Notes on: Tikley, L (2021). Racism and the future of antiracism in education: a critical analysis of the Sewell report. British Educational Research Journal 48:469 – 87. DOI: 10.1002/berj.3776

Dave Harris

[Makes some of the same methodological criticisms of Sewell as me!]

The criticism focuses on the claims to objectivity, the erasure of racism as a major concern, and the shortcomings of the main recommendations that arise. But first — the wider political and ideological context. In terms of positionality, the author is an antiracist activist but also a practitioner and researcher.

Sewell was instigated by Johnson as a response to the events of 2020 including the BLM movement and was part of a conscious attempt to change the narrative on race and ethnicity.  Membership was predominantly black and Asian. The main finding was that antiracists got it wrong, that Britain is not institutionally racist and that our institutions have become fairer in their treatment of minorities. The report was greeted with euphoria from right-wing commentators and seen a victory against the emotional rhetoric of BLM. In particular, there was praise for the argument that the lines dividing us are based on class and not race. Anti-racists responded with 'despair and anger' (470) and the report was accused of not understanding the nature of racism or whitewashing [sic]  the experiences of people of colour, in particular by denying institutionalised racism.

We should locate the Sewell report in terms of the organic crisis of British capitalism, referring to Gramsci. The aftermath of the 2008 economic crash led to policies of austerity exacerbated by the pandemic and the threat posed by climate change. This led to the classic attempt to redefine 'the "national popular", how the British nation is constituted in discursive terms, a new populist nationalist discourse to respond to globalisation and the perceived threat by immigration 'all of which contributed to the Brexit vote' (471) [very little actual evidence for much of this, of course]. Contradictions emerged in the Tory party, just as with Hall on Thatcherism — the new right embraced libertarian free market thinking, but we are witnessing a resurgence of the old right, stressing national populism, and a redistributive agenda, '"levelling up"'. Hence the need to 'focus on the white working class', found in Sewell. Actually, race is centrally implicated too. In ideological terms, the reports helps the response to culture wars, the perceived attacks on British values, the danger posed by antiracist activists, micro-aggressions, and the need to decolonise the curriculum.

Changing the narrative on race and ethnicity also means controlling the equalities agenda instead of Labour. Appointing a predominantly black and Asian panel is 'an effort to secure legitimacy for the report', but those members had already demonstrated their values — they were appointed by the head of Downing Street Policy who had already said she did not believe that institutional racism was responsible for racial disparities, and the right-wing press saw them as individuals who had rejected victimhood status. Meanwhile Sewell 'had previously expressed openly homophobic views, later retracted', [not racist ones though?] and his appointment had been subject to legal review after being criticised by the Runnymede Trust: he had already criticised institutional racism. Several other members were 'known for their right of centre views and history of links with the Tory party'.

The Report looks at education, employment, fairness at work crime and policing and health, the section on education reflects the overall message — that if racism does exist 'it plays a relatively small part in determining racial disparities compared to other factors' (472). There are many assertions that the findings are evidence and data led but 'this is, however, palpably not the case' [lots of statistical evidence of course -- the Report drowns in it]. The commissioners have already denied the existence of institutional racism [a quote from 2010 has Sewell saying that the evidence for institutional racism is flimsy and already blaming poor parenting and peer pressure]. 'The report is, therefore more accurately interpreted as an ideological effort to confirm rather than critically evaluate these prior assumptions' [an assumption in itself -- it would be hard to sustain as mere ideology without that mass of evidence?]. It is highly selective in evidence, drawing upon 'commission research that fits the central narrative' and ignoring submissions from organisations that provided evidence in support of institutional racism. [ eg a submission by Gillborn, Bhopal, Crawford et al]. Where there is one submission that highlights racial bias among teachers, the possibility is quickly shut down in favour of more observable metrics.

