Protected characteristics or political playthings?

I am a teacher and over the past month I have become increasingly aware of shifts in what is deemed acceptable for people to say and do in certain rôles, through interference from the government and, now, from the BBC.

Phase 1

It began in early October with news of new educational guidance ‘Legal threat over anti-capitalist guidance for schools in England’. It felt like a reaction to something, as if the government realised that teachers might be teaching children ideas and concepts that they don’t want them to know about. And, to be fair, most teachers are a fairly liberal bunch who want everyone to fulfil their individual potential. You can see why they would be concerned.

This guidance (oddly, on the relationship, sex and health curriculum) states that the use of materials from any group with an extreme political stance is illegal. The problem is that the government’s idea of extreme political stance (such as antisemitism and endorsement of illegal activities) includes anti-capitalism, Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Extinction Rebellion.

Anyway, it’s been a tough time in teaching – there has been a lot of criticism around the rôle of schools during Covid-19 – and I was clocking this as a step up in interference and a move I dislike, but ho hum, let’s crack on with engaging children in real world learning. Just not that … or that …

Phase 2

My MP, George Eustice, whilst voting against free school meals for low income families over half term, decided to use his familiar tactic of saying nothing and diverting attention to a different issue. On the 22nd October, without comment, he shared the video of Kemi Badenoch MP explaining why it is not appropriate for teachers or schools to support BLM, why we cannot teach about white privilege and why our curriculum doesn’t need changing. The justification for all of these things is that they are political.

Firstly, Kemi Badenoch’s justification for this is an example of disgusting behaviour by a BLM protestor, which I also condemn. My thoughts here are that, as a Conservative, she shouldn’t be promoting the judging of any group by its lowest common denominator.

But even if BLM is considered a political group to be avoided, that doesn’t explain her reluctance to accept that our curriculum needs updating. Through the support of Black Voices Cornwall and resources from The Black Curriculum, such as books by David Olusoga, I am really enjoying learning about a more diverse history of Britain with my children. Am I acting illegally?

Phase 3

I’ve generally avoided criticism of the BBC on the grounds that the complaints come from all sides of the political spectrum.

And then this happened:

‘BBC no bias rules prevent staff joining LGBT Pride marches’

I like to check things out, so I did, and what I found was that the guidance is ambiguous. There isn’t an outright ban on LGBT Pride events. It would seem that it might be okay if your job is not too high profile, or it’s probably okay if it is a celebration and not a protest and that it is down to the discretion of the manager, or you can go if you seek permission first. Or, most damning of all, you can go if it is about people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer, but NOT if it is about the controversial ‘trans issue’. The other movement you will be familiar hearing about is .BLM This may also be deemed too controversial or ‘political’. Now where have I heard that before?

Are my protected characteristics a political problem?

My real issue is that the government seems to be able to choose what is political – or extremely political – and use this as a way of silencing groups or shutting them down and stopping their messages being shared.

 In the UK, we have 9 protected characteristics, and it is good to be reminded of them:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex and
  • sexual orientation.

Anything that is standing against discrimination based on a protected characteristic is, in my mind, not political but simply right. You could even argue that it is doing the government’s job for it. This includes discrimination based on race.

In this country, and across the world, discrimination based on race is a fact. White privilege is about the fact that I won’t be subject to suspicion-less Stop and Search but someone who is black probably will. I’ve included a link to the government’s own data on this, should you think it is anything other than fact. Given this, how can teaching about white privilege be any different to teaching about sexism? And how are our children supposed to make the world a better place, if the problems that exist are hidden from them?

Sexuality and gender reassignment are protected characteristics, they cannot, therefore, become controversial or debateable topics. People who are trans exist. For the BBC to distinguish between the ‘LGB and the T’ in Pride events is, sadly, a confirmation of its transphobic views.

I’ve pointed to the similarities between the BBC’s new guidelines and the government’s and I would remind you that this began with guidance from the relationship, sex and health curriculum, cautioning schools on the source of their materials.

For two protected characteristics already suffering discrimination – gender reassignment and race – the government is trying to control the narrative, restrict freedom of speech and re-define them as political.

I cannot stress enough: protected characteristics are not political playthings.