Tackling racism early in the early years

James Hempsall
Friday, June 12, 2020

It was 1990 and the Children Act (1989) was starting to be implemented.

It felt like an exciting time. The beginning of some significant changes, an empowerment of children, and the assertion of a moral purpose in working with children. The act was a response to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This was the beginning of my career, fresh out of university. I was excited about how I could change the world, to make my difference to the children and families I was working with. My fire had been ignited by some amazing equalities training when I worked at Leicester City Council. Coupled with my own personal experiences of discrimination, I began to think there was a lifetime career in this.

The Children Act 1989 was a significant piece of legislation. Not only did it shift from the outdated and historical notion of parental rights to one of parental responsibilities, it asserted children’s rights like never before. And it set out for the first time a duty on early years and childcare providers to not only be non-discriminatory but to be anti-discriminatory. This was thanks to pioneers like Jane Lane, whom I was excited to meet and work alongside in the 1990s, albeit briefly. She told me of the battles to ensure this important element was retained in the final legislation. The shift from non- to anti- was an important distinction. It gave us an ethical mission in working with children, including in childcare. 

Having been discriminated against all my life up until that point, and since, taking this task on was something that really motivated me, a legal brief and mission to tackle prejudice. It felt like the raft of 1970s equalities legislation had matured into a sensible assignment for the early years and childcare profession. The sector was a very different place back then. So much has changed. Yet my biggest regret, and the thing I have learned in 30 years, is people and the system have short memories. I have found the need for much of this work remains, yet is overlooked, it is waiting for someone to revisit it, reinvent it, and reclaim it for themselves. Because they probably will.

I wonder, how many practitioners these days truly realise a key aspect of their job is to promote anti-discrimination. Has anyone told them? Is it an obvious feature of the EYFS or their Ofsted inspection? Because let’s face it, the job hasn’t been done, by a long chalk. I still find there is a huge need to win the argument for anti- behaviours.  Still, people lounge in the complacency of the non- space. The forces of discrimination and racism are so powerful, persistent and endemic. They are so damaging and far outnumber the scale of counteractions that we must insist on empowerful, constant and proactive interventions. 

Numerous studies show babies notice difference in skin colour and hair textures between the ages of six months and a year. Why wouldn’t they? They are wonderful things to celebrate. Young children have small worlds and they are drinking in their unique observations and information from their immediate environment(s). They are working out who they are and who the people around them connect together. During this time, there is so much practitioners and parents can do to promote positivity. Key here is good positive reinforcing body and verbal language and supporting curiosity and warm relationships. And where diversity does not exist, this needs to be included in the environment, in resources, imagery and the workforce. 

Later around the age of two years, when children are speaking, this is when it is crucial that positive language and attitudes are reinforced, questions are answered, and thinking is supported to embrace difference, tolerance and respect. Then as children get older and socialise more it’s vitally important that practitioners and parents counter the extensive forces of prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination. This is the time for all earlier behaviours and interventions to continue, and to be extended through debate, challenge, discussion and engaging high quality social and historical learning. A key principle is our anti- needs to be multi-faceted, relentless and constructive. The job starts in the early years, no one should forget that. In fact, they should take another long hard look at what more could and should be done. Its not too late, but we could have achieved a great deal more in this past 30 years. 

James Hempsall is director and founder of consultancy Hempsalls

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