The strange tale of Pimlico Academy, the central London school roiled by ‘anti-racist’ protests, shows us that the culture war now consumes all before it. No institution or arena of life can carry on unmolested by our overheated discussions about race and identity. The politicisation of absolutely everything has, perhaps inevitably, reached the playground.
Daniel Smith was, until this week, headteacher of Pimlico Academy. He resigned yesterday following months of student and staff protests over the school’s uniform policy, traditional ‘kings and queens’ curriculum and, most scandalously of all, its flying of the Union flag. All this, pupils and teachers said, reflected a cruel, provocative and even racist ethos on the part of the school and the academy trust that runs it.
Much of this focused on the school’s ban on hairstyles that ‘blocked the views of others’ and hijabs that were ‘too colourful’. The policy was ‘utterly unremarkable’, according to Tom Bennett — a teacher and government adviser on school behaviour.
Nevertheless, it was interpreted as an attack on Afro hair and Muslims. All this morphed into a confrontation of almost absurd proportions. At one point kids pulled down the Union flag and burned it. They staged protests in the playground while staff passed a motion of no confidence in Smith and scores of them threatened to resign.
Pupils should be free to protest about whatever they like, provided they don’t disrupt the running of the school. Teachers and parents are also well within their rights to agitate against management. But what they were agitating against was, in the end, a more small ‘c’ conservative leadership that wanted upfront discipline, a traditional curriculum and Britishness. What could have been a matter of philosophical disagreement was puffed up into an anti-racist crusade.
The students have clearly drunk deep from the new politics of victimhood. ‘It’s strange but [it] feels like we are being colonised’, one pupil told the Guardian. Whether they’d picked that up from social media or their teachers — the school has previously had a left-leaning reputation — is unclear. But clearly they were reading from a cultural script that had been written for them.
This is a script that poses as anti-racist but is actually kind of racist. One parent and teacher told the Guardian that the children weren’t ‘seeing themselves or their backgrounds represented in the curriculum’. The implication here is that there is such a thing as white and black and brown history and that it is impossible to relate across the colour line. Another said the Union flag had ‘fostered division’ — as if to suggest that these kids aren’t British because most of them aren’t white.
One telling moment came when students daubed ‘anti-racist’ messages on the school walls. Alongside ‘White schools for brown kids are u mad’ and ‘Pimlico Academy … run by racists … for profit!!!’, appeared a much older slogan: ‘Ain’t no black in the Union Jack’. This old favourite of racist thugs, sung on football terraces in the 1970s and 1980s, usually followed up by ‘send the bastards back’, had apparently been reprised by these mini social justice warriors. And no wonder. Both racists and wokists essentially agree that Britishness is an exclusive white identity.
But let’s not let Smith and the school off the hook. In Pimlico, we see how wokeness is fuelled not by the strength of argument from protesters but by the cowardice and weakness of the institutions they rail against. Smith relented on the uniform policy in March and the flag was taken down, subject to a review. He effectively handed pupils the power to set policy, draining away what was left of his authority. And rather than engage with students and parents, the school appeared cagey and reactive.
There’s a lesson in all this. Wokeness may be conquering all before it, but only because those in positions of power and influence are apparently incapable of pushing back.
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