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22 June 2021updated 05 Oct 2023 8:38am

A row over “white privilege” and education turns the spotlight on the Equality Act

Familiarise yourself with that legislation – it looks set to be the arena of the culture wars in the coming years.

By Ailbhe Rea

A bitter row has erupted in Westminster over a new report by the Education Select Committee of MPs, which concludes that white working-class pupils in England have been let down “by decades of neglect and muddled policy thinking”. It blames the use of the phrase “white privilege” in particular for this neglect.

The Conservative MP Robert Halfon, the committee’s chairman, has described it as a “major social injustice” that white British pupils on free schools meals perform slightly worse at GCSE than the average pupil on free school meals, and that white British students on free meals are significantly less likely to go to university than black Africans, black Caribbeans or Bangladeshis on free school meals. “If you think it’s about poverty, then it doesn’t explain why most other ethnic groups do much better,” Halfon said.

Labour MPs on the committee, meanwhile, have accused Halfon and Conservative colleagues of “cherry-picking” statistics (read the report for yourself here), and have refused to back it. Kim Johnson, a Labour committee member, has said Conservatives on the committee are ignoring cuts to education under the Tory government and focusing on a divisive and political point about “white privilege”.

[see also: Conservative MP Robert Halfon: “The government can’t say there’s no money for education”]

Most significantly for discussions about equalities issues going forward, the report suggests organisations that receive taxpayer money “should have full regard to their duties under the Equality Act 2010, and should consider whether the concept of white privilege is consistent with those duties”. Halfon and his committee are advancing a new argument that, rather than teaching these ideas at school to help tackle racial inequality, the concept of “white privilege” amounts to a form of discrimination in a context where white students have lower attainment in certain cases than some of their peers from similar economic backgrounds but of different ethnicities.

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This argument turns much of the thinking in the Equality Act, and its exemptions for “positive action” to counteract racial discrimination, on its head. This landmark, imperfect piece of legislation from the end of the Labour era is increasingly being scrutinised in “culture war” debates, mostly those involving trans rights and same-sex exemptions, and in the recent case of Maya Forstater (who won a tribunal case after her employment contract was not renewed due to comments she made about transgender women).

Everyone in politics should familiarise themselves with that legislation, because it looks likely to be the place where the culture war will be played out in the coming years.

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