Multicultural Education and Antiracist Education in the UK

At the outset, it needs to be stressed that the social, cultural and religious diversity of British society is not a new phenomenon. Britain is a multicultural society and always has been. This is witnessed by the separate existences of England, Scotland and Wales. It is also evidenced by settlement from Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, both in the past and more recently.

Britain’s links with Africa and Asia are particularly long-standing. For example, there were Africans in Britain—both slaves and soldiers in the Roman imperial army, the latter occupying the southern part of the British Isles for three and a half centuries (Fryer 1984, p. 1) before the Anglo-Saxons (‘the English’) arrived.8 There has been a long history of contact between Britain and India, with Indian links with Europe going back 10,000 years (Visram 1986). Africans and Asians have been born in Britain from about the year 1505 (Fryer 1984; see also Walvin 1973), and their presence has been notable from that time on.

My concern here, however, is with the educational theory that has developed in the light of the presence in UK schools of the daughters and sons of racialized migrant workers who had entered the UK from its former colonies as the UK faced a major labour shortage after World War II.9

Broadly, two new types of education were proposed to replace the traditional monocultural approach (‘British culture’ and ‘British values’), which, in reality, was and still is hegemonic. These were multicultural and antiracist education. Those who advocated the former were predominantly liberals and those who favoured antiracist education were mainly Marxists and other Left radicals.

Hazel Carby (1979) parodied multicultural education in Britain in this brief chronicle:

Schools: We’re all equal here.

Black students10: We KNOW WE are second-class citizens, in housing, employment and education.

Schools: Oh, dear. Negative self-image. We must order books with Blacks in them.

Black students: Can’t we talk about Immigration Laws or the National Front?11

Schools: No, that’s politics. We’ll arrange some Asian and West Indian Cultural evenings.

As it happens the parody was not that inaccurate. Carby (1979) goes on:

It is necessary to ask: who are the socially constituted speakers and initiators

of the social practice of the discourse [of multiculturalism]? Clearly, they are

not the ethnic minorities themselves but the representatives of dominant social forces to whom ‘Blacks’ are a problem. Concrete political and economic conditions and contradictions that face both black and white alike are not addressed but are contained within and defected by the concept of


The multicultural education lobby were given a boost in 1985 with the publication of The Swann Report, Education for All. This Report made some of the most wide-ranging suggestions for education in an ethnically diverse society. Amongst these was the suggestion that children in all schools should be educated for life in a multicultural society. One of the underlying principles of this suggestion was that if children were taught about each other and each other’s cultures, this would help to reduce prejudice, especially amongst white children.

The Swann Report’s predominant focus on culture set the trajectory of multicultural education along a superficial line in which children learnt about the food, the clothes and the music of different countries without also understanding the structural and institutional inequalities which had been at the core of community campaigns (Sarup 1986; Troyna 1993). The exoticization of minority ethnic group cultures and customs merely served to reinforce the notion that these cultures were indeed ‘Other’ and drew the boundary more firmly between ‘Them’, the ‘immigrants’ or ‘foreigners’ and ‘Us’, the ‘real’ British (Cole and Blair 2006).

The antiracist critique of monocultural education is that in denying the existence of, or marginalising the cultures of minority ethnic communities, it was and is profoundly racist. The antiracist critique of multicultural education is that it was and is patronising and superficial. It was often characterised as the three ‘Ss’, ‘saris, samosas and steel drums’ (for a discussion, see Troyna and Carrington 1990; see also Cole 1992). Antiracist education starts from the premise that the society is institutionally racist, and that, in the area of ‘race’ and culture, the purpose of education is to challenge and undermine that racism. Ten years ago (Cole 1998, p. 45) I suggested the way in which an antiracist version of the Australian bi-centennial of 1988 might have been taught in primary (elementary) schools in the UK (was I writing Chronicles 10 years ago without knowing it?). Here, in order to illustrate the fundamental differences between monocultural, multicultural and antiracist education, I will update this analysis, and extend it to incorporate how traditional monocultural and traditional multicultural approaches might manifest themselves today (these three approaches apply not just to the UK, but are global in their reach).

In the monocultural classroom children would be taught that Australia was discovered by Captain Cook, an Englishman some two hundred years ago, and that, although Australia is on the other side of the world, the people there are like us, eat the same food and have the same customs and way of life. The climate is much hotter and people can swim on Christmas day, and at many beaches Father Christmas arrives on a surfboard, or even on a surf lifesaving boat. There are still some Aborigines in Australia and thegovern- ment has recently enacted laws that safeguard their communities against drunkenness and other forms of anti-social behaviour.

In the multicultural classroom children would learn that Australia is a multicultural society, just like ours, with lots of different cultures and religions making the country an exciting place in which to live. As well as ‘the English’, people have emigrated to Australia from most of the rest of Europe, and indeed the world. The multicultural nature of Australian society means lots of different foods, music, dance and national costumes. The Aboriginal people, the original inhabitants, have a thriving culture, and produce very original music and art.

