26 July 2022 Reflections from an expert educationalist

Robin Richardson’s scholarly essay, Education and equalities in Britain, 2010–2022: due regard and disregard in a time of pandemic, is a timely intervention from a leading educationalist  with a track record in the analysis of policy interventions and exposing shortcomings in conceptual and grammatical clarity. As he observed in a critique of the notion of ‘Fundamental British Values’ in 2014, such scrutiny is essential “when the professional careers of teachers, the reputation and good standing of schools and the education children receive are involved.”[1]

This 10-year review of race and ethnicity in equality legislation is therefore an  authoritative statement from an expert who has been a teacher, chief inspector for education in the London Borough of Brent and educational consultant. Moreover, Robin Richardson has been consistently supportive of faith and cultural diversity as a feature of a pluralistic British society: in the 1990s he was director of the Runnymede Trust and acted as consultant and editor for the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, chaired by Lord Bhikhu Parekh, 1999–2000 and also the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, 1996–2004.  His comments in 2012 on the Trojan Horse affair as “hearsay presented as fact” have now received definitive confirmation.[2]

This essay begins with reference to the Parliamentary debates that eventually led to Section 149 of the Equality Act (2010), in which the protected characteristics – age, disability, gender reassignment,  pregnancy and maternity, race,  religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation – were to be subject to ‘due regard’ e.g. the need to eliminate discrimination, remove disadvantage etc. [3]  In its spirit, this intention would underpinned by requiring “public bodies to take steps “to develop and publish equality objectives, to report progress and to focus on equality outcomes.”  

Notwithstanding the backing of the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Theresa May, ‘due regard’ was met by “shallow lip service” and “disregard” from the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove and his SPAD, Dominic Cummings.  While Theresa May had expressed concern on the impact on inequality of imminent budgetary cuts, noting “there are real risks that women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and older people will be disproportionately affected,” the overall policy agenda was hostile. Decisions in 2010-2013 “included the ending of the education maintenance allowance, the decision to cease ring-fencing the ethnic minority achievement grant, the ending of the Every Child Matters programme, the phasing out of children’s centres and Sure Start projects, decreasing concern and support for children with disabilities and special needs, and decreasing concern about prejudice-related bullying.”

Robin Richardson also highlights the turn-round in the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) from 2012. While in the past it had been “an agent of change towards greater equality in the English education system”, by 2014 its document Better Inspection for All did not refer to the Equality Act, nor did it contain even a single one of the details relating to equality that had featured so prominently in Inspecting Equalities, and “most seriously and significantly of all, the reference to comparing and contrasting differences between different groups of pupils was eliminated.”

From summer 2014 onwards, Ofsted no longer expected schools to collect and analyse school-level data on disparities relating to the Act’s protected characteristics, nor did it examine such data itself:

It concentrated instead on the ill-defined notion of ‘fundamental British values’, and on the Prevent programme against violent terrorism, to which the values were closely related, and from which, indeed, they were directly, although tersely, derived. Fundamental in all this was the appalling miscarriage of justice known as the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham [. . .] In late autumn 2020, it was reported that at the launch of Ofsted’s annual report, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England, Amanda Spielman, had pushed back against growing calls to make the National Curriculum more diverse. She claimed that there were increasing efforts to ‘commandeer’ schools and the curriculum in support of ‘worthy social issues’, such as, she said, tackling racism.

Robin Richardson provides examples of the descent into dissimilitude and double-talk. For example, one of Ofsted earlier reports in support of equality policies “was suddenly removed from the Ofsted website.”  He cites in detail the discrepancy between two versions of a speech in 2020  by  Liz Truss soon after her appointment as the Minister for Women and Equalities after the general election in 2019 [4]. There was an official version printed in the public domain on a government website; “on the other, a version provided essentially for insiders and supporters, geared to and affirming the expectations, biases and prevailing shared opinions of members of an invited audience. Through an administrative mishap, the latter version of the minister’s speech was briefly published.”  In her words, “Too often, the equality debate has been dominated by a small number of unrepresentative voices, and by those who believe people are defined by their protected characteristic, and not by their individual character. This school of thought says that if you are not from an ‘oppressed group’ then you are not entitled to an opinion, and that this debate is not for you. I wholeheartedly reject this approach.” 

Such political callousness has cost ethnic minorities dear and is likely to be exacerbated with this type of national leadership. Robin Richardson laments, “if the concept of due regard had been observed more rigorously across all government departments, the COVID-19 pandemic would have been less tragic and traumatising in its effects, and less responsible for deepening inequalities throughout British society.”  In a memorable address to the Muslim Council of Britain in 2016, Robin Richardson addressed the question ‘What sort of Britain do we want?’ [5].  He envisioned a ‘multi-storied’ society. Far better than a semi-detached nation.

JS/26 July 2022

[1] ‘Fundamental British Values’ – origins, controversy, ways forward: a symposium; Race Equality Teaching, 2014.

[2]  Robin Richardson, ‘Hatred, hysteria and a Trojan Horse’,  July 2014, https://irr.org.uk/article/hatred-hysteria-and-a-trojan-horse/. For a recent expose of the Trojan Horse affair see the 8-part podcast co-hosted by Hamza Syed and produced by  Serial Productions and The New York Times.

[3] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/149

[4] Truss, L. (2020) ‘The fight for fairness’. Government Equalities Office. 17 December. Accessed 7 June 2022. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/fight-for-fairness.

[5] https://mcb.org.uk/mcb-updates/agm-panel-uk-as-a-multi-storied-nation/