Training early years teachers can help them to understand "white privilege" and "systemic racism", a group of experts says in new guidance published last night.
In the advice for teaching children up to five years old, the Early Years Coalition, formed of 16 organisations including the UK's largest teachers' union, also says that "encouraging dialogue and conversation about difference" can help children "recognise racist behaviours" and "develop anti-racist views".
The comments are included in the "Birth to 5 Matters" document, which is intended as an alternative to the government's non-statutory guidance accompanying the reformed Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), titled "Development Matters".
Yesterday, an independent report on institutional racism in the UK, produced by the government's Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, controversially asked whether a narrative claiming that the "dominant feature of our society is institutional racism and white privilege" would "achieve anything beyond alienating the decent centre ground".
"Phrases like 'white privilege' and 'white fragility' imply that it is white people's attitudes and behaviours that primarily cause the disadvantage experienced by ethnic minorities," the report said.
"It also reinforces the perception that being an ethnic minority in the UK is to be treated unfairly by default.
"The evidence we have studied does not support this. The commission rejects this approach, believes it fails to identify the real causes for disparities and that it is counterproductive and divisive."
EYFS teachers 'need to understand systemic racism'
But the "Birth to 5 Matters" guidance says that early years teachers should be trained to understand both "white privilege" and "systematic racism".
Under the "inclusive practice and equalities" section, the guidance says: "Practitioner training is an important step toward opening dialogue and developing understanding about white privilege, systemic racism, and how racism affects children and families in early years settings.
"It is also time to challenge the widespread notion that 'children do not see race' and are colour blind to difference. When adults are silent about race, children's racial prejudice and misconceptions can be maintained or reinforced."
Yesterday's report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities also described how the authors felt that an "unexplored approach to closing disparity gaps was to examine the extent individuals and their communities could help themselves through their own agency, rather than wait for invisible external forces to assemble to do the job".
But the "Birth to 5 Matters" guidance says that conversations about difference should be encouraged, to "break down false assumptions about everyone being able to succeed on their merits".
"It is a mistaken assumption that treating all people in the same way and ignoring differences in race is a sufficient response to racism," it says.
"This approach simply allows the continuation of bias in society which disadvantages people from black and minoritised groups. Instead of a colour-blind approach to race, more proactive anti-racism is needed."
It adds: "Encouraging dialogue and conversation about difference can evoke children's strong sense of fairness and break down false assumptions about everyone being able to succeed on their merits, so that children recognise racist behaviours and develop anti-racist views."
In the background to the guidance, the coalition says that it wants to "support practitioners to develop their curriculum and pedagogy to reflect contemporary issues such as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter, ensuring sustainable development and growing up in a digital age".
Launching the guidance yesterday, Early Years Coalition chair Beatrice Merrick said: "We are delighted to offer this support to the early years sector as they look ahead to implementing the revised EYFS from September.
"It is a rich resource which will support knowledge of child development and how children learn, and help practitioners make their own professional judgements about meeting the needs of the children they work with."
The government's official "Development Matters" guidance does not contain any mention of the words "racism" or "white privilege".
However, it does say that children aged up to 3 will be learning to "notice differences between people".
Under "examples of how to support this", it says: "Model positive attitudes about the differences between people including differences in race and religion. Support children's acceptance of difference. Have resources which include:
- Positive images of people who are disabled.
- Books and play materials that reflect the diversity of life in modern Britain, including racial and religious diversity.
- Materials which confront gender stereotypes."
The Department for Education has been approached for comment.