The antiracist classroom would focus on the fact that the indigenous peoples of Australia and their supporters view what happened two centuries ago as an imperialist colonial invasion. Given access to a comprehensive range of resources pertaining to life in Australia, children would discover that in reality multicultural Australia is a racialized capitalist society stratified on lines of ethnicity, class and gender, with Australian-born and English-speaking white male immigrants a the top of the hierarchy and Aboriginal women at the bottom. They would learn about ‘land rights’ and other struggles, and the economic and ecological arguments pertaining to these rights. They would discover that Aboriginal communities have faced ongoing exploitation and oppression since the invasion, and how this has intensified in recent years. They would relate Australian indigenous struggles against injustice to other struggles for social justice in Australia, and to struggles worldwide.12

The Marxist underpinnings of this last approach should be clear in the references to imperialism, colonialism, and the racialized capitalistic nature of Australian society, both historically and contemporaneously.

Up until the late 1990s, with their prognoses that Britain is an institutionally racist society, antiracists were branded by many as ‘loony Lefties’ and ostracised by the mainstream.13 In Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs (Thatcher 1993, p. 598), extreme concern is respect about the fact that I was teaching anti-racist education in the late 1980s at what was then

Brighton Polytechnic. At the time (1987), she also opined, with particular respect to primary maths:

In the inner cities where youngsters must have a decent education if they are to have a better future, that opportunity is all too often snatched from them by hard-left education authorities and extremist teachers. Children who need to be able to count and multiply are learning anti-racist math- ematics—whatever that is (cited in Lavalette et al. 2001).

Similarly, her successor John Major declared at the1992 Conservative Party annual conference speech:

I also want a reform of teacher training. Let us return to basic subject teaching, not courses in the theory of education. Primary teachers should teach children to read, not waste their time on the politics of gender, race and class (cited in ibid.).14

It took the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report (Macpherson 1999) to change this. While the Report could have gone further in its castigation of the inherent racism in British society, for antiracists, as I agreed with David Gillborn in chapter 4 of this volume, it is nevertheless a milestone in being the first acknowledgement by the British State of the existence of widespread institutional racism. Leading UK antiracist campaigner and writer, Sivanandan rightly describes the Inquiry as ‘not just a result but a learning process for the country at large’ (2000, p. 1). He argues that through the course of the Inquiry, ‘the gravitational centre of race relations discourse was shifted from individual prejudice and ethnic need to systemic, institutional racial inequality and injustice’ (ibid.). The Report led directly to the very progressive Race Relations (Amendment) Act (2000) referred to in chapter 3 of this volume. As I pointed out in chapter 4 of this volume, however, initial official state endorsement of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report’s acknowledgement of the existence of institutional racism in the police, the education system and other institutions in UK society was short-lived.

There are further threats to the spirit of the Report, and indeed the promotion even of multiculturalism as a result of The Education and Inspections Act (2006), which came into effect in September 2007. This Act introduced a duty on the governing bodies of maintained schools to promote ‘community cohesion’, placing a new emphasis on schools to play a key role in building a society with a ‘common vision’, a ‘sense of belonging’ and making available similar ‘life opportunities’ for all. Following Wetherell, Lafleche and Berkeley (2007) and Andy Pilkington (2007, p. 14) distinguishes between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ versions of community cohesion. The former views community cohesion as complementing rather than replacing multiculturalism. In addition, the ‘soft’ version recognises that the promotion of community cohesion requires inequality and racism to be addressed. The ‘hard’ version, on the other hand, sees community cohesion and multiculturalism as ineluctably at loggerheads and insists that we abandon the divisiveness evident in multiculturalism and instead should adhere to British values. The hard version of ‘community cohesion’ is thus monocultural.

New Labour Secretary of State for Communities Ruth Kelly favours the hard version. As Pilkington (2007, p. 14) points out, in announcing the launch of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion in August 2006, Kelly stressed that it was important ‘not to be censored by PC’,15 wondered whether multiculturalism was ‘encouraging separateness’ and emphasised how Britain needed to tackle ethnic tensions (Kelly 2006, cited in Pilkington 2007, p. 14). Pilkington (ibid.) notes that her speech glossed over any structural roots of any tensions and stressed to migrants ‘their responsibility to integrate and contribute to the local community’ (Kelly 2006, cited in Pilkington 2007, pp. 14-15). He argues that the tenor of the report can be gleaned from two of its proposals which both warrant separate appendices: the juxtaposition of English and translation services, with a marked preference for the former; and a recommendation that priority should be given in the allocation of funding to groups making links between communities rather than single groups (Commission on Integration and Cohesion 2007, cited in Pilkington 2007, p. 15). Pilkington (2007, p. 15) concludes:

Both these proposals implicitly see multiculturalism and community cohesion as in opposition. They signal a shift away from being accommodating to minority concerns and point to a cohesion agenda where people are required to become less welfare dependent and are instead cajoled into learning English and develop cross-community networks.

In this chapter, I have addressed multicultural education in the US and the UK, noting the Marxist-inspired antiracist critiques of the concept on both sides of the Atlantic. In the next chapter, I will consider the arrival of CRT in education in the UK, concentrating on a Marxist assessment of a 2008 book by one of its leading protagonists, David Gillborn.

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