To civil rights campaigners of the 1950s and 1960s, it might seem utterly baffling, if not a cause for despair and alarm. They fought for an end to segregation; battled to ensure that black children could attend the same schools as their white peers. Brave little girls and boys had to be escorted to their desks by the police, all in the cause of tearing down the barriers between races.
And yet, 60 years on, schools on both sides of the Atlantic are segregating children by race once again – though this time the move is ostensibly to serve, not discriminate – creating what one institution calls “a space of support, affirmation and empowerment, where participants can be their full, authentic selves”.
Watch: What does woke mean?
Yet good intentions alone do not make the latest educational confrontations over race very much less fraught than they were generations ago, if the current battle at the American School in London (ASL) is anything to go by.
Its head Robin Appleby is the highest-profile casualty, stepping down – forced to quit, by some accounts – after a parent revolt against a radical new agenda whose effects, it is claimed, were felt not just in social sciences but across the entire curriculum.
Her departure is the culmination of what is described by some parents as an 18-month culture war at the school, which charges £32,650 a year, and counts a number of sports and Hollywood stars, including the actresses Salma Hayek and Kathleen Turner, among its alumni.
Appleby has been in charge for almost five years. A year and a half ago, however, some parents suggested that two events changed the dynamic of teaching and educational priorities at the school. The first was the death in May 2020 of George Floyd, the black man who was killed in Minneapolis when a white police officer knelt on his neck. The second was, they believe, the arrival as assistant principal of Erica Jones who, according to one parent testimony, “really changed the whole curriculum”.
History books were binned as courses were reviewed, one parent reports: “Kids [were] taking back history books [to the school] which were going to be thrown away. My daughter came home one day and said I really want [to keep] this book.”
The new curriculum was heavily influenced, say parents who eventually formed an online chat group to share their concerns, by “critical race theory” – the view that it is not just individuals who can be racist, but wider social structures that are inherently discriminatory. Appleby, says one of those parents in the group, “sent an email to the entire ASL community announcing that the school would be adopting what in her words was an actively anti-racist agenda.”
“Anti-racism,” notes the parent, “sounds incredibly innocuous”. And indeed the parent welcomed Appleby’s email because “the George Floyd killing was awful [and] the school could do more to promote racial acceptance and cohesion.”
However, they say it soon became apparent that anti-racism “actually has a very specific technical meaning for people who practise this stuff – which is critical race theory”.
The school began “promoting the idea that everyone’s identity is around their primary characteristics, primarily race, gender, sexual identity, gender identity, and that everyone should be understood to be based on those characteristics”.
This parent’s daughter came home one day, they say, and recounted that Jones had composed and read a poem to an assembly of 10-to-14 year olds that included the lines:
“No, I do not fear Covid-19
No, I do not fear an indefinite lockdown
No, I do not fear a global pandemic
My global pandemic is you.
I fear white fragility
I fear weaponized white tears
I fear red and blue lights
I fear genocide
I fear phone calls from home in the middle of the night
Silence on the other end.”
The poem also characterises the US as “AmeriKKKa” – a nod to the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan; it references “white fragility”, the concept that white people struggle to deal with the assertion that, consciously or not, they are all complicit and invested in racism. The poem was published on the school’s website, where it remains.
Parents worried that the new agenda could seep into every lesson. “They’ve been doing it in every single class in every single subject every single day. It’s everywhere now,” says one. “In science, they’re teaching now how science has been used to promote racism. In science, I want you to teach my kids chemistry and biology and physics.”
One concerned parent felt that the racism was actually beginning to be directed against white people. “They’re now actively using what I would characterise as racially aggravated hate speech on a regular basis in school,” says the parent.
Initially parents were afraid “to raise their head above the parapet”, especially given the sensitivities of the subject. “This topic is toxic,” says one. But eventually they began forming up “and now there’s a very vibrant community of parents who are sharing and documenting all this stuff at the school.”
In June 2021, parents sent a 12-page letter to the school, complaining that their children were being “indoctrinated”. Soon, the chairman of the board of trustees announced in an email that “Robin Appleby has given us notice of her resignation, effective as of January 1, 2022.”
It continued: “Robin has informed the board that she now needs to focus on her own wellbeing and that of her family, which we fully understand.” A spokesperson for the school said: "We are committed to building and sustaining a diverse, equitable and inclusive school community and firmly believe that this will lead to a better future for all our children. Our families are supportive of the school’s commitment to ensuring a sense of belonging for all of our students.”
Though what has occurred at ASL might sound extreme, it is not unusual. Similar cultural battles, though thankfully often milder, are occurring throughout Britain’s educational system, with the independent sector particularly affected.
“It’s the worst struggle for heads since the 1960s,” says Sir Anthony Seldon, historian and former Master of Wellington College. “They’re terrified of being named and shamed on social media for having old-fashioned views and not sufficiently taking into account the difficulties around race, or gender.
“On the other hand they also have parents, and governors and often – surprisingly – students, who are in my experience most conservative, and who want an assertion of traditional values grounded in Britishness, patriotism and endeavour.
“They feel trapped. Because it’s not clear where the sensible middle ground is. It hasn’t emerged yet.”
Public schools have been here before, of course, half a century ago, trying to get a handle on 1960s counterculture – on long hair and drugs and the tenability of “fagging”, that hierachy in which younger boys had to serve their elders. Updating – or shelving – long-held and often cherished traditions, is one of the trickiest tasks a head can face, especially at public schools, which are valued in great part for tradition itself.
Inevitably then, many heads might wish to sit tight and try to ignore ongoing culture wars. “But that’s not an option for those at the top,” says Seldon. Malleability, he insists, is the essence of survival, pointing out that some heads are actually capitalising on the “kudos to be gained from grabbing headlines” by promoting an overtly liberal agenda.
Seldon’s alma mater now boasts of being “an actively anti-racist school”. Brighton College and Highgate have both been recruiting heads of diversity and inclusion. St Paul’s Girls school reportedly replaced the title ‘head girl’ with ‘head of school’ because the former was “too binary”.
On race, on sexuality, on gender and transgender rights, schools find themselves caught in the crossfire of an increasingly bitter war of words. And how they choose to position themselves can be a matter of economic survival.
“It’s not at all clear what is right commercially,” says Seldon. “Tradition might be the answer for a boarding school in Norfolk, but for metropolitan London day schools the right response to attract new intakes might be very different.”
Get it wrong and schools, many of whose finances have already suffered during the pandemic, could find themselves on the brink, having ostracised the very group of parents they wish to attract.
Open days of the future, then, may not show off to prospective pupils sports facilities and new science blocks, or seek to differentiate themselves from the competition by boasting of a particularly academic bent or an ethos that develops “the rounded person”. In future they may seek to win over new fee-payers by signalling that they plan to uproot society’s systemic racism – or, by contrast, that parents can sleep safely in the knowledge that little Johnny is not being assailed by critical race theory, and that his bewilderment at his personal responsibility for the consequences of slavery will not be greeted as “white tears”.