This failure to engage with qualitative evidence is particularly problematic, 'as it is through accessing "lived experience" that the often subtle ways in which racism operates and manifests itself… Come to light' (473) and lots of Tories also reject lived experience generally. This can be seen as 'testimonial injustice, where the voices are victims of racism are themselves marginalised from debate'. [No criticism of testimony here though, although he hints at it elsewhere in his piece on critical realism]

The report embraces 'a positivist empiricist approach to evidence'. However, Bhaskar and other critical realists have argued that there is an epistemic fallacy involved, that 'we choose to measure and what we observe from measurements can be considered a reflection of reality provided the statistical methodology employed is suitably robust' (473) [Archer is actually cited, and this is a reasonable summary of  Bhaskar's position — but it would surely apply to lived experiences evidence as well as above]. Measures we employ are not objective but are themselves based on preconceived ideas or assumptions and may have an ideological bias. One such example is the reduction of the category working class to learners eligible for free school meals. Statistics generally only provide a surface actuality. Measuring correlates can be helpful in identifying broad trends, but whole systems with interactions and perceptions 'requires going behind the numbers to understand qualitatively what is going on' [again not relying on personal evidence alone].

Qualitative research [including interviews, narrative enquiries classroom observations] is crucial, on its own or in combination with quantitative evidence [indeed, not just testimony] in highlighting every day racism including stereotyping and how interactions become racialised. This is why we usually use mixed methods. 'In keeping with critical realism' [as a start]. Social scientists should develop theories that provide the best fit for observed phenomena 'from a rational appraisal of the best available evidence, including quantitative and qualitative' [NB including]. Critical realists 'assume an ontological level of reality exists outside the observer's perception of reality [but] also embrace the idea of epistemic pluralism (ie. the different kinds of evidence need to be evaluated against their own internal criteria of validity and reliability) [do they?]' No research can never be neutral. Researchers need to be transparent and self reflexive [not committed then]. Institutional racism must be considered 'because of the sheer weight of evidence (both qualitative and quantitative) there is to support this view'.

There is overreliance on Strand's analysis of the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, showing that those groups most at risk of underachieving are white British, Black Caribbean and mixed white and black Caribbean heritage learners. Indian Chinese and black African groups outperform learners of White British heritage regardless of socio-economic status [and so on]. The two reported incidents of ethnic underachievement compared to white British students of the same socio-economic class and sex are black Caribbean and black African boys and Pakistani girls. Generally the overall findings show the significance of socio-economic status. Strand uses a composite measure of socio-economic status — parental occupation, qualifications and income not just FSM. However, when it comes to explaining the disparities, he refers to 2 related theories including the immigrant paradigm, where immigrants spend more time on education than the native population. What is not included, however is evidence that shows that these learners are still 'subject to racist stereotyping and bullying even if they do outperform other white and ethnic groups in terms of attainment… These groups succeed despite the existence of racism targeted at them' (474) [so racism can be more than compensated for? Or it shows negative self-fulfilling prophecies?].

The immigrant argument can also not explain the continued underperformance of learners who are not recent immigrants, and here  Strand cites '"selective assimilation"' — whether groups are prepared to selectively assimilate into British culture while maintaining their own cultural identities or remain segregated, which might explain Pakistani underachievement compared to Indians — again Islamophobia is not considered [which could be the result of segregation?]

With people from Caribbean origins, there seems to be a less optimistic view of the potential of education and again Strand distinguishes between voluntary minorities, who may be recent arrivals and have high educational aspirations and involuntary or caste- like minorities [the examples given are African-Americans or black Caribbean and white working class pupils in England] who are less optimistic about social mobility. The key explanatory here seems to be family structure and broken homes especially absent fathers, and negative peer pressure, but these interpretations are not objective. They rule out a recognition of racism straight away, in the difference between explained and unexplained disparities. The Report also ignores intersectionality especially the intertwining of race, class and gender: '"race is the modality in which class is lived"' (475) [attributed to Hall et al. 1978, and obviously indexing something far more than intersectionality. Something more like Poulantzas?]. Class is not just another variable controlled by multivariate analysis. Correlation does not equate to causality. Even if class and attainment are strongly associated, this 'does not mean that the experience of racism is not also played a significant role in the way that class advantage is itself constituted and reproduced through education [true, but it still makes race an epiphenomenon?].

