Race Matters

Why I'm taking legal action against the government's new school guidelines

The government recently introduced new guidelines for the teaching of Relationships and Sex Education – stating schools must not use materials from anti-capitalist groups, promote "victim narratives" or make certain accusations against state institutions. Marsha Garratt, an anti-racist researcher, educator and lecturer, explains why the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators has launched legal action against the government to challenge the guidance.

 

One of the beautiful things about education is the more you learn, the more perspectives you hear, and the more you can critically analyse the world around you. When I was seven years old, an adult racially abused my brother and I, stating: “why don’t you monkeys go back to Africa?” The experience threatened not only my sense of safety but also my sense of self. It was education that helped me navigate racialised experiences like these – and importantly, education worked, so I did not internalise much of that racism. 

With this understanding, I am now committed to learning and sharing knowledge that challenges racism in all its forms. I have worked in education for 20 years teaching on race, racism and colonialism with young people and teachers. Teachers have thanked me for discussing the history and realities of racism and white supremacy, and for encouraging their pupils to critically analyse the material they are taught. I, along with many others, specifically work with schools to have these difficult discussions to bring positive societal change. 

In light of the government’s new guidance for schools (conveniently released a week before Black History Month), our aims are now under threat. The Department of Education’s newly announced measures, which outline what can be taught in Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education, threaten free speech, and the ability for schools to work with some external agencies.

In one section, they specify that schools in England cannot use materials from anti-capitalist groups – categorising the ideology as an “extreme political stance”. Whilst the guidance may appear broad and generalised, critics like former shadow chancellor John McDonnell have argued that the specifications outlaw references to key events in British history – calling them a sign of the current government’s growing “authoritarianism”.

Anti-racist educators like myself are equally concerned, because it will impose restrictions on how we discuss racism. For example, they state that schools can’t work with anyone who “fails to condemn illegal activities done in their name or support of their cause”. Under this guidance, if I go into a school and teach about the Haitian revolution, do I have to condemn the violence enslaved people used against white supremacy? This seems absurd, considering violence was a tool used to reclaim their freedom after years of brutality in a system that legally classified them as animals. For this reason, content in modules like the Runnymede Trust’s Our Migration Story could be deemed to fall short, leading to it not being taken up by teachers in schools.  

Another specification says that schools may not use materials from groups that promote “divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society” – but one of the ways educators connect with students is by sharing our personal stories of hardship. It is not easy to share yourself, but educators do it for the love of humanity. This is part of the anti-racist tradition; black abolitionists used their stories about the reality of enslavement to bring about systemic change, and I use personal experiences of racism in my teaching for the same reason. These stories are not divisive, self-victimising or harmful to society – they are very much a part of British society for many non-white people. We should welcome the sharing of these stories, after all we cannot bring change if we do not know or understand what needs changing. 

Boris Johnson has been chastised more than once over his definition of “victimhood”. In 2004, in reference to the Hillsborough disaster, Johnson wrote in the Spectator that the grieving people of Liverpool were “wallow[ing] in victim status”. This summer, he was criticised once again for stating he wanted to end the “sense of victimisation” in response to British people protesting the reality of racial inequality. 

Finally, the measures outline that teachers cannot select and present information to make “unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions” – which seems particularly subjective. Who decides what evidence is “substantiated”? As an anti-racist researcher, I have particular knowledge regarding race, racism, and colonialism that many teachers do not. If we establish a culture of reviewing and debating the validity of basic evidence in these subjects, some educators may well lose interest in teaching in these areas – with certain academic disciplines quickly becoming taboo fields. 

It is because of these threats that the Coalition of Anti-racist Educators (CARE) and Black Educators Alliance (BEA) have launched legal action against the Department for Education. Our grassroots groups, made up of teachers, workers, students and parents within primary and secondary school settings, know that these guidelines are anything but democratic, and would be catastrophic for anti-racist teaching. 

Great educationist Paulo Freire, who was celebrated for his extensive work on educating the oppressed, noted that oppressive education systems make it impossible to achieve a critical awareness. This ultimately keeps the disadvantaged submerged in a culture of silence. Holistic education avoids authoritarian teacher-pupil models, and invites students and educators to share their real-world experiences for continual, mutual investigation. We must resist the Government's new guidelines – which will render this type of progressive education virtually impossible.

 

You can learn more about CARE’s case and donate here.

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