In summer 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioned an investigation into race and ethnic disparities in the UK. The committee published its report this March, and many of its key findings focus on education. At a time when anti-racist campaigners accuse the education system of entrenching a system of ‘white privilege’, the report argues that the relationship between education and racial discrimination is not so straightforward.
The ‘Sewell Report’, colloquially named after its lead author Dr Tony Sewell, claims that ‘new arrivals to Britain have seized on the opportunities afforded by the state-school system and access to university. The story for some ethnic groups has been one of remarkable social mobility, outperforming the national average and enabling them to attain success at the highest levels within a generation. Conversely, other groups experience lower than average educational outcomes which can have a significant impact on employment rates, earnings and general wellbeing. It is important to understand why these disparities arise and what can be done to reduce them.’
The report’s practical recommendations include: ‘raising the status of technical and vocational education, providing more school-leaver apprenticeships and offering second chances for those who do not get on the academic ladder at 16, or who fall off it at or after university’. It also appears to acknowledge the validity of calls from Black Lives Matter campaigners for a ‘decolonised curriculum’, in its recommendation that all pupils should be equipped with ‘a wider understanding of the UK which encompasses the contributions made by different groups, cultures and regions’.
Despite the report’s claims to provide a nuanced insight into the issue of race and racism, it generated immediate controversy. A group of teaching unions branded it an ‘insult to all those in Britain who experience racism every day of their lives’. Kalwant Bhopal, director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education at the University of Birmingham, said the report was ‘based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how racism works’. Defenders of the report, however, have argued that critics have not engaged with its content, and that it provides a much-needed positive alternative to the dominant victim-oriented account of race relations.
So what does the report actually say, and how valid are its claims about race and education? Is education really the ‘single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience’, or does the report undermine attempts to tackle racism in schools and universities? How does the way the report’s supporters and critics understand the concept of race differ? This is a chance to hear directly from the lead author and discuss what, if anything, we can learn from the report.