The Runnymede Trust say that two thirds of black Caribbean children grow up in single-parent families, three times as high as the overall average, but again this can be misleading. Many 'supposedly absent fathers are in fact actively involved in raising their offspring and black boys may also have other male role models'. 'There is evidence [his own work] that many black Caribbean boys raised in single-parent households have a positive sense of the self-identity and have high educational aspirations'. There is a negative stereotype though. Young black men can also encourage each other to succeed despite the worry about negative peer pressure. Overall, 'a simple causal relationship cannot be simply assumed… Any theory of underachievement must inevitably embrace the idea of multi-causality with racism as one major contributing factor' [this is already a bit of a backtrack on seeing it as the dominant factor?]

Sewell is particularly critical of the inflation of racism as a term, especially institutional racism. They endorsed the MacPherson definition, but then said that current definitions should be subject to robust assessment and evidence. There is already substantial quantitative and qualitative evidence.  Strand's own analysis has some 'which was omitted from the main report'(476) on how low teacher expectations can lead to disproportionate representation in lower ability sets and entry for lower examination tiers, and this has been confirmed by a number of other studies (including the one on Aim Higher?). The same goes for school exclusions [which is discussed by Sewell]. Sewell thinks this can be explained away by using things like social class and family structure or the diagnosis of SEN, but black learners are labelled as SEN in the first place often as a result of low teacher expectations and low self-esteem arising from a lack of black identities in the curriculum and the failure to communicate to the parents of black learners and 'these issues have not gone away' since Coard's day in 1971 [he cites Lindsay 2006]. It is the failure to do anything about these practices 'that makes them a prima face [sic] example of institutional racism' (477).

There is also the challenge of bad behaviour in inner-city schools especially. Sewell talks about anti-academic street cultures which ignores the evidence that low teacher expectations and negative stereotypes of black males and the uneven and 'at times culturally insensitive application of school behaviour management policies' can have a role. Again there is 'considerable qualitative evidence of the biased way' in which some white teachers apply behaviour management policies, and many black parents have complained. [See the arguments about black culture specifically]. The Report ignored research on the effects of underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic teachers especially in senior leadership positions, and slides instead to studies relating to gender underachievement. It calls for greater inclusivity in the representation of people from minority ethnic backgrounds in the curriculum but fails 'to acknowledge the extent to which the existing curriculum whitewashes British colonial history', and omits any discussion of language support for newly arrived learners, which has suffered a series of cuts.

The Report does not consider that racial bias on the part of employers might be responsible for the underrepresentation in apprenticeships, nor their underrepresentation in high tariff universities — this is seen as a result of poor career guidance, but again  there is significant evidence of discriminatory practices and admission processes [must look this up too]

The report argues the need to focus on all learners especially from low socio-economic backgrounds and sets out strategies to address their needs, including improved support for parents, targeting and funding, extending the school day support for high performing trusts, good leadership and so on. These just echo decades of research and school effectiveness and ignore the need to also tackle racism. This is not a mutually exclusive goal. Class inequality is a pressing issue and the government is not tackling it, indeed may be increasing say with the cuts to the Sure Start scheme. The whole thing might just be a useful ideological discourse about white victimhood.

The Report argues that we should abolish the term BAME and again this is not new and many antiracist been arguing this for years. It should lead to recognise the existence of multiple forms of racism with different effects, such as Islamophobia, not mentioned once in Sewell, or the specificity of antiblack racism [see the debate about blackcrit], say on particular forms of cultural resistance shown by those of black Caribbean heritage, or particular fears or low expectations that white teachers have of black bodies or hostilities to black countercultures.

Sewell opposes decolonising the curriculum, but Olusogu [sic] objected to loose and inaccurate references to slavery, which also marked the  remarks of Kemi Badenoch. History is being sanitised in the role of the British Empire and distorted. Antiracist initiatives by contrast have tried to 'highlight the positive contribution of non-Western cultural and intellectual traditions' and 'highlight efforts to struggle against slavery and colonialism' (480). The point is to get all learners to think critically about past injustices. What is described as '"reparative futures"' seems to mean 'exploring the possibilities for developing a more inclusive sense of British identities based on the critical engagement with the past… Intercultural dialogue and understanding', far more than just simple diversity of the kind involved in Sewell about recognising the Indian origin of British words.

