Sunday, 1 July 2018

Relationships matter

I am currently working with two local authorities in Wales and I’m struck by how many job descriptions include ‘well-being’ in the title. This is a response to the “Well-being and Future Generations Act” that is steering the public sector. I wonder how this focus on well-being might alter the way the public sector works. 

Definitions of well-being always include feeling good about ourselves, having high self-esteem, caring about others. It includes flourishing and having meaningful and fulfilling relationships. Sadly I don’t have much faith that under the current neoliberal regimes much can change despite the commitment and hard work of public sector employees. In this blog I reflect on this important concept and how nurturing of well-being and the connected relationships that go with it has to start in schools. 

I have worked most of my adult life in education and as a teacher educator for over 20 years understand the passion young adults bring to their teacher training. I continue to work with teachers and every day my sympathy for those who just can’t stay in the profession grows. People don’t enter teaching if they don’t care about care about children’s well being, but they soon find that in our current system this is hard to promote. A glance at the statistics tells the story. Nearly a third of teachers who joined the profession in 2010 had left teaching within 5 years. This year, 2018, our schools have 5,366 fewer teachers than last year, whilst we have 136,544 more pupils. There is a crisis in teacher recruitment as well as retention; 73% of school leaders reported difficulty in recruiting teachers.

This is a very worrying trend. At a conference this weekend the teachers, teacher educators and teacher advisors who attended were clear about the problem. The neoliberal agenda with its managerial values of accountability and performativity and its the stifling regime of assessment and monitoring dominates everything and is causing teachers to leave the profession. Teachers’ lives are dominated by a race to cover the curriculum, tick the boxes and get the children through the tests. Children’s lives are dominated by competition and striving for attainment targets. No-one is enjoying it!

The fall-out includes mental health problems that affect about 1 in 10 children and young peopleand is rising. Depression, anxiety and conduct disorder, and are often a direct response to what is happening in young people’s lives, including the testing regime in schools. 

Looking at the wider picture
One of the purposes of education has been to prepare young people for work and the consensus amongst neoliberals is that this is best achieved through qualifications. Yet we are preparing children for a world where the nature of work has changed, we are in the middle of a great restructuring of the world of work as technology is changing the jobs that are available, the conditions in which we work, the places we work and the distribution of income. The gig economy (a labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs) has grown as many professional jobs in accounting, journalism, the law etc have diminished. And new patterns of wealth and inequality have arisen. Today the wages of 64% of the British population are too low to live on. A far greater proportion of benefits go to those in work than out of work. The welfare state is effectively subsidizing employers who fail to pay a living wage. 

We know that it is only the top 20% who have jobs that pay well. How these jobs are acquired is the subject of research by DiTomaso in “The American Non-Dilemma” (2013). She found that the key to accessing jobs, higher education, internships and housing was not qualifications, but relationships and connections – exactly what those in the low-paid economy lack. 

Unfortunately in the UK a market approach to education has separated young people. Better off and poor children attend very different schools and as a result have very different connections. We know that attending a school where the socio-economic markers indicate poverty is the surest indicator of failure later in life. Lower attainment, fewer relationships, fewer connections – the very things that are necessary to find good jobs. And Wales has more than its fair share of these types of communities. 

Facing reality

In a review of the literature Cottam (2018) found that in the UK jobs are found through connections and relationships, and secured through soft skills – in fact the two are closely connected. Social networks are key to job success. Of course, hard skills – the formal qualifications are important too, but there is a growing literature that shows that without soft skills formal qualifications have little value. Meanwhile schools are forced to focus on the hard skills at the expensive of soft skills with a corresponding impact on well-being. 

And things can only get worse. Research from the Oxford Martin School, an inter-disciplinary body at Oxford University, argues that half of all jobs will go in the next 20 years (Frey and Osbourne, 2013) as artificial intelligence expands; 47% of us are in the ‘high risk’ category. Some work will disappear and new possibilities and new types of work will emerge, but whatever happens, rapid change is on the agenda. Currently in Wales more than 1 in 8, 16-24 year olds are out of work. 

We know that people who get jobs have soft skills. Employers frequently complain that young people in particular lack these soft skills: confidence, team-work, patience, motivation, the ability to communicate with a wide range of people and to learn. The focus of our current education system is to prepare children and young people for “an active role in the economy and society” (Welsh Government, 2017) but this doesn’t include soft skills, it is examination success that is prioritised. Despite teachers’ best intentions, the focus on performativity and accountability in schools means there is little time to develop the soft skills our young people so desperately need. 

And the elephant in the room is what is happening to our climate and environment. We have to learn to live sustainably; we have to find ways of responding to climate change, pollution, resource depletion, species elimination – these are the biggest challenges our young people will face as they grow up and we should be facing – as Martin Luther King said, “the fierce urgency of now”. It will affect everything we do: how we grow food, build houses, supply energy, provide transport, support health and social care etc. Education has to be at the heart of learning to live in harmony with the planet so the lives of future generation have a chance to survive. And this needs communities who can work together as the economy continues to flatline and poverty rates are rising. 

We need educational and community spaces where children and young people and adults get the opportunity to express their opinions and have the opportunity to reflect on what living a good life might look like for them and their communities. We need a citizenry that is able to think about and shape the kind of society they want to live in. We face huge societal problems now that need attention. Such thinking needs to be done in relationships; relationships make a difference to people. 

If we can focus on building relationships and the soft skills that come with them we might stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of poverty and all that that brings. New approaches are out there as Hilary Cottam (2018) has documented. She invites us to try different ways of working. To create a new narrative that seeks to transform our public sector, to come together to create a vision for a good life and invest in building our capabilities and our relationships. That means experimenting with new ideas and developing our critical and creative thinking to find new ways of learning. 

