Capitalism rules: is the UK government controlling our classrooms?

New guidance for schools in England instructs teachers to not use anti-capitalist material, categorising it as an “extreme political stance”. This announcement has puzzled many, not least social entrepreneurs who have dedicated their lives to challenging traditional modes of capitalism. What does this new guidance actually mean for the education of alternative world-views and the future of socially entrepreneurial thinking?

Government guidance doesn’t often get people excited. But the documents provided last month to England’s teachers have caused quite a stir. Nestled among lengthy documents which set the ‘relationship, sex and health’ curriculum for primary and secondary pupils is an instruction to not “under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters”. Examples of “extreme political stances” include opposition to the freedom of speech, the use of racist language – and a desire to “overthrow or abolish” capitalism.

Some social entrepreneurs aim to work with a capitalist system to improve it from within. Others want more radical change. As Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of impact investment fund Acumen, put it at this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum, there is also “a growing movement of individuals who know that capitalism has run its course”. At both ends of this spectrum, social entrepreneurs are challenging the status quo of economic systems. Many will find this new guidance puzzling. 

Should those working in social enterprise be worried about how we teach alternative world-views and socially entrepreneurial thinking, or is this an opportunity for rigorous debate about the future of our economic system?


Worrying elements

“The worrying part to this is that questioning the economic system is considered to be extremist behaviour – if social entrepreneurs are extremists then we really are lost,” says Andrew O’Brien, director of external affairs at Social Enterprise UK. 

The new guidelines highlight “a worrying concentration of teaching that ignores some alternative viewpoints”, says O'Brien, who also references previous commitments to teaching social enterprise. In 2006, for instance, the then Labour government published an action plan to “promote social enterprise within schools, providing curriculum materials and ensuring it is studied in GCSE and A level business studies courses”. That ambition has seemingly now been forgotten. 

Critical thinking should be part of any meaningful learning in schools… There is nothing extreme about that

Lily MacClelland, who has spent ten years working in alternative schools and recently started Tokes Farm, a social enterprise in Dorset that focuses on outdoor learning for children, wonders if the inclusion of ‘capitalism’ within the guidance was in fact an oversight or unintended error. “If it’s not a mistake, then it makes me feel quite nervous about where the educational system will go in this country,” she says. 

Rather than banning literature that challenges the status quo, children should be presented with all different types of material in order to challenge and critique them, suggests Shaun McInerney, an education consultant who works with Ashoka, a platform for social entrepreneurs across the world. “Critical thinking should be part of any meaningful learning in schools, and the curriculum should support that… There is nothing extreme about that,” he says. 



What is capitalism? 

While the dictionary definition of capitalism is not controversial, Gareth Hart, chair of Plymouth Social Enterprise Network, suggests it’s not so clear-cut. “What even is capitalism?” His point is that people with differing world views would explain it in different ways. For instance, O’Brien says many people in the UK Conservative government “see capitalism and democracy as being intrinsically linked together”, but others would disagree, arguing that there is an “alternative economic system which could balance democracy and individual liberty”.

Do you compromise with the existing system and improve it, or do you go for something more radical?

The publication of the government’s guidance has raised hackles in various corners. Some campaigners argue the guidance would prevent teachers from using material from the likes of Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion, and are threatening legal action

But for O’Brien, this is an opportunity to have meaningful conversations about capitalism within the social enterprise space. “Do you compromise with the existing system and improve it, or do you go for something more radical?” he asks. Opening up this discussion and thinking about how to put forward suitable alternatives, for O’Brien, is an opportunity to educate through debate. 


Seize the opportunity 

Discussion about alternative models to capitalism within the UK social enterprise sector isn’t enough. “We need to be shouting about these ideas more loudly,” says Hart. Articulating these ideas to government is crucial, but the challenge is creating “messages that appeal to all sides of the political spectrum”. Through examples of successful social enterprise models that balance sustainability with profit, O’Brien says that changing the setup of our economy can become “a less scary process” for government.

These messages also need to reach the people that the guidance directly affects – students and teachers. “We need to open up a conversation about how our children are doing in education, and what we can do to better support them,” says MacClelland. O’Brien believes that we may already know how to support them, suggesting that the guidance goes “completely against the grain” of what young people want –  which is “meaningful, purposeful lives”.


Backlashes and backtracking

Some hope that the Department for Education will, as Hart puts it, “see sense and back away from that dogmatic approach”. O’Brien points out that the “backlash has been so big and the contradictions are so obvious” –  a backtrack would not be a surprise. 

What does this mean for the time being? “On a practical basis, it shouldn't prevent people talking about social enterprise and entrepreneurship in schools,” says O’Brien. In reality, the guidance may have the effect its critics fear. McInerney says there is a danger that “for fear of courting controversy, schools and teachers will pull back” from challenging the current economic system. 

There is at least one thing that everyone can agree on – more clarity is needed. “I want to know why they said it and in what context, or for what reason,” says MacClelland. 

Pioneers Post has contacted the Department for Education for comment. 


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