Sewell talks about powerful knowledge, but this is 'Eurocentric in its content' not objective, and emerged in a particular historical social context. Thus 'whereas Western science, for example continues to play a crucial role in the fight against poverty and disease, it has also been complicit in the development of eugenics… And in the development of technologies that have contributed to human conflict and environmental destruction'. And there has also been 'the process of "epistemicide" by which De Sousa Santos means the destruction and expropriation of other indigenous, non-Western ways of knowing the world' [see Scheurich and Young] . The curriculum should be enriched by drawing attention to these insights. This is not an argument from relativism but a recognition that these insights are valuable especially in 'identifying and solving different kinds of sustainability challenges' (481).

The Report ignores the 'vast amount of evidence' (481) about how schools can effectively tackle racism and close the attainment gap. The whole school approach is particularly valuable recognising the multidimensional nature of racism and its ubiquity. There should be leadership that acknowledges racism, takes racial and cultural justice seriously, has zero tolerance for underachievement of all groups, tackles racism in school policies, does not adopt colourblindness, pursues effective monitoring and creates a safe learning environment so that learners can engage with issues of race and ethnicity. There should be effective data to  track attainment and which identifies successful practice and challenges stereotypes. A curriculum is required that reflects the diversity of British society and also equips learners to form an accurate view of the colonial past. Black and minority ethnic parents should be engaged and represented on governing boards. Teacher education pursued that engages with conscious and unconscious bias and also explains the nature of racism.

[But again this assumes a great political priority on tackling cultural racism especially as it affects black Caribbean kids, as a targeted initiative, and Sewell's case is that the policies need to be aimed at everyone, if ony to do regional levelling up, so  it is hard to justify the argument that black Caribbean kids are a particular priority and so on]

Sewell fails to identify and tackle racism and so it 'can be seen to perpetuate rather than challenge white supremacy in education' (481), but it does offer new challenges for anti-racists. They need to specify more clearly what they mean by institutional racism. They should draw together work on conscious and unconscious processes and the effects of colourblind policies. They should deepen research and understanding

They should sack all the essentially negative views of decolonising the curriculum, and generally try to make the struggle against racism more positive, perhaps they should 'articulate a new "planetary humanism"' (482) a positive recognition of diversity and how these intersect with class and gender identities. We find this in the speeches of visionary leaders like Mandela or Martin Luther King. This is much broader than the narrow idea about what it is to be British. The should engage with other forms of injustice like class and gender. This should enable reflection on the traumas of the past and links with existing inequalities. Countries recovering from colonialism might be examined here

The fragmentation and inequalities in the current educational system do not help. Research is needed on how these provide barriers to attainment for differently racialised groups, as a 'counter hegemonic strategy' aimed at creating a more just institutions. Tackling racism and other forms of inequality 'are not mutually exclusive' for example 'where schools have applied a whole school approach to tackling racial and ethnic disparities, this is benefited all learners '[because institutions have developed interventions based on understanding the needs of all learners — references to a range of work here including his own] educators leaders parents and learners need to recognise the complex ways in which injustice works and to be engaged as active agents in addressing them.

The curriculum is a key area. The Eurocentric nature of the curriculum has to be challenged and knowledge made more representative. This will also make it more representative of future challenges. Past histories will be better recognised. This would be much broader than the idea of British values. Epistemic justice is also required, 'the need to increase access to the curriculum for groups who have historically been disadvantaged in gaining such access' (483). [Apparently] Stone, drawing on Gramsci argued that black learners should use education to realise meaningful change by first getting to grips with powerful knowledge, accessing the mainstream curriculum, and this is already popular among black Caribbean communities and finds itself behind demands for extra tuition among Indian, Chinese and Muslim communities [so they don't want indigenous knowledge?].

We need a new radical politics galvanising racial and minority communities, grassroots and community activism, building on the experience of antiracist and multicultural projects, a new radical pluralist politics, despite Sewell. Pretty much same old same