As an educational project, whiteness is designed to maintain racial hierarchies. Whether or not that intention remains or is recognised in modern schools, the racism underpinning that educational project continues to shape education in England.
And in recent years, whiteness and anti-black linguistic racism have become further normalised under the so-called “what works” agenda of education policy.
The UK government launched the What Works network in 2013, in order to design policies, and how they are delivered, on the basis of what they called “the best” research evidence available.
In education, this claim that policymaking is scientifically objective and evidence-led is used to bolster the idea that the resulting policies will effectively do what they say, namely tackle inequality.
However, my work shows how what-works-based education policy is not objective or neutral. It normalises white, middle-class language and can result in the use of non-standard, non-academic language being disciplined in schools.
The ‘what works’ agenda
Between 2021 and 2022, I conducted research in two different secondary schools in London. I observed classrooms, did interviews and analysed policies and lesson materials.
Both schools had majority white staff, serving mostly black children from low-income families. Both schools had subscribed to a “what works” approach to language teaching.
The first school had introduced “evidence-led” curriculum materials, entitled English Mastery.
Teachers I collaborated with reported how these materials encouraged them to correct how their pupils spoke, avoiding language deemed to deviate from standard norms.
As a result, black children simply kept quiet or produced minimal answers, which they were further criticised for. Being made to internalise the ideology that their language was deficient resulted in their identity being eroded, an impact which research bears out.
This ideology was further articulated by the staff I interviewed. One teacher said “what works” curriculums would “address persistent errors” and curtail the use of “colloquial” speech, thereby allowing marginalised children to “function properly in the world”.
Another teacher described how management had insisted on a “standard English only” policy because they deemed classrooms to be full of what they termed “poor quality talk”.
Research has long shown that standard and academic English are not neutral categories but social and colonial constructions based on the language of the white middle classes.
Yet in these schools, acquiring standard and academic English is seen as the path to social justice. Similar thinking has been shown to underpin decision-making at Ofsted, the UK schools inspectorate and national policy too.
Despite the claimed intentions around racial equity and justice with which they are marketed, “what works” materials risk reproducing anti-black prejudice.
They define any student as “functioning” or “working” as one who models their language on whiteness.
And they still result in working-class, black children facing language discrimination, because, as research shows, beliefs about so-called “proper language” always relate to beliefs about race and class.
In other words, it blames not the socioeconomic system for failing these communities but the communities themselves for not having the right language and literacy practices.
In one school, where management had subscribed to this kind of thinking, believing that it was in the best interests of marginalised children, I found that word-gap interventions meant black working-class children were much more likely to have the way they speak categorised as deficient.
Rather than developing their vocabulary, this strategy too resulted in children keeping quiet in lessons, internalising the idea that their language was not academic enough.
”We need to stop thinking that the way children speak is the problem, and start thinking about the way that adults listen as the problemBlack Wall St. MediaContributor