Policies to Combat Racism in Schools

Education policy to combat racism has gone from ignorance, through assimilation, integration, multiculturalism to aggressive majoritarianism in 2022.

Gilborn (2008) divided policy approaches to combatting racism into eight phases:

  1. Ignorance and neglect (1945 to late 1950s)
  2. Assimilation (late 1950s to mid 1960s)
  3. Integration (mid 1960s to late 1970s)
  4. Cultural pluralism and multiculturalism (late 1970s to late 1980s)
  5. Thatcherism: the new racism and colour-blind policy (mid 1980s to 1997)
  6. New Labour: Naive multiculturalism (1997 to 2001)
  7. Cynical multiculturalism: from 9/11 to 7/7 (2001 to 2005)
  8. Aggressive majoritarianism (2005 to present day).

Ignorance, assimilation and integration

The government’s response to immigration from 1945 to the late 1950s was that of ignorance and neglect. The government largely ignored the issue of immigration from mainly the Caribbean, India and Pakistan and put no educational policies in place to do anything about the children of immigrants.

This was in line with the racist colonial mentality that people from Africa and the Indian subcontinent would do primarily menial, unskilled manual jobs which required little in the way of educational input to prepare them for.

Assimilation

From the late 1950s to the mid 1960s the government’s official response to immigration was to expect immigrants to assimilate to the British way of life, meaning that they were expected to adapt and become just like the majority white British population.

This was very much a one-way expectation, with ‘them’ being expected to become ‘like us’. Any racial tensions in schools during this period were interpreted as a migrant problem – some immigrants were just not trying hard enough to assimilate.

Integration and education policy

By the late 1960s policy makers had begun to realise that the assimilationist approach was impractical – Indian and Black-Caribbean cultures were not simply going to disappear after a period of time and there was a move towards policies being more accepting of cultural diversity.

This period saw the introduction of the Race Relations Act in 1976 which made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of ‘race’.

Multicultural education

Education became more multicultural from the late 1970s to the late 1980s.

The late 1970s were a period of large spread social unrest due to the failures of Capitalism leading to mass unemployment and poverty, which were disproportionately felt by black and asian minorities.

This was a period in which ethnic minorities were protesting more about the high levels of marginalisation, poverty, unemployment and racial discrimination they were experiencing which resulted in a number of widely publicised riots such as the Brixton Riots of 1981.

Part of this resistance by young ethnic minorities manifested itself in more disruption in school and higher truancy rates.

The Swann Report was published in 1985 as a response to such unrest and this represented something of a landmark change in thinking about how policy should combat racism:

  • It recognised that cultural diversity was a positive force for social change and that a society with a plurality of cultures was richer than a more homogenous white culture.
  • It recognised that ethnic minorities in the U.K. faced higher levels of unemployment, poverty and racial discrimination.
  • It explicitly identified institutional racism as a problem which it defined as ‘where the official institutions in society, such as the education system… operate in a way that automatically discriminates against and disadvantages certain groups.
  • It also recognised that racism was not just a problem that ethnic minorities had to deal with but that it was also a white problem, and that white people needed to be educated about racism, especially in white-majority areas.

The Swann report caused division in central government and was largely ignored there, but many Local Education Authorities acted on its findings and introduced changes to make education more multicultural.

Multicultural education involved understanding and celebrating difference in education

Two examples of multicultural education included:

  • having classes which specifically educated students about the languages, religions and diets of different minority ethnic groups.
  • Changing text books so that they had broader representation of ethnic minorities.

However early multicultural education has been criticised for being condescending and ignoring institutional racism, seen by many as tokenistic and doing little to really foster a mutual understanding and respect between cultures.

Anti-Racist Education

Anti-Racist education believed that racist attitudes needed to be explicitly opposed within schools and that active measures needed to be taken to ensure equality of opportunity for all ethnic groups. Anti racist policies were primarily adopted by some of the more left-wing Local Education Authorities, to whom the New Right Tory government was opposed in the early 1980s.

Colour Blind Education Policy

The New Right Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major adopted what David Gilborn (2001) has described as a ‘colour blind’ education policy because it ignored ethnic diversity altogether.

This was convenient for the Tories in the early 1980s against the backdrop of the Falklands’ war and increasing popular concern about the amount of immigration to the U.K. and a rising fervour over (white) national identity.

Two ways in which the New Right’s education policies were colour blind include:

  • Leaving everything to market forces and individual choice which took no account of ethnic diversity.
  • The National Curriculum which was introduced in 1988 was also highly ethnocentric if we examine some of the core subjects such as languages, literature and history. The only languages which were options for students were white European languages and there was almost no recognition of black and Asian minority cultures in history or english during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Naive multiculturalism

Gliborn (2001) characterises New Labour’s education policies as being a form of naive multiculturalism. He suggests that while New Labour acknowledged that significant ethnic inequalities existed and that something had to be done about this, they in fact introduced no significant policies to actually to do so.

Rather, in education, they assumed that issues such as racial discrimination would be tackled adequately through the introduction of Citizenship into the curriculum.

Cynical multiculturalism

The September 11 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York ushered in what Gilborn (2008) refers to as an era of cynical multiculturalism in social policy. This means that while New Labour maintained a rhetoric of commitment to promoting ethnic diversity and equality of opportunity the policies they introduced were more similar to the assimilation/ integration phases of the 1950s and 1960s.

For example New Labour made it harder for the spouses of recently arrived immigrants to join them in the U.K., they sped up the deportation of illegal immigrants and they put more emphasis on the importance for migrants to learn English.

Aggressive majoritarianism

Gilborn (2008) suggests that since the London Bombings of 2005 the New Labour government adopted a stance of aggressive majoritarianism.

The media discourse at this time was one of Islamophobia and of how integration policies have failed, and there was something of a return to assimilationism.

There was also more open criticism of veiling as a problem rather than an aspect of diversity and acceptance of diversity was more likely to be seen as destabilising rather than something to be celebrated.

The Coalition government carried on the majoritarian agenda, with the then Prime Minister David Cameron saying in 2011 that multiculturalism had failed and that we needed a stronger identity in the UK to prevent extremism.

The Coalition government’s introduction of British Values into the curriculum is another example of a more assimilationist majoritarianism.

British Values are today taught as something passive and peaceful and the policy discourse suggests that greater social harmony can be achieved if everyone accepts ‘Britishness’ as a core identity rather than us celebrating multiculturalism in schools.

British Values – A form of cynical multiculturalism?

We might also interpret the ‘PREVENT’ agenda, introduced in 2011 as an example of this – which highlights the fact that some elements of Islamic culture have failed to integrate and it is the job of schools to identify these failures and intervene to prevent these aspects of Islamic culture from harming the majority.

It also seems to be the case that the government thinks that we are now in a post-racial Britain – that there is no real problem with racial discrimination anymore so education policy need not address this.

Signposting

Education policy and its relationship to ethnicity and racism is a topic within the AQA’s A-level sociology specification.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Sources

Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition

Gilborn (2008) Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy?

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