And if you are in education it means standing up and saying ‘No!’ we will no longer be part of a system that has widened inequality, that has privileged the top 20% and only pays lip-service to the soft skills that underpin well-being. We need to reach out to our communities and build strong relationships to change lives.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Feeling Connected (?) My Digital Life

When I was a child I was so excited when our first telephone was installed. A black Bakelite (you see them in 1950s films) and we even had a fancy new piece of furniture ­– the telephone table ­– for it to reside on. Excitement turned to disappointment as first, I didn't know many people who had a telephone, and second, I was banned from using it anyway. "It's for emergencies." Then my best friend got a phone and the desire to use this new technology led me into illicit phone tapping from the local phone box. The frisson of fear that I would get caught and arrested wasn’t sufficient to curb my wish to use this alluring new technology and a lifelong addiction to communicating across the ether was established.
Fast forward 55 years and I am on holiday reading, “The Fourth Dimension” by Laurence Scott and I take pause to consider how the extent of my connectivity today would have been beyond the imagining of my now 30 years dead mother – although she would be pleased to know there is still the option to call 999 with no credit on a mobile. Today, like most people I know, I carry around a mini-computer which has the same power as those roomfuls of giants that first put men on the moon almost fifty years ago. And through the power of my phone, I live my life in many places at once as my actual body moves through the physical space and my virtual body navigates digital-sphere. Sometimes disconnecting is a problem. 
Today, my teenage yearning to talk on the phone has gone. I rarely use my phone to exercise my vocal chords – all those free minutes never used – but what a cacophony of silent noise emanates from my finger-tips, as I go about my digitalised life. Each day I am bombarded with information as campaigns I’ve endorsed update or exhort me; good causes I’ve donated to thank me and ask for more. Alongside this is the constant popping up of unsought communication delivered by invisible algorithms that track and target me. My consumer life ambushes me with notifications of sales or bargains from retailers I have patronised, flights I shouldn’t miss, places I could visit, birthday greetings and 2 for 1 invitations from restaurants I've frequented. The organisations I belong to who invite me to events, tell me how I can get more involved as they compete for my time or my money. My conscience and self-perception as an aspiring good person, means I hesitate to swipe away good causes: disappearing forests, melting ice caps, expanding deserts, polluted air and the impact of environmental degradation on fauna: the bees, tigers, elephants, polar bears, orang-utans and other animals I’ve never even heard of. I sign the petitions, donate and momentarily feel a sense of agency before moving on. 
My mini-computer confers global citizenship on me and I like that. One minute I'm protesting treatment of refugees in Australia, the next supporting Native Americans fighting for their land, registering dismay at the behaviour of Spanish policemen and Donald Trump with an angry face emoji. I 'like' on Corbyn supporters and remainers and Momentum and Bernie Saunders and Palestinian hunger strikers and those campaigning for abortion rights in Ireland or gay rights in Australia. Online my white, middle class British identity allows me to proclaim my anti-capitalist, pro-socialist stance and face no fear of arrest. I swallow the irony of capitalism fuelling the digital revolution where algorithms check what I'm doing and adverts linked to my online activity in one virtual space pop-up on another; where the big brother of capitalism is always watching. 
And each day I get things done on-line. I both love and hate email. I definitely love WhatsApp which I reassure myself is encrypted both ends and is therefore a secure way of communicating, especially if you fear surveillance when travelling to countries you have campaigned against online. It’s where my children and I communicate and achieve things such as planning our Christmas together with the help of that other loved App: Airbnb. And although we are not face-to-face, we feel connected. I love the ease of booking a holiday online, and the ease of sorting out the air and rail travel and car hire that accompanies it, although I do spare a fleeting thought for all the redundant travel agents. And I love the Doodlepoll that makes coordination of meetings and events so easy. I love podcasts and catch-up, Netflix and iplayer. And I love the Apps that start and keep you running, or practising yoga or pilates, teaches you Tai Chi or sets you walking challenges. 
And I love how the internet helps those who may not have the physical capacity to interact with people in the real world, but can connect with like-minded others. Who can share with fellow sufferers of a debilitating illness; can enter chat rooms and chat, although that clearly has a downside, every silver lining has a cloud. I love that I can learn new things from the best universities in the world through FutureLab, or learn practical skills through online step-by-step demonstrations of how to quilt, paint, write, build, cook – you name it and YouTube has already thought of it. And you can stop, rewind and repeat as often as you need to tailor learning to your own pace. Wherever and whoever we are we can find communities so we don't feel alone. And despite common rhetoric, this is not just for the young. I know a number of people in their 80s who have been liberated by their iPad, who tell me being alone is not the same as being lonely. Who spend happy hours copying old photos to send to family members scattered all over the world and can Skype with a sister in America and a son in Saudi, listen to the Archers before they go to sleep and plan a journey on GoogleMap before they get up.
In my retirement, like many of my age and demographic, I travel, taking both my actual, and my virtual body with me.  This week I am in Portugal, but through my fingertips I’ve connected with North and South America, with India, South Africa and Australia, Bangladesh, Sweden, Finland, Palestine, Israel, Germany, Belgium. My actual body this year has moved between Swansea and Oxford, London and the Wye valley, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Birmingham and Fareham. And in Wales, to Hay-on-Wye, Rosslare, Laugharne, Cardiff, Cardigan, Criccieth. And to Europe – Paris, Dublin and Madrid, Portugal, Madeira (twice) and further afield to Israel and Palestine and Moscow and St Petersburg. The connectivity is breathe-taking, and sometimes disorientating. 
