Towards a ‘class-less’ class?

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Image description: a school classroom is pictured, with one student holding their hand up.

The latest guidance from the Department for Education (DPE) banning British schools from using materials produced by organisations ‘that take extreme political stances’ has sparked much debate. Criticism towards these guidelines comes mainly from its categorisation of anti-capitalism as an extreme stance. In doing so, it equates it to the promotion of illegal activity, and curiously an opposition to freedom of speech.

This controversial ban was passed through guidance issued on the 24th of September 2020, aimed towards the planning of ‘relationships, sex and health curriculum’. Critics were quick to label it authoritarian and against the UK educational system’s ethos of upholding unbiased and politically neutral classrooms.

On the other hand, a defence of the guideline reads it in conjunction with DPE’s 2014 guidance on the proactive promotion and embedding of ‘British values’ in English schools. Thus, it gives capitalism a moral valence rather than viewing it as an economic model.

Firstly, it is necessary to unpack the notion of ‘anti-capitalism’ in the context of this guideline. It is imperative to note that this guideline does not mean that sections of workers’ history or peasant revolts will be discarded from the school syllabi, nor does it imply the exclusion of leftist writers or poets.

It gives capitalism a moral valence rather than viewing it as an economic model.

The guideline refers solely to the use of material produced by external agencies in reference to topics regarding relationships, sex, and health. The highly-quoted line of not using ‘anti-capitalist’ material is preceded by a warning to exercise caution when referring to materials by any external agencies.

Rather than encouraging an authoritarian, blanket ban on the conversation, this section of the guidance repeatedly emphasizes a ‘moderate’ position. It also notes that ‘extreme agencies’, if brought up in class, should be discussed ‘appropriately and impartially’, with agencies working towards the same goals that ‘have not adopted extreme stances’ being juxtaposed as a positive example.

So, the guidelines exist in a very specific context and are not as all-consuming as they are being made out to be. Nevertheless, a critical examination of what it pitches as a ‘moderate’ or acceptable political stance is warranted.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought to light the failures of the global economic system and the striking class distinctions that prevail around us. Pressures on essential workers, unequal access to healthcare globally, and the severely underfunded nature of the NHS have shone light on some of the drawbacks of a free market economy. The rising support for the basic income movement has also been indicative of the shift away from traditional, conservative structures of the political economy.

A refusal to account for the failures of capitalism in light of this shift in the public mindset might well be less a moderate stance and more an espousal of calculative ignorance.

A refusal to account for the failures of capitalism in light of this shift in the public mindset might well be less a moderate stance and more an espousal of calculative ignorance.

Even though the specific context of the policy might be used as a defence, one cannot ignore that class politics also play a key role in maintaining the status quo when it comes to heteronormativity in relationships and sexual health. The classic image of an ideal type family with the male breadwinner and the female caregiver cannot be separated from the division of labour put forth by the capitalist economy, which in its most rooted form relies on wage-less, gendered domestic labour.

The guidelines do suggest an LGBT friendly approach and require the use of examples across types of families, including same-sex and single parent families. However, the inclusion of the anti-capitalist clause may well underplay the social and economic discrimination these units are more likely to face.

The final concern and criticism I would raise qua this policy is its vague terminology and broad, sweeping categories such as ‘anti-capitalist’ and ‘radical’. The lack of any definition leaves ample room for misinterpretation and the media hyperbole we are currently seeing.

The vague terminology and broad sweeping categories leave ample room for misinterpretation and the media hyperbole we are currently seeing.

This has allowed for secondary sources to neglect discourse in favour of more eye-grabbing panic. This policy is fertile ground for debate about the role of a central educational department, the space for external sources in education, class dynamics in relationships, and the conditions of heteronormativity. But all of these have all been ignored in lieu of a reductive left vs right head-bashing exercise.

In conclusion, what this situation necessitates is a return to primary documents, the contextualisation of the policy, and the further unpacking of it. By steering clear of the media hyperbole of a ‘class-less’ classroom and, more productively, discussing the policy itself, we can ask more relevant and more important questions about our educational system and the values it enshrines.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash