Tuesday, 7 February 2012

What happens when racist tension bubbles under the surface of suburban life ... and what should early years practitioners do about it?

When I was first working in schools, in the late 1980s, there was lots of discussion about how early years education could promote social justice and combat racism. Much of that work was cheaply attacked and ridiculed by the media: endless stories of how blackboards had been replaced by chalkboards and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” banned (a story which is, apparently, a wholesale fabrication). 

I mean no disrespect to the many organisations and individuals who are actively campaigning for racial justice in the early years by observing that the profile of this issue has fallen over the last decade. So, it is welcome to see early years trainer and author Jane Lane team up with Lord Ouseley (former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality) to campaign for the revised EYFS to include more on promoting racial justice.

They argue firstly that there should be stronger requirements to monitor incidents of racial discrimination, and secondly that without all the supplementary materials that were included the original EYFS framework, practitioners will lack information on how to promote racial equality and tackle discrimination.

It has been argued that we should not intrude on the innocence of early childhood with issues like racism. But attitudes are formed early, for good and for ill. Children come into early years settings with ideas and beliefs which they have picked up from their homes and communities, and sometimes these will include hostility to children and adults from different ethnic groups or religions.

Left unchallenged, such attitudes can end up having terrible effects: the murder of Stephen Lawrence is a powerful example of what went wrong in a part of London where, as the BBC noted, “racist tension bubbled under the surface of suburban life, occasionally coming to the fore in the form of verbal insults, graffiti or - at its most extreme - violence.” 

Why don't early years settings and schools do more to acknowledge such tensions and challenge racist attitudes? Probably because staff feel worried about getting something wrong: we can feel that we lack both confidence and knowledge of what to do for the best. One way forward would be to give more prominence to the existing EYFS guidance on promoting racial justice, through discussion and training. Instead of which, the proposal is to remove this from the EYFS pack - and perhaps send, albeit unintentionally, the message that this no longer matters so much.

First published in Nursery World, adapted from my previous post on this subject.