And I engage with strangers online. I have corresponded with Airbnb people I've never met even though I've stayed in their homes. Some hosts have shared too much and some have scooped me up and cared for me like family when I was ill. I have shared people’s homes and been spared the embarrassment of money changing hands so it almost feels like friends. I have been reassured by the trust I am prepared to give to strangers as I enter their homes and sleep in their beds. And such trust has been reciprocated in unexpected kindnesses I would never expect from a hotel or guest-house. I have been picked up from rail stations on several occasions by Airbnb hosts when travel arrangements have let me down. Provided with Lemsip and honey when arriving with an unexpected chest infection. Only today an Airbnb host offered to bring my husband’s left behind medication from his place to our place – a 45 minute journey. And I am a good guest. I behave well and give good feedback which is reciprocated by my hosts. Lots of virtual 'likes' to keep everybody happy. Airbnb creates a mirage of intimacy between strangers as we vie to be the best guests or the most sought-after hosts. It was hard not to feel disappointed after so many exchanges with Jose when I learned I would pick up the key to his apartment from the local cafĂ© and leave them in his postbox when I left. Just a commercial transaction after all – emoji sad face.  
And through my phone my voiceless actions convince me I’m communicating with friends and acquaintances and those I shall never meet. I feel compelled to share with my friends: things to make them laugh or feel good as well as asking them to endorse my political predilections by signing petitions or endorsing my outrage by commenting on news items; to recommend films and books, exhibitions and restaurants. It feels like I’m part of a huge community, no matter how ephemeral.
Online I’ve crowd-sourced and kick-started, sponsored and been sponsored. I've joined protests both digitally and physically. And in the Twittersphere I've been outraged by trolls, dismayed by politicians, astounded by the aggression and venom, and uplifted by the retweets. I keep a record of my reading on Goodreads and wish I could find a site to keep track of my film watching, and the theatre come to think of it. Is this wish to categorise and organise an obsession I wonder.
And although each day I walk alone, it is not a solitary experience. Depending on my mood and the length of the walk, the Downloads on my phone allow me to be accompanied by Jane Garvey or Sam Harris, Bitch Media or TedTalks, Politics Weekly, This American Life or Laurie Taylor. Simultaneously my phone tracks my routes through ‘Map my Walk’ and counts my steps through Fitbit, which also monitors my sleep and my heart beat. Three times a week ‘From couch to 5K’ is helping me at 67, become a runner.
My fingers do the talking to dozens of friends online, but never face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice and I don’t even know if they are listening. My fragility is revealed by my pleasure when friends 'share' or ‘like’ a post. I feel less alone when friends show they think the same about the scourge of plastics or the idiocy of Trump; who also support wind power, solar power and Jeremy Corbin or mourn the passing of such greats as Tom Petty. I loved it this week when my friends shared the joy I felt when I saw the Coventry drummers protesting outside the Tory party conference: 'made me cry'; Like, like, like. Smiley emoji. Thumbs up. Hearts, hearts, hearts. And the warm feelings when so many send birthday greetings, vying to say something original or witty.
And of course there are the downsides, every online action has the spectre of guilt accompanying it. Am I spending too much time online, shouldn’t I be doing something more productive, am I addicted? And I feel better when I remember that my mother thought reading would ruin my eyesight and my father regarding lying in bed and reading a novel as ‘doing nothing’. Moral panics accompany any new technology and that included books back in the day. Remember the fear that text-ease would destroy the young's capacity to write 'proper sentences'? The exact opposite has happened in the online sphere. Our sentences are out there for the world to see and are subject to the spelling and grammar panopticon least we are publically called out for our errors or lack of clarity. And with so much competing stuff out there we try to be wittier, more engaging and clever to get attention.
And if I’m not online I’m wondering if people have responded to my threads, the warp and weft of tension when you realise you have 'over-shared' and friendships are damaged or even curtailed. The narratives I’ve concocted to try and understand silences when I know someone has 'seen' my message and not responded. Finding out about the death of friends online and wondering who will be responsible for shutting down my Facebook page after I’ve died and the immortality I might gain from the impossibility of removing all trace of my online presence.
And the downside when you meet up with friends in the flesh to find all your catch-up news has already been caught. So each get-together becomes not ‘a telling’ but a ‘re-minding’ as we prefix our news with 'you probably saw this online' but ‘let me remind you anyway'. The online community has certainly stretched our definitions of what a friend is. I have friends I only connect with by text or phone, who don't use social media and they seem quite remote to me at times. They are different from the friends I see regularly on and offline, and from friends who only know me through an online presence and yet I might interact with them several times a week. And I wonder how many of the friends I have on FB see my posts but never say anything until one day they share a post that tells me they are watching. 'Why that post?' I wonder. Or those who when you meet up tell you how they love following all your travels and you never knew they were watching. And those who de-friend you and you never find out why. 
And that brings me to the online phenomena of the Blog that this little piece is destined to become. Everyone can be an author online. We can all narratise our life experiences for all to see and this can revolutionise our understanding of each other. Is there a topic for which there isn’t a blog, people talk about their mental health, struggles with terminal illness, coping with disability, with motherhood, bereavement, birth and death, misogyny, surrogacy and so on and on. The auto-biographical blog narrated online gives us the chance to empathise and feel compassion for a stranger as we would for a character in a novel; such accounts of lives are an extension of literature that can enlarge our world view and broaden our moral engagement as we get insight into other lives. And in the blogosphere I am a producer as well as a consumer. I use writing to try and make sense of things and knowing I'm going to post my thoughts online means I am careful to write coherently. I don’t check for views and likes, it doesn't matter (much) if anyone is listening. It is my own homage to mindfulness, a chance to stop the online chatter to mull things over. 
Much of my online life brings pleasure that is always tinged with guilt, like bingeing on Netflix. That slight sense of unease that all my online activity is becoming an addiction. I love it and am definitely enriched by it, but I fear it as well. My day begins and ends online. It is the place I keep my memories. FB tells me exactly where I was on this day a year ago back to 2009. I can track my emails to check what I said and when. Social media is our agora where we consume politics and speech-make. Where we pursue the age-old struggle to understand what makes a good life. And it actually doesn't feel shallow – it feels liberating and creative.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

'Steeling' the Show

A lot of my educational life was spent teaching about environmental issues - this blog is a bit different as it is a call to action - hope you are inspired! Let me know if you are.  

