Birth to 5 Matters experts hit back at criticism of guidance's stance on anti-racism by Conservative MPs

Nicole Weinstein
Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The group that developed Birth to 5 Matters has responded to criticisms by Tory MPs about the use of the term ‘white privilege’, in its recently published guidance, when addressing issues of equality in early years settings.

Following the launch of ‘Birth to 5 Matters – Guidance for the sector, by the sector', last Thursday, the document hit national newspaper headlines for its recommendations about how to combat racism in the early years.

The guidance states, 'Talking about race is a first step in countering racism.

'It is a mistaken assumption that treating all people in the same way and ignoring differences in race is a sufficient response to racism. This approach simply allows the continuation of bias in society which disadvantages people from black and minoritised groups. Instead of a colour-blind approach to race, more proactive anti-racism is needed.

'Practitioner training is an important step toward opening dialogue and developing understanding about white privilege, systemic racism, and how racism affects children and families in early years settings. It is also time to challenge the widespread notion that "children do not see race" and are colour blind to difference. When adults are silent about race, children’s racial prejudice and misconceptions can be maintained or reinforced. Encouraging dialogue and conversation about difference can evoke children’s strong sense of fairness and break down false assumptions about everyone being able to succeed on their merits, so that children recognise racist behaviours and develop anti- racist views.'

But MP Robert Halfon, the chair of the House of Commons Education select committee, told The Telegraph on Saturday that this was ‘the wrong way to go about’ combating racism as it risked early years learning ‘becoming some kind of political Soviet indoctrination session’.

The story was also later reported by The Times and The Daily Mail.

Nancy Stewart, project lead for the Early Years Coalition which developed the guidance, denied that Birth to 5 Matters recommended that children receive lessons on 'white privilege', as some newspapers have reported. ‘We are advocating the types of conversations that informally take place between practitioner and children,' she told Nursery World.

'For example, as outlined in the guidance, being ready to challenge stereotypes and misunderstandings as they arise in play, conversation, books or other contexts, as well as ensuring an environment that encourages respect for differences and values fairness, where all children can feel they belong.  

‘For example, if a child says another child can't play because of their race, the adult could intervene to support an age-appropriate conversation about race and fairness.  

‘The guidance does not suggest talking to children about white privilege or systemic racism, but rather that these are ideas that professionals might engage with to better understand the current discussions about race, and the possible implications for their practice.’

The Early Years Coalition said that the early years are a critical period to support children to develop healthy attitudes toward race, and that during this time, more ‘proactive anti-racism’ is needed, rather than a ‘colour-blind’ approach to race.

Ms Stewart said, ‘Research clearly shows that very young children are not "colour blind".  By the age of three children have developed racial bias, and will be making judgements about people on the basis of their race. Racism continues to be a damaging aspect of our society that limits life chances of black people and causes divisions that are harmful to us all.

‘Recognising the disadvantages faced by one group does not imply that there are not other disadvantaged groups, and the guidance also discusses poverty, social inequality, and a wide range of other factors families may face as important issues.  Far from insulting one group in favour of another, it calls for celebrating difference and diversity in all its guises and creating a culture of "we" rather than "us and them".’

But The Telegraph reported that Mr Halfon said, ‘This is just unacceptable. This dogma and doctrine is totally out of place. We have all got to combat racism but this is the absolute wrong way to go about it, and insults white working class people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

‘The whole purpose of children learning is to learn, not for some kind of political Soviet indoctrination session.’

Sir John Hayes, the chairman of the Common Sense Group of Tory MPs, was also reported in The Telegraph as saying, ‘Most parents would be horrified by the idea that their toddlers are going to be lectured about how privileged or underprivileged they were depending on their race.

‘If you tell some children they are privileged you have to by definition tell some others that they are not, that they are somehow disadvantaged or underprivileged. It is really destructive to the welfare of children.’

A Department for Education spokesman said, ‘Birth to 5 Matters is not government guidance. It has been produced by an independent organisation and it has not been endorsed by the Department.’

A department source added, ‘Ultimately practitioners must assure themselves they are working in line with the EYFS statutory framework, which requires all early years settings to deliver a broad and holistic curriculum which helps children develop their own positive sense of self and learn about and understand our culturally and socially diverse world.’

On 31 March, an independent report on institutional racism in the UK, produced by the Government's Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, concluded that factors such as family structure and socio-economic background had 'more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism'.  

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