More than 80 leading academics specialising in the field of education and social sciences have accused the government of misrepresenting critical race theory in a controversial crackdown on teaching materials in schools.

In a letter to the Guardian, senior figures from University College London’s Institute of Education said they were concerned about a pattern of statements and guidance from politicians “proscribing” certain resources and bodies of work from classrooms.

It follows guidance issued by the Department for Education in September that said schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take “extreme political stances”.“This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation,” the guidance stated. Examples included groups who had expressed a desire to end capitalism.

At the time, the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators (Care) and Black Educators Alliance (BEA) warned the guidance would prevent teachers from using material from groups including Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, limiting anti-racism teaching.Then last month the women and equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, said teachers who presented the idea of white privilege as a fact to their students were breaking the law and described critical race theory as “an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood and their whiteness as oppression”.

The UCL Institute of Education is the UK’s leading centre for studies in education and related disciplines. The signatories to the letter said they were particularly concerned about the misrepresentation of critical race theory, which they described as a well established, diverse body of work, and warned against stifling debate and critical thinking in education.

They said: “At a time when racism is on the rise, in Britain and globally, teachers and pupils can benefit from the tools and resources developed by critical race theorists to understand how racism operates across society, including in education.

“To target this body of theory at this moment in time amounts to an attack on Black scholars and activists who are already struggling against racial injustice.”

Instead of limiting the range of ideas on offer, teachers should be encouraging their students’ critical capacities and political agency through informed engagement with a wide range of resources, the letter said.

Dissent, diversity and critique were “the lifeblood of democracy” and of educational experience, the letter said, and it warned policymakers they were in danger of stifling the climate of pluralism on which democracy depends.

“At a time when democratic institutions and hard won commitments to equalities are under threat from populist politicians, and when a human-made environmental crisis threatens communities and individuals, classrooms should be places of creative, critical thinking and engagement with ideas that can help society move towards more just and sustainable ways of living.

“The recent student climate marches and the Black Lives Matter protests have demonstrated that young people are only too aware of current injustices and willing to act collectively for change.

“As educators, we should be supporting and encouraging their critical capacities and political agency through informed engagement with a wide range of resources. Attempts to limit the range of ideas on offer undermine this core educational and democratic goal.”

Responding to the letter, a DfE spokesman said: “Where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, it is important they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views. We have provided guidance and training resources to equip schools to do this, which is intended to promote tolerance and respect. We expect all schools to comply with this guidance, which will be covered by Ofsted’s inspection regime.”

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