In my handbag is my latest buy and I think you’ll agree it 'steels the show' when it comes to ecologically friendly consumerism. All at the same time I am protecting my health, saving the oceans, doing my bit for global warming and taking a swipe at greedy corporations.

My new purchase sits snuggly in my bag alongside my foldup cloth bag – since the ban on free plastic bags I never go anywhere without it. And this should give you a clue as to what I’m taking about – it’s that 20th century invention: plastic. We all know plastic is bad as harrowing pictures of strangled seals, trapped turtles or birds dying of starvation with their guts full of plastic appear on our social media feeds, but what I didn’t know is that the single-use plastic drink bottle is far more sinister.

I know I should cut down on plastics, but a look through my weekly shop and the amount of plastic is simply overwhelming; I can’t do anything about all that packaging and it can just feel so disempowering. But I can do something about changing my drinking habits and that’s where my beautiful stainless steel bottle really steels the show.

I no longer spend my hard-earned money on water in a plastic bottle and that makes me smug. To understand my self-satisfaction you will need to follow me for a minute as I trace the journey of one bottle of water from source to ocean.

The humble drinking bottle began life in the laboratory. Clever scientists took the raw material of oil and created PET(E) – that is polyethylene terephthalate or, as I prefer to call it, PETE. PETE is an incredible material; it is clear, tough and shatterproof. The downside is that it was only ever created for single-use. If you decide to re-use a PETE bottle you are likely to absorb some of the dangerous toxins used to make it as they leach out with multiple use.  

So re-use is not a good idea, but surely it’s fine as long as we recycle. Well partly, however, in reality less than 10% of plastic bottles are recycled and MOST of the 3 million bottles we throw away every day end up in the oceans – out of sight, out of mind.

You are probably wondering just like I did, how the bottles get in the oceans. Some bottles are blown by the wind into the river and float out to sea, but the majority is buried in landfill where the plastic gradually breaks down and is leached into the ground water and gets into the river that way. Breakdown sounds good doesn’t it? But breakdown is not the same as biodegrade. It takes 500 years for plastic to break down completely, and breakdown creates trillions of microscopic pieces of plastic that are eaten by fish and fed up the food chain back to us – 5.2 trillion at the latest count.

And that is serious. Studies done on laboratory animals have shown that PETE can cause genetic damage. Other studies suggest links to breast, ovarian and prostrate cancers, to liver damage and diabetes as well as decreasing male fertility. It’s not just ocean wildlife that is affected.

So what about my latest purchase? My stunning stainless steel water bottle – well, I think it is rather beautiful and it has certainly attracted bottle envy from my friends. It’s a one-off-buy as it will last for life – always assuming I don’t lose it! But the joy is that it is insulated and keeps the water cool. Surely there is nothing worse than warm water out of a plastic bottle that has been sitting in the car!

So I can sip my cool water and feel smug – not only am I not adding umpteen plastic bottles to the ocean every year, but I’m protecting my health ­– stainless steel by the way doesn't contain any hazardous chemicals.

Think of the knock-on effects from this one consumer choice. If we all did this we would save the millions of barrels of oil that is used for the sole production of disposable plastic bottles. We would save water – the manufacture of plastic bottles takes more water than the bottle actually contains. We would not have to transport the bottles from the factory to the consumer burning gallons of oil-derived diesel and petrol – that has to be good for global warming. And we will have stopped this indestructible substance filling our landfill and entering the oceans to interact with the entire ecosystem of the planet.

And for those who want to take a swipe against big business, we will have struck a blow against the only people to benefit by the commoditization of water – the multinational companies who bottle tap water and sell it back to us at huge profit, exploiting our determination to follow NHS guidelines and drink eight glasses of water a day.

And this is just the beginning. My dear little bottle only holds 300mm. I want the return of public drinking fountains in every town and city as we used to have when I was a child and like many towns in Europe today. I want my local authority to ban the provision of plastic bottles at events they hold and provide water as a right to anyone who wants it – to encourage us to come and fill up our reusuable bottles. I’m going to ask my gym not to sell bottled water but instead sell lovely refillable stainless steel bottles that I know we are all going to want to buy.

And the best thing is that all the money I’ll save on not buying water in plastic bottles means I can buy stunning stainless steel bottles for all my friends and family for Christmas.

I give you the star that steels the show – the stainless steel bottle ­– good for the environment, good for our health and good for our pockets – we are all winners!

Join me and ‘Ban the Bottle’! Post a picture of yourself holding your stainless steel bottle. 

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Multiculturalism is dead: long may it rest in peace

David Cameron told us in 2012 that multiculturalism is dead. In the same year the introduction of the new Teachers’ Standards require all teachers “not to undermine fundamental British values” (FBV) (DfE 2012), and requires them to promote FBV within and outside school. However, the issues that arise from Britain being a multicultural society are not going away. Following Brexit everyone knows that immigration is a key topic of debate in our homes, our pubs and bars, our social media and in our schools and classrooms. Following 9/11 in New York, 7/7 in London, the growth of Islamic State in Syria and the so-called Trojan Horse Affair in Birmingham and the requirement of head teachers and governors to safeguard children and young people from radicalism and extremism (HMG, 2015) we know Muslims have been singled out as the ‘other’ who needs surveillance. It is time to ask some pertinent questions about Britain’s imperialist past and to question a national identity that is promoting whiteness.

