The latest DfE guidance covering acceptable materials for use in schools is a serious attack on freedom of expression and particularly on the left. Materials from organisations which advocate supposedly “extreme” views, such as opposition to capitalism, are no longer allowed to be used.
This move is self-evidently absurd: capitalism’s failures and opposition to the system are widely discussed ideas in the school curriculum. One of the most commonly studied texts in GCSE English is J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, designed as a commentary on the failures of capitalism. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men highlights the plight of migrant ranch workers, powerless in society through economic and social factors. War poetry by Sassoon, Owen and others comments on the futility of capitalism’s wars. Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm attack both capitalism and Stalinism. Russell’s Blood Brothers is a commentary on the class system. To remove from the curriculum any book which critiques capitalism would be difficult – removing any authors who opposed capitalism, such as Priestley, Auden and Orwell, would be even more so. Teaching History or Sociology in any depth without referring to Marxist ideas would also be impossible, and English Literature at A-Level requires studying Marxist literary criticism.
The Suffragettes are out, they used “violent actions against people [and] property” to achieve their aim of votes for women. So is the Matchwomen’s strike, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Greenham Common protesters, CND, anti-war protests and indeed any industrial action! The Labour Party itself was theoretically opposed to capitalism for most of the 20th Century – so teaching politics will be a problem.
These new rules beg the question; what are the Tories afraid of? If capitalism is such a good system, surely the ideas of capitalism would win out if it was discussed in the classroom!
It also takes some cheek for the Tories to say that “endorsement of illegal activity” is an “extreme political stance”. This from the party who voted for the Iraq war, and the prime minister who illegally prorogued Parliament and proposed a Brexit deal that the Tories themselves have said breaks international law! Are the government’s own materials now banned from schools as well?
The guidance also bans “the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications”. Obviously racist ideas should not be taught or used in schools, and the government’s pernicious “British values” agenda should be scrapped in this light, along with the racist “Prevent” system. But even with this positive guidance the Tories’ hypocrisy shows through – the party who sent round “Go Home” vans from the Home Office targeting supposedly illegal immigrants doesn’t have any right to lecture school staff on racism. The guidance describes a “failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name” as an extreme stance. This is clearly a dogwhistle attack on the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as on Muslims who are expected to condemn acts of terrorism despite having no connection to them.
It is also notable that guidance around gender identity has been introduced, which says that material from organisations which apparently suggest “that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear” should not be used. This is a transphobic myth, aimed at charities such as Mermaids who provide training for staff on issues of gender identity. In reality no-one is suggesting, or should suggest, that children have different gender identities based on their interests. Issues around sexism and gender identity in schools should be addressed through better training, not Whitehall diktats. The Tories’ history of homophobic policies, in particular Section 28 which banned any mention of LGBTQ+ people in schools, proves that they cannot be trusted in this area.
Apparently without irony, alongside all these bans and proscriptions, the Tories have also said that pupils should be taught about ‘the harm caused by ‘cancel culture’ and the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of association to a tolerant and free society’! Opposition to this mythical “cancel culture” appears to be based on the idea that celebrities should be able to say what they want without criticism. But a far more dangerous idea that the Tories have sought to associate with this is that “‘no platforming’ [is] harmful and damaging”. No platforming fascists has been a tactic used by the left for decades to deny violent racists the opportunity to organise. The heroes of Cable Street did not “cancel” Mosley and his bully boys, they drove them out, as did Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) in Welling decades later, and as workers and oppressed groups throughout the country did when faced with groups like the English Defence League or the Football Lads Alliance. Allowing fascism to grow without opposition is “harmful and damaging”.
The guidance has been introduced without any serious consultation with education workers and the trade unions. In reality it will be unworkable and unenforceable, and the Tories hope it will lead to self-censorship and classrooms which are less open to discussion and debate around ideas. The curriculum should be democratically decided by education workers and their unions, pupils and families, not handed down from politicians who haven’t got a clue about education.
It is clear that the Tories have introduced this guidance because they are terrified of young people turning to radical ideas. They’re not wrong – many young people are! They can try to keep anti-capitalist ideas out of schools, but that won’t stop people accessing them as they try to make sense of living through a capitalist crisis.
Fundamentally this gets to the heart of what our education system is for – do we want to produce profitable workers for capitalism, or do we want children to learn? For socialists the answer is clear.