NSEAD Members' response to the Sewell Report

NSEAD stands in solidarity with those members of our community whose experiences of institutional racism were diminished and dismissed through the publication of The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: report or ‘Sewell Report’ published 31 March.

As NSEAD members participate in both arts and scholarly communities, it is difficult to respond to the Sewell Report precisely because it appears to have been written in bad faith. Less concerned with explaining patterns of racial inequality, the report’s intention is to inflame ‘the culture wars’. In other words, the report is designed to paint those committed to antiracism as irrational and unreasonable in their criticisms. As such, this very statement of solidarity from NSEAD fits precisely the pattern that the report anticipates. And yet, the Sewell Report’s absurd contention that structural racism does not exist is allowed to stand if NSEAD chooses not to respond. So, NSEAD is responding with this statement knowing that this option is the least worst choice.

NSEAD is committed to anti-racism because we recognise that racism is foundational to how and why art, craft and design have come to matter. Historically, the constructed category of the fine arts, as well as notions of aesthetic beauty, emerged to buttress ideological claims that white Europeans were superior as a race. In this way, the fine arts are entangled in providing the epistemic foundations for British historical atrocities, including colonialism and the enslavement of African people. And, of course, education in and through the arts was not exempt from this violent history. Indeed, Gustavus Zerffi, one of the most influential 19th-century voices on teaching British art teachers and teachers of art history, developed his pedagogic principles based on eugenic racial science.

Today, we see the enduring afterlife of this history in the creative and cultural industries in Britain, where, for example, almost every industry other than IT is more white than the UK as a whole. In the creative industries representation of professionals from ethnically diverse communities has declined by 2000 since 2009, reducing representation to just 5.4 percent of the total workforce. Another indicator of structural racism in our field as that most scholars in the UK, who study the creative and cultural industries, are also white. According to data in 2017/18 undergraduate arts degree courses saw an 86 percent enrolment by students classified as white, placing arts degrees subjects 15th out of 19 in terms of representation. This was down from 87 per cent four years earlier, in 2014/15. Arts educators have also called attention to the ways in which racist ideologies are in play through cultural appropriation, whereby one community adopts or steals icons, symbols, rituals, aesthetic standards and representations of another community in ways to assert its dominance. And, our racialised teachers and students, particularly Black teachers and pupils, are subjected to dehumanising experiences of racism in schools, from overt racist comments to the teaching and normalisation of white Eurocentric curricula. 

We are also deeply troubled by the antagonistic critique of students of diverse ethnic communities which are pitted against each other: The Report states (page 7) that the achievements of African students are the result of ‘immigrant optimism’. This is pitted against the troubling provocation, indeed assertion: ‘As their Caribbean peers sit in the same classroom, it is difficult to blame racism in education for the latter’s underachievement.’ Such divisive and antagonist language is just one example of the missed opportunities to better acknowledge, understand and remove systemic racism in education. 

We are concerned with the recommendation on page 8 which proposes the publication of a teaching resource, ‘The Making of Modern Britain’. The Report says ‘we have argued against bringing down statues, instead, we want all children to reclaim their British heritage’. We ask the Report’s writers what ‘reclaiming British heritage’ means given that this lens will deny valuing all students’ heritage and the cultural capital this can offers. Any attempt to ‘reclaim British heritage’ must include all of British history – including the many nuanced migrant stories that have always and continue to be part of the UK. What it means to be British for so many of us includes a wonderful fusion of ethnic and cultural inputs. 

Furthermore, the report’s aspiration to ‘reclaim their British heritage’ is at odds with a curriculum which addresses the UK’s entanglements in the transatlantic enslavement of African people, the impact of colonial rule, the richness of pre-colonial civilisations and communities and the diversity and distinctiveness within Indigenous populations. 

After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, NSEAD recognised that it must step up its efforts to both critically examine its own complicities in racism and take new steps to promote anti-racist education in arts and design education.  Government data from 2017, showed that only six per cent of art and design teachers were from ethnically diverse communities, which compared to 31 percent of the student population. This lack of correlation shows that the teaching profession is highly unrepresentative, reflecting a long-standing and systematic lack of diversity in the profession. As a community of art professionals, which includes initial teacher educators, we must and will address this. The removal of art and design bursaries for trainee teachers this year will not help initial teacher educator providers in this endeavour. A further recommendation therefore is for the Government to immediately address representation of ethnically diverse communities in the teaching profession – reinstating art and design trainee teacher bursaries is one step towards achieving this. 

NSEAD has publicly established targets for setting and delivering promises on racial justice throughout our organisation and beyond. The Society’s Anti-Racist Art Education Action Group was formed to both check and guide NSEAD in this endeavour. In so doing, we recognise that arts education has a critical role to play in countering racism. Indeed, the arts provide a powerful mechanism for communities to construct meaning and fashion identities, to experience joy and pleasure, and to construct and experiment with new forms and social alternatives. With the publication of the Sewell Report we also renew our calls to NSEAD members, partner organisations and policy makers, to be actively anti-racist. We reject the findings of the Sewell Report and ask its authors to make repair, promote racial tolerance and oppose racism.


Dr. Tyler Denmead, NSEAD, Lecturer of Arts and Creativity in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

NSEAD Anti-racist Art Education Action Group