These two issues: immigration and Muslim as ‘other’ spills into the school – how should teachers respond when it does? How can teachers support the children of those who are being vilified or bullied because they are migrants or Muslims (or both), or a second or third generation person of colour? What can teachers do to make sure they understand the issues for themselves? How can they feel confident to know when students bring ‘false news’ to the classroom and to challenge it? How can teachers ensure they can make the distinction between fact and opinion? Dealing with the issues around immigration and racism is a challenging task and teachers need help.

Truth and False News

Let’s start with some definitions. How can we distinguish between truth and false news? A scientific definition is helpful. Any scientist will tell you there are no truths, only interpretation, but they will also tell you there are verifiable facts. Teachers need to ensure they understand the facts and be able to separate these from how those facts are presented and interpreted. Teachers need to be good at this because they have the job of ensuring young people know the facts, and have the critical thinking skills to question how they are presented. Teachers also need to understand how government policy influences how facts are presented and how the press mediate information to the public. This has never been more important. The digital revolution allows virtually anyone to create and share news and this is undermining the role of both government commentators and the free press.

These issues are not going to go away. In Britain today government and media have failed to ensure that the British people understand the facts of migration issues and of Islam. The power axis between government and media create ‘regimes of truth’ and create dominant ways of thinking. We construct society through the language we use and in mediating issues around immigration to the public, government and media have created a climate of hostility towards migrants, asylum seekers and Muslims that teachers should be deeply worried about and know how to sort out fact from opinion. Let’s start with some verifiable facts.

Historical background to understanding migration

We have to start with our history. We cannot think about migration into Britain without looking at how Britain transformed from a colonial to a post-colonial power after the Second World War. As one migrant said to me in 1975, “We are here because you were there”. From my experience of working with trainee teachers over 20 years, I know that some of the basic facts about Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world and how we manage race relations here are not well known, it is therefore important to give a brief overview here.

A brief history of Empire

The basic facts of the British Empire are well documented and tell the story of imperial exploitation and plunder that enriched Britain and left the exploited worse off. However, this is not the way Empire is perceived by the majority of the British public. In 2014 a YouGov poll found 59% of respondents through the British Empire was ”something to be proud of”, and only 19% were “ashamed” of its misdeeds. There is clearly a mismatch here between facts and opinions. Teachers have a responsibility to understand the facts so let’s begin with a brief overview of Empire.

Let’s start with slavery. The first British slave voyage was led by John Hawkins in 1562 in the reign of Elizabeth 1. Africans were captured and sold as goods in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The Slave Trade was finally ended in 1827 and historians estimate that British ships carried 3.4 of the 12 million slaves as part of the triangular trade. Ships left the ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool carrying goods made in Britain. They arrived in West Africa and exchanged these goods for slaves. On the third part of the journey they would arrive in the West Indies (Caribbean) where they were sold to plantation owners.  The profits made from slavery financed the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the Caribbean Islands became the hub of the British Empire.

Imperial expansion began with the acquisition of Newfoundland as a colony in North America (1583-1818) and then moved into Central America and the Caribbean beginning with Barbados in 1628. Britain moved into South America and Asia in the 18-19th century, Australasia and the Pacific from 1832-1907. The first African colony was Natal in 1856, and Britain colonised most of South and East Africa and much of West Africa in the 19th century.

By 1913, Britain controlled 23% of the world population and 24% of the total land area. At the peak of its power, the phrase ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’ was used because Britain’s expanse around the globe meant the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. After the second world war Britain divested itself of its colonies and since 1948, 59 countries have gained independence from British rule.

The impact of Empire on the colonized took myriad forms. In some places like Australia, North America and New Zealand conquest was so successful that the indigenous peoples of those lands are today small minorities whose lives are frequently blighted by poverty and discrimination. Those of white European descent dominate, racism towards these first nations’ peoples is well documented and verifiable discrimination abounds.

Other forms of empire took the form of conquest followed by ruling from a distance, usually with the cooperation of local people who worked as civil servants and tax collectors.  In this way Britain controlled India, much of Asia and the Middle East during the 19th century and conflict over land and between peoples today can often be traced back to the straight lines drawn on maps by Britain and the other European colonizing powers as they fought each other for domination. In Africa there were different approaches to colonization from the widespread settlements of British immigrants in East and South Africa, to the rule from a distance in West Africa. Empire is nothing if not complex.

History attests that the colonial enterprise was for the benefit of the colonizers, the flow of people under slavery, resources and raw materials under colonialism, from the colonies to Britain made us the wealthiest country in the world and resulted in impoverishment for the colonies. Some of the worst atrocities against people were committed by Britain under colonialism. This included the creation of concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-2002); the massacre of Indians carrying out a peaceful protest against British colonial rule in Amritsir in India in 1919; the partitioning of India into India and Pakistan that displaced 10-12 million people and created an overwhelming refugee crisis in 1947 where 1-2 million died in the violence that erupted. Hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan is a legacy of partition. When the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was generating 23%. By 1940, Britain accounted for 10% of world GDP, while India had been reduced to a destitute country with millions starving.

Between 12-29 million Indians died of starvation under the British Empire as millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain as famine raged in India. In 1943, up to 4 million Bengalis staved to death when Churchill diverted food to British soldiers during another famine in Bengal. Today thousands of Kenyans have launched damages claims against the UK government for the mistreatment, rape and torture of 100s during the Mau Mau uprising against colonialism (1951-1960). We cannot tell the story of Empire without including slavery, partition, torture, famine, concentration camps and massacre.

