On the 20th October 2020, Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch announced that the UK Government stood uniquely against the teaching of ‘Critical Race Theory’ in British Schools, marking the first instance of this marginal intellectual current being mentioned in parliament. She went on to warn against teachers promoting ‘partisan political views’, such as the existence of white privilege. Whilst the denouncement of Critical Race Theory – a movement which considers structural racial inequalities, was new in parliament, the British government has an exhaustive history of politicising academic debate and censoring the school curriculum.
Where considerable attention has been paid to academic censorship in Britain’s universities, lesser consideration has been given to government meddling in the state school curriculum.
As can be seen with the rise of increasingly ‘authoritarian’ education policies, Johnson’s government appears to be taking considerable care to rid schools of stances that are uncomplimentary to their governing ideology.
Such was evident in the Government’s recent categorisation of anti-capitalism as an ‘extremist political stance’. In a set of guidance for schools published in September 2020, the Department for Education advised against the use of materials produced by groups that ‘publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy’ or ‘capitalism’. This move was widely critiqued by left-wing voices, with many arguing that without access to materials produced by anti-capitalist groups and more specifically anti-racist groups, students would not be exposed to conflicting points of view. Moreover, following the most recent Black Lives Matter protests, when a petition was launched to add diversity and racism to all school curriculums, the government declined to do so, insisting that the current curriculum was flexible enough to allow for teachers to ‘choose topics which highlight diversity’. Yet again, the government appeared entirely indifferent to promoting anti-racism, whilst forcing those schools who did want to teach such content to teach a watered-down version of the reality of racism in the United Kingdom.
Whilst certainly more subtle in their intent, such policy interventions are hauntingly reminiscent of education under Thatcher. From the 1980’s onwards, the Conservative government worked to systematically restructure progressive education, deliberately restricting educational opportunities for the working classes. In particular, Thatcher’s policies directly targeted the working classes and were heavily influenced by Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who asserted that the working classes should not be educated in sociology or philosophy, given that it was their place to find work in manual employment. Whilst the policies at play here do diverge significantly, both eras of Conservatism are united by a common thread; the desire to purge the masses of the critical thinking skills that would allow them to perceive the unjustness of their situation. Just as Thatcher’s government feared a class-consciously, politically educated electorate, Johnson’s government now advocates against teaching children the reality of racism and structural inequalities in the United Kingdom.
This argument is further substantiated by Gavin Williamson’s announcement in January 2021 that funding for university courses in ‘Strategic courses such as engineering and medicine’ would be increased’, whilst funding for courses such as media studies would be slashed. As I see it, the intent is highly ideological. Once again, a vast number of educational pathways are being closed off for the majority of students, with true educational choice only being available to the wealthy minority. Moreover, it is apolitical STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, which are being promoted by the government. Humanities subjects, meanwhile, which teach students to critically engage with the social, economic and political world around them, are likely to find their funding increasingly tightened.
For those engaged with scholarship of the role of the state, such moves should not come as a surprise. The education system plays an incredibly powerful role in dispersing the hegemonic values of the state, as can be witnessed across countless governments in countless nations. However, as the Conservative government continues to meddle in the school curriculum, they appear to miss a vital insight. Students do not become anti-capitalist or radically anti-racist from their teachers or school resources. Rather, students become ‘radicalised’ through experience. They become anti-capitalist, through experiencing multiple recessions, enduring years of austerity and witnessing the wealth gap between rich and poor widen at an exponential rate. Students become anti-racist, through the direct experience of racism and watching racial injustice infold before them.
What exactly can be done about the creeping authoritarianism in the United Kingdom is a difficult question. The politicisation of anti-racism and the demonisation of anti-capitalism and Critical Race Theory has purposely transformed such ideological approaches into folk devils of thought. Hence, it is imperative that debate on social and political issues be actively encouraged in British schools. The importance of a politically educated electorate, who are able to hold the government to account is essential for the health of free and fair democracy. What is certain, however, is that these trends are incredibly worrying for the future of British education and far greater attention must be paid to the encroaching wave of censorship.
Cover Image was from Mutant669 under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2