Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, an expert in education who was cancelled from Rethinking Education’s 2023 Conference, has been replatformed.
Dr Cuthbert has been a member of the Ofsted advisory panel on English and given evidence to the all-party parliamentary group inquiry on knowledge and skills in education. She has published academic work on the relationship between public morality, democracy and education.
Cuthbert was due to speak in a debate titled ‘What is indoctrination within education and how can we avoid it?’ to be held at the Rethinking Education 2023 Conference. Rethinking Education is an independent company which provides services to schools aimed at improving education.
Seven delegates and speakers to the conference contacted Rethinking Education to say that Cuthbert’s involvement in the debate would make them feel so psychologically unsafe that they would not attend if she was allowed to speak. The delegates cited Cuthbert’s role as the director of Don’t Divide Us, a UK anti-racist organisation which rejects Critical Race Theory.
Two days prior to the conference, on the 21st September, Rethinking Education caved in, and cancelled Cuthbert’s place in the debate. Dr James Mannion, director of Rethinking Education, contacted Cuthbert with several justifications for cancelling her attendance.
Mannion first argued that cancelling Dr Cuthbert was necessary to safeguard the adults who claimed that her presence would make them feel unsafe. Cuthbert replied that safeguarding pertains to children, not adults. Mannion then argued that the “logistics” favoured cancellation: it would be easier to amend a conference program with one speaker absent than with seven. Ease of reorganisation was prioritised over freedom of speech. Finally, Mannion argued that ‘psychological safety’ is a precondition of free debate. But if “psychological safety” requires not hearing views you disagree with civilly expressed by experts, then psychological safety is incompatible with free debate.
These three arguments put forward by Mannion are transparently weak. The most charitable conclusion that can be drawn is that Rethinking Education had given extremely superficial consideration to the “values of free speech and open debate” that they “hold so dear”. In solidarity with Cuthbert, all three other scheduled speakers in the debate declined to participate. Rethinking Education responded by cancelling the debate.
Cuthbert then contacted the Free Speech Union, who wrote a letter to Dr Mannion asking Rethinking Education to apologise to Dr Cuthbert and provide her with an opportunity to speak in future. Rethinking Education have since issued an apology. The cancelled debate was hosted by the Free Speech Union on the 16th October; Rethinking Education have offered to show a video of it on their website. Rethinking Education are to be commended for their apology and their efforts to replatform Dr Cuthbert. They should not have acquiesced to demands that free speech be restricted.