End of Empire

Things changed rapidly and decisively following the first-world-war as anti-colonial movements gained momentum. Rebellions in Ireland, India, China, the Caribbean, Egypt, South Africa, Malaya, Kenya, Iran and other places in the early 20th century were subjugated, but could not be contained. The victory of the second-world-war left Britain bankrupt and unable to continue operating as a colonial power. First to divest was India. Always considered the ‘jewel in the crown’, the people of India had engaged in sustained resistance to British rule for much of the 20th century and finally won its independence in 1947. Britain partitioned India to create Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Pakistan was divided into East and West Pakistan, separated by the Republic of India. Unsurprisingly this arrangement proved disastrous and resulted in revolution following West Pakistan’s genocidal attacks on the East that ended with the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. For over 200 years Britain took what it wanted from India and when they left 90% of the population lived in poverty, life expectancy was 27 and literacy was only 16% (Tharoor, 2017).

By the mid-60s the bulk of the British Empire had been decolonized, frequently through armed resistance with its resulting bloodshed.

Events at home

Having provided this extremely brief overview of Britain’s Empire, I turn to events at home. Members of the British Empire were considered British and in 1948, the British Nationality Act gave the right to enter, work and settle in Britain to all colonial and commonwealth citizens. Following this, in 1949, a Royal Commission on Population identified a significant shortage of labour in Britain. The Commission thus paved the way for active recruitment from the former colonies to the labour market in Britain. 

Following this, British Rail, the NHS and London Transport deliberately targeted labour recruitment from the commonwealth and hundreds of thousands of people were recruited, initially from the Caribbean and India, to fill labour gaps in the economy.

In 1948, the first migrants arrived from the Caribbean on the good ship Empire Windrush. It is important to remind ourselves slavery had transported Africans to the ’West Indies’ over the three centuries that Britain was involved in the slave trade and one could argue Britain had obligations towards these descendants of former slaves who, following decolonization, had few means to create viable economies. Britain was ‘the motherland’ and the motherland said it needed them.

How would this much needed labour be received in the ‘mother country’? How would government and media respond to their arrival? This was a pivotal time in our history. Let’s momentarily jump forward to 2012 and David Cameron’s speech in Germany on radicalization and the causes of terrorism. In this speech he referred to his government’s belief in certain values which government had a responsibility to actively promote. He listed those values as:

 Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizen: this is what defines us as a society.

If only these Fundamental British Values had been articulated so clearly to the majority population as migrants from the Caribbean and India started to arrive on these shores. It might have influenced how the media responded to the arrival of these former colonial subjects. At this time the vast majority of the population in Britain had never seen a person of colour and information about the new arrivals and why they were here was largely drawn from the media. How the media, in particular the tabloid press chose to represent these people was not in keeping with the list of British values cited by Cameron above.

The newcomers had been actively recruited to fill Britain’s labour shortage and surely had a right to be treated fairly. Unfortunately this didn’t happen. Neither government nor the media did anything to ensure the general public was properly prepared for immigration. Rather, the period 1948-1970s saw the racialization of British politics whilst governments of both parties stood back and watched it happen.

The new post-war Labour government introduced the NHS that needed to be staffed, they committed to a large house-building programme that needed workers, they established a comprehensive transport system in London that needed recruits. The need to recruit workers was especially necessary as many of the indigenous white population were migrating to Australia, Canada and New Zealand – this was in fact a time of net migration. Labour was recruited to support the economy but the British people were not prepared to support the migrants.

Mediation of history

A pattern began to emerge that established how Britain responds to migrants that is true to this day. Now we shift from the facts to the way those facts are presented to the public. We see how government and media present the truths of migration to the country. As stated above, the state sought to recruit labour to meet the needs of the expanding capitalist society. Labour came not only from the former colonies, but also included hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans and Irish. The presence of the white migrants was largely ignored by the media who focused instead on those who were visibly different because of the colour of their skin.

At this time a group of white racists, both inside and outside the government, began to ferment fear over competition between the indigenous population and immigrants for limited resources: jobs, housing, education and health care, and thus started what has become a familiar mantra – the immigrants ‘take our jobs’ and ‘cost the country too much’.

Soon this repeated mantra manifested itself in trouble and here we can identify biased reporting in the media. In 1958, when groups of white youth attacked black youth from the Caribbean, the media named this racist event as ‘The Notting Hill Riots’. Reported by the media as evidence that there were just ‘too many’ ethnic minorities, the British government responded not by challenging the racist claims made by the press, not by naming this as ‘opinions’ which were not supported by the facts, but by pandering to the tabloids and restricting immigration. And so cycles of racist attacks and media misreporting stimulated cycles of immigration restriction. We have here the fact of migration, but the decision to focus on ‘coloured’ migration as problematic. Instead of challenging this and making the case for migration from the former colonies the British government set about a policy of restricting such migration. 

Restricting migration

In 1962, the Conservatives introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act that restricted black and Asian migration, not people from the white Commonwealth, the thousands of Canadians and Australians that came here, just people of colour. This could have been an opportunity for government to start making the case – to help the British white population understand our colonial past, our obligations to our former colonies, our need for labour, the perceived necessity of migration, but they did not. This decision was shared by both of the main political parties; when Labour came to power in 1968 they introduced an even more restrictive Commonwealth Immigrants Act. The Acts specifically denied the automatic right to entry and abode of black and Asian British citizens from the Commonwealth. 

It became apparent that both parties in power wanted to present themselves as responding to public fears of black immigration that had been stirred up by politicians, other public figures and especially the media, rather than make the case for their policies of labour recruitment or the moral case of obligation to those whose resources and labour had been exploited under colonialism that had made Britain the wealthiest country in the world.

Managing Race Relations

Alongside restrictions on immigration came three Race Relations Acts in 1963, 1968 and 1976, requiring the state to ban discrimination on grounds of race, colour or ethnic origin. This was important, however, the Acts made little difference to ongoing discrimination and racist attacks. Race relations in Britain had become a significant political issue that would be a feature of every election to come. The opportunity for government to challenge media representation had been lost. 

