the academy’s head teacher resigned in May.
Anti-racist educators have also taken a stand this year. In April, Joshua Adusei launched a petition calling for the new head of Harris Academy Tottenham to resign over zero-tolerance behaviour policies which are disproportionately impacting pupils from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds and pupils on the SEN register. The school has dismissed Adusei from his role as PE teacher, but his campaign continues to gain traction.
The tragic murder of George Floyd reignited meaningful conversations about racism in British society, and moved many to take action to bring about change. It is evident that a year on, much remains to be done to achieve racial equality in education and beyond. This year has reminded us that our hope for progress does not lie in the state and its institutions, but in the grassroots activism of young people, parents, educators, academics and organisers working in solidarity to build an education system that works for all.