Teaching Controversial Issues: some basic advice for teachers

First posted on Tales From The Reach on 8 November 2018

Many things seem to be dividing us at the moment. In UK we are still arguing about Brexit, debating what to do about knife crime and questioning our country’s place in the world. In the US, we see mid-term election campaigns that include arguments about racism, gun control, abortion and how to make (or what makes) America great. In response, everyone has an opinion as the media saturates us with arguing pundits and accusations of ‘fake news’ and bias from all sides. It seems – at times – that everything is controversial. Subsequently, pupils will often pick up on this and ask questions to those they think may have the best answers, which includes us – their teachers. This may make some of us panic, whilst others relish these opportunities. So, how should we approach controversial issues in the classroom?

In 1998, the government’s Advisory Group on Citizenship defined a controversial issue as ‘…an issue about which there is no one fixed or universally held point of view. Such issues are those which commonly divide society and for which significant groups offer conflicting explanations and solutions’ (1998: 56). Although the Advisory Group advocated teaching these issues, some commentators have suggested that pupils should not be exposed to controversial issues at all. For example, Scruton et. al. (1985; cited in Cowen and Maitles, 2012, p. 2) have argued that political and social issues should not be taught to children under 16 years old, which would rule out much of the content in the subjects I teach (Religious Education and Sociology). Despite disagreeing with this point of view, I would stress the importance of a thoughtful approach to these sensitive issues.

Moreover, controversial issues are something most of us at The Reach Free School will teach at some time. For example, REACH Time, RE, psychology, sociology, science and English amongst others are full of controversial issues. From issues such as mental health and immigration to domestic violence and alcoholism, our curriculum is chock-a-block with emotive issues that can really get debate going and feelings running high. Although this has its benefits for engaging pupils in debate, it also needs to be facilitated with sensitivity and care. There will be pupils in your class that have been affected by the issues we teach.

In my previous schools, I have taught pupils with family members in prison, relatives who had committed suicide or parents who were going through difficult divorces; I am sure you have or will, too. It is important to also remember that these social issues are not only related to pupils from “difficult” backgrounds, but can potentially affect pupils from any walk of life at any time. However, it is absolutely essential that we do not shy away from these subjects as they are part of the social world we are teaching our pupils about. The Advisory Group on Citizenship summed this up nicely by stating that, ‘Education should not attempt to shelter our nation’s children from even the harsher controversies of adult life, but should prepare them to deal with controversies knowledgeably, sensibly, tolerantly and morally’ (1998, 56). This can be applied to REACH Time in particular as it covers a lot of similar ground to citizenship education.

Some ground rules for teaching controversial issues

It is important, then, that we endeavour to teach controversial issues whilst maintaining some ground rules for both ourselves and our students.

Firstly, we should be aware of our pupils’ home life as far as is possible. Of course, child protection issues are dealt with through school policies and may not necessarily be shared with you, but it is important to liaise with Heads of House or Sixth Form so that you are aware of any issues at home that may upset certain pupils or lead to issues in class. If there are controversial issues coming up, it may be sensible to:

  • notify Heads of House/Deputy Heads of House or Sixth Form;
  • discuss any pupils that may be affected with form tutors, Heads of House and Sixth Form;
  • delicately let potentially affected pupils know that the topics are coming up;
  • offer an alternative place to learn if they feel uneasy with the content;
  • call home to discuss the situation with parents (this point may be very sensitive and must be done in consultation with the school’s pastoral staff to avoid making matters worse);
  • familiarise yourself with the pupils’ social, cultural and religious backgrounds to ensure that any issues involving race or religious beliefs take these pupils into account.

Secondly, we should set clear ground rules for discussion and debate on these issues. These apply to us as much as they do the pupils. Ground rules for dealing with controversial issues include:

  • no calling out;
  • no interrupting others;
  • no name-calling;
  • no crude stereotyping;
  • no personal attacks;
  • avoidance of value-laden language;
  • no sarcasm.

Moreover, it is then worth emphasising some other general rules, such as encouraging:

  • thinking before speaking (perhaps facilitate this);
  • active listening;
  • a focus on empirical facts or theoretical ideas, not emotions;
  • an avoidance of over simplifications of complex issues;
  • a pupil/teacher agreement that when you end the discussion, it must end.

This should make the teaching of controversial issues easier. It is important to remember that we are preparing pupils for the real world and that they will not be young, naive children forever, so controversial issues will be relevant to learning from time to time in the right circumstances.


Advisory Group on Citizenship (1998) Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, London: DfEE.

Cowan, P. and Maitles, H. (eds.) (2012) Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom: Key Issues and Debates, London: Continuum.

Hayward, J. (2011) Teaching Controversial Issues, London: Amnesty International. Available online at: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/sites/default/files/teaching_controversial_issues_2.pdf [Retrieved 13/06/13].

Huddleston, T. (2003) Teaching About Controversial Issues: guidance for schools, London:Citizenship Foundation. Available online at: http://www.citizenshipfoundation.org.uk/lib_res_pdf/0118.pdf [Retrieved 13/06/13].

Scruton, R., Ellis-Jones, A. and O’Keefe, D. (1985) Education and Indoctrination, Harrow: Education Research Centre.

Picture credit: Max Pixel – used under a Creative Commons Licence

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