The media had done a good job – the majority of the indigenous white community in Britain believed there were too many people of colour in Britain.  Despite the 1991 census that showed only 5% of people in Britain were migrants (including all those born outside Britain, white and people of colour), polls asking people to estimate numbers of Black and Asian migrants consistently found people over-estimated the actual numbers by massive amounts. And yet, successive governments did nothing to challenge these misconceptions and study after study through the 1980s and 1990s showed that ethnic minorities were systematically excluded from equal participation in Britain because they were discriminated against. ‘Coloured’ immigration was constantly on the front page of the tabloid press. Gallup polls in the 1960s consistently showed over 70% of the population wanted further immigration control and the government responded with further restrictions.

The National Curriculum

In 1988 the first National Curriculum was introduced in England and Wales. This was an opportunity to ensure everyone was taught about the British Empire and understood migration to Britain. History was a compulsory subject, but unfortunately the opportunity was lost – it did not include the history of Empire. Opinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of British people think the Empire was a good thing, something to be proud. Considering the brief history presented above, the polls indicate that the general public have very little understanding of the true nature of Empire where Britain used violence to rule other people, deny them independence, exploit their labour and take their resources.

Academic historians have called for honest history teaching if our children are to understand our past. Dr Andrea Major at the University of Leeds, for example, has called for improved teaching about the British Empire, claiming there is “a collective amnesia about the levels of violence, exploitation and racism involved in many aspects of imperialism”.

Education about all aspects of British colonial history can’t be the sole responsibility of schools. The media have to take some responsibility to generate more open debate to ensure all the public gain a better understanding of the world around them and in particular our fellow British citizens whose heritage lies in the countries of our colonial past. As Dr. Esme Cleall from the University of Sheffield says, “The violence of the British Empire has long been forgotten. We need to face up to this history and education is crucial if we are to do so.”

Teaching of course can only do so much. Young people deserve to know the facts of Empire, but they need also need critical skills to understand how a lack of open and honest appraisal of the past creates false facts and biased opinion.

Public figures

We cannot lay the blame for the misrepresentation of history and in particular of immigration entirely at the door of the media. Politicians are also culpable. In 1968 the now infamous Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, Enoch Powell made what has come to be referred to as his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in which he criticized Commonwealth immigration and the government’s anti-discrimination legislation. Powell was a powerful speaker who voiced fears that immigration would lead to bloodshed and it caused a political storm and his dismissal from Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. But his rhetoric also caused a media storm and is considered a significant turning point in race relations.

He was not the first Conservative MP to use race relations as a means to gain popularity. The 1964 General Election saw Labour come to power, however in Smethwick, the Conservative candidate gained the seat using the slogan, "If you want a nigger for a neighbor, vote Labour".

Events such as these influenced the decision by the Policy Studies Institute in 1968 to carry out research into racial discrimination in Britain and found it was "from the massive to the substantial". The tabloid press was found to play a large part in this, particularly with a campaign during the 1960s to criminalise black youth. They consistently presented street violence with scant regard to the truth. 

Much research has been done into media representation of ethnic minorities and there is a consensus that representation has been distorted and has reinforced existing prejudice among the public. The presence of media bias has been established through painstaking analysis of headlines, articles and space given to minority issues in our newspapers. The media, particularly the Tabloid press, use stereotypes to portray minority ethnic groups and over-report Black crime fueling fears about threats allegedly posed by Blacks to the White majority. By contrast, Black experience as victims of crime and police harassment of Black families has rarely been reported. Ethnic minorities are more frequently associated with negative personal characteristics and tendencies to crime and violence, not as victims of discrimination. This misrepresentation has been shown to be consistent over time and has made a huge contribution to Britain’s endemic racism.

Governments must take their share of the blame for deciding to exploit the public’s fear of immigration for their own gain. In 1968 Enoch Powell’s rhetoric inciting fear of people of colour and streets running with blood won votes. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher suggested  “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture,” and in 2014 Michael Fallon repeated it by claiming British towns are being “swamped” by immigrants and their residents are “under siege [with] large numbers of migrant workers and people claiming benefits”. The Conservative anti-immigration rhetoric surfaced again when Cameron’s (2016) described refugees fleeing from persecution as “a bunch of migrants”, or the numbers of people seeking refuge in Europe as a “swarm”. Cameron took the rhetoric further by claiming the “traditional submissiveness of Muslim women’ put them ‘at risk of radicalization”, or when he announced Britain could deport people who fail to learn English – all grist to the mill of a racist press and an ignorant public.

I could go on and on – politicians and government are part of the problem and the press should be holding them to account. Teachers have to be able to recognize how prejudice expressed by politicians and repeated in the media influences how children and young people see the world and make a determine effort to challenge racist rhetoric.

Change for the better

That is not to say things have not changed, there is evidence that responsible journalists have tried to change attitudes related to ethnic minority issues and there is evidence of more positive reporting in the 1990s, particularly in the quality press where the voices of ethnic minorities are heard and the problems they experience given a hearing. It is true that Black African and Asian minorities are now treated in the media far better than in the 1970s and 80s. That doesn’t mean negative portrayals have stopped, they have simply shifted their focus towards newly arrived groups such as asylum seekers, Muslims and some EU members.

The real increase in immigration however, came not from the Commonwealth, but with our membership of the European Union and the free movement of people. Today the immigrant population is mainly white, but despite this, prejudice, discrimination, violence and hatred against people of colour prevails.

The election of New Labour in 1997 saw a stated commitment to social justice for racial minorities for the first time. Following the murder of Black African student Stephen Lawrence, stabbed by a gang of white youth whilst waiting for a bus, Labour established The Lawrence Enquiry and the subsequent report by Macpherson (1998) did help shape Labour’s thinking about institutionalized racism.

The subsequent Race Relations Amendment Act (2000) signaled a commitment to ending institutionalized racism in our public services, especially the police and the parallel ‘duty to promote’ racial equality was established by the Commission for Racial Equality in 2003. However, Section 19 of the RRA 2000 excluded asylum and refuge. This is significant as restrictions on immigration now meant the majority of people of colour entering Britain are asylum seekers.

Inevitable the events of 9/11 and 7/7 changed the terms of public discourse about race forever, leading to a shift in prejudice and racism away from people of colour towards those of the Muslim faith, a cultural racism identified as Islamaphobia.

Where are we now?

The Race Relations Act (1965) outlawed racist discrimination that was the daily experience of migrants from the Empire during the 50-70s. It certainly did help to reduce prejudice. Today we have measures in place so the state can act decisively to challenge racism, but little has been done to actively challenge the expressed racial prejudice of very large and significant sections of the white British population. Report after report (usually following significant racist incidents) has found that racism is endemic and discrimination is pervasive (see, for example the Scarman Report (1981) following the Brixton riots; the Burnage Report: Murder in the Playground (1989) following the murder of an Asian youth in a Manchester school playground; The Macpherson Report (1998) following the murder of Stephen Lawrence). Government has done very little to challenge racist views and instead has gone along with the idea that immigration is inherently problematic. Extreme far-right racism embodied by such organisations as the National Front and the British and Welsh Defence League continue to exist and racially motivated attacks are common.

It can’t be denied that the lives of many ethnic minorities have improved, they are represented in parliament, in the media and the professions, this is all good, but the main point is that it is one thing to tackle prejudice that restricts opportunities for people of colour, it is quite another to tackle the endemic racism that still exists in Britain that came to the fore post-Brexit. Racism is still a systemic, structural problem in Britain. The unemployment rate for all ethnic minorities is twice as high as for whites – these are verifiable facts. Whatever issues we look at – health, education, housing, over-representation in the criminal justice system – things are worse if you are a person of colour. Racism is alive and well, and rooted in our colonial past. As a nation we have avoided dealing with it.

Media ‘truths’

Immigration and race relations have always been and continue to be framed by the media; their focus on the problems of people of colour, on the competition for health, education, housing and jobs between the white population and people of colour sets the tone. People of colour are presented as having problems – they don’t speak English; they prefer to live in ghettos rather than assimilate. The tabloid press fails to report widespread racial discrimination that empirical studies have consistently found – from employers, housing agencies, Trade Unions, local government or to condemn the physical and verbal abuse people of colour frequently experience on the street.

Today with the successful reduction of immigration from the former colonies, most people of colour in Britain are second or third generation and the press have shifted their focus towards problems of cultural adaptation, intergenerational differences and disagreements, gender roles, religious extremism, dangers of radicalization etc. The problems are presented as with the communities and not with the racial prejudice of the white majority.

No government has ever taken serious the problem of tackling white racism; rather it has encouraged and exacerbated it. David Cameron is right ­– multiculturalism is dead. And long may it rest in peace. As he said in 2012, “multiculturalism encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream”. Rather than challenge racism, successive governments opted for multiculturalism to emphasis difference and separateness, to ‘celebrate’ cultural diversity and despite a brief flirtation with anti-racist education in the 1980s with the publication of The Swann Report (1985), multicultural approaches prevailed and have done nothing to challenge white racism.

In his speech Cameron also claimed, ”…when a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them.” And yes, the law does condemn, but when government provide grist to the tabloid press mill with its racist rhetoric it is hard to take it seriously. A government so serious about FBV that they require all schools to teach them should also condemn those who flout them. The media consistently presents one-sided, distorted or alarmist stories about people of colour, and recently in particular, inaccurate stories about Muslims and asylum seekers have prevailed.

We live in a country where a sizeable portion of society, maybe the majority, is hostile to people of colour and most recently this has been extended to our fellow Europeans, many of whom don’t feel welcome here anymore. Victims of prejudice find their exercise of freedom of opinion and expression reduced, a specific flouting of FBV.

False news?

Reporting in a truthful and balanced way has always been an important professional goal for journalists. Today the integrity of journalists of all persuasions is being challenged. Journalists who in the past have expressed opinions by describing black youth as ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’ or Muslims as ‘terrorists’ have created stereotypes and reinforced prejudices that have contributed to the endemic racism that is present in Britain today. When opinions held by the majority of the public are actually based on ignorance, or false facts that have been fostered by politicians’ rhetoric or tabloid opinions, then it is hard for any of us to sort out truth from falsity, and in the field of immigration and race relations trying to distinguish fact from fiction is a minefield. As teachers we have an especial responsibility to ensure the young people in our care know the facts and can sort out the difference between fact and opinion. If we are to teach FBV and prepare our young people for democracy, this task has to be built into everything we do. And we must start by ensuring teachers have the knowledge, skills and understanding to do the job.  

Those responsible for Initial Teacher Training and Continual Professional Development have a moral duty to ensure that teachers know the facts and have the skills to deconstruct how facts are mediated to the public by government and media. Surely this is central to teaching Fundamental British Values.

Cameron, D. (2012) Speech at a conference in Munich.
Cameron,D. (2016) Prime Minister’s Question Time, 27.01.2016.
DfE (Department for Education). (2012). Teachers’ Standards. London: HMSO.
HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) (2015) Prevent Duty Guidance: For England and Wales [online}
Fallon, M. (2014) Interview with SKY news.
Macdonald, I. A. (1989) Murder in the Playground: The Burnage Report. Longsight.
Macpherson, W. (1999), The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, London: Home Office.
Scarman, Lord J. (1981), The Brixton Disorders, 10–12th April (1981), London: HMSO.
The Swann Report (1985) Education for All: Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office
Tharoor, S. (2017) Inglorious Empire. Hurst & Company.
Thatcher, M. (1979) In a TV interview on ‘World in Action’.