This article first appeared in SecEd Magazine’s Summer Edition 2022, which was sent free of charge to every secondary school in the country. A digital edition is also available.
Earlier this year, my local MP Oliver Dowden gave a somewhat intriguing speech to the Heritage Foundation in the United States.
He claimed that the West is going through a “painful woke psychodrama” as we spend our time “obsessing over pronouns or indeed seeking to decolonise mathematics”.
Mr Dowden said that this particular form of “decadence” is “in our universities, but also in our schools” (Dowden, 2022). “We have made it clear to schools,” he later continued, “…that it is illegal to teach the concept of ‘white privilege’ as though it were undisputed fact.”
The new DfE guidance on teaching political issues
By pure coincidence, I am sure, the following day education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, issued guidance to schools on political impartiality (DfE, 2022).
Importantly, Mr Zahawi stated that: “No subject is off-limits in the classroom, as long as it is treated in an age-appropriate way, with sensitivity and respect, and without promoting contested theories as fact.”
The reactions to the guidance have been mixed. Some teaching organisations, such as the Association of Citizenship Teachers (ACT, 2022) and the National Association of Head Teachers, welcomed the guidance as generally fair and workable, whereas Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the guidance “does not so much clarify existing guidance as add new layers of mystification and complexity to it” and Amnesty International warned it could have a “chilling effect” in classrooms (SecEd, 2022; see also Peerbacos, 2022).
Some controversial points in the guidance, perhaps added as a nod to politicians like Mr Dowden, include advising schools rather pointedly to focus on teaching younger pupils about what “significant historical figures’’ are “most renowned for” as opposed to any “contested nature” of their lives.
It also suggests that any resources used to teach “political issues” should be vetted for bias. It specifically references Black Lives Matters as well as materials related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Quite where this leaves resources from charities or non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International and Oxfam is anyone’s guess, especially as some parents, interest groups and politicians may well see any facts that they do not like as political bias.
Moreover, the ages for the appropriate teaching of these issues are not specified nor is there any concrete definition of political issues themselves; we are instructed to use “reasonable judgement” to determine what is and is not a “political issue” in our classrooms.
Nevertheless, by and large, the guidance adds nothing new to the current legal duties placed on teachers when teaching political issues.
Reassuringly, in fact, we are told that certain issues are not controversial if they include “shared principles that underpin our society”, such as challenging racism and homophobia or advocating democracy (basically, anything taught as “British Values”). Despite my initial cynicism, the guidance is – in my view – largely sound.
Whatever an individual teacher’s views might be, it is important to remember that sections 406 and 407 of the 1966 Education Act prohibit the “promotion of partisan political views” in schools, as does – indirectly at least – Part 2 of the DfE’s 2011 Teachers’ Standards.
Headteachers, governors and education authorities are responsible for ensuring that teachers offer an objective presentation of opposing political views, and teachers need to be aware of their own biases. This is vital – if we expect students to think for themselves, we must teach them to do so rather than depending on the opinions of others.
So, how do we go about this without upsetting Mr Dowden and his colleagues? Here are some ideas:
Research and plan your lessons: This is not the most exciting point to make about teaching political issues, but without considering whether what you are teaching is a political issue, researching it with trusted sources or considering appropriate activities and timings, none of the below will be relevant.
Familiarise yourself with the pupils’ social, cultural and religious backgrounds: While this might only apply to the more sensitive political issues covered in subjects like citizenship and RE, try to ensure that any issues involving race or religious beliefs take these pupils into account. Pre-empt any concerns parents might have by discussing the content of your lessons with colleagues. It is important not to bypass any part of the curriculum here, but you might be wise to consider pupils’ sensitivities with issues like racism, poverty and armed conflict by forewarning them or offering time-out to overly affected pupils.
Always be balanced, especially in relation to competing political ideologies and party politics: Essentially, the law states we must not promote partisan political views and should offer a balanced overview of opposing views. For instance, in an assembly on elections, you should endeavour to give equal weight to the main political parties in the UK. Similarly, unless you are delivering a sequence of lessons evaluating conservatism or the labour movement at GCSE or A level, the same would apply to lessons dealing with social theories such as Marxism, feminism or the new right.
Keep your personal views to yourself: Considering the above point, this is the safest bet and adheres fully to the 1996 Education Act. It is technically not illegal to state your view per se, but any perceived pressure on pupils to follow your line of thought could land you in hot water. The Teachers’ Standards also make clear that we must ensure that “personal beliefs are not expressed in ways which exploit pupils’ vulnerability or might lead them to break the law”.
Focus on empirical facts or theoretical ideas, not emotions: Although politics is full of emotive assumptions, when teaching historical or recent events that could be deemed political, such as colonial history or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ensure you stick to the facts. Of course, include contrasting opinions, but make sure these are from relevant sources or commentators that add to the historical or political context of the events themselves – not just what you or your mate at the pub reckon. The same applies to theoretical ideas – even if lacking in empirical evidence themselves, teach the ideas for what they are, not what you deem them to be.
Encourage respectful debate: Politics is often about debating, so there is no harm in getting pupils to explore ideas by discussing both their opinions and the views of others. However, it is essential that you establish clear ground rules. These could include no calling out, no crude stereotyping, no personal attacks, and the avoidance of value-laden language.
Act as a neutral judge in class debates: This is a common approach, where the teacher is an objective manager of the discussion that ensues from the question they posed. Of course, the teacher will also police the discussion to make sure the rules emphasised above are respected. In some ways, this is similar to the chair on question and answer programmes like BBC Question Time.
Challenge extreme views, including conspiracy theories: Remember your Prevent training here – anything racist, misogynistic, homophobic etc must be appropriately challenged in class and then dealt with through safeguarding procedures. Moreover, while some conspiracy theories are benign or simply silly, others can be dangerous and may have implicit far-right or far-left messaging. Obvious examples include climate change denial and Holocaust distortion – however, you will need to challenge these in a more nuanced way. See Jovan Byford’s six rules of engagement (Byford, 2020), for instance.
Teach pupils to use trusted sources of information in class and at home: A lot of the above stems from mis- and disinformation on the web, such as social media, sensationalist clickbait and manipulated media. Perhaps model the use of trusted sources yourself by overtly using reliable organisations such as the BBC, Reuters or – for older pupils – peer-reviewed evidence.
Don’t be put off teaching politics by its controversial nature: Politics is part of life and political issues crop up in most curriculum subjects – avoiding it will limit pupils’ understanding of these subjects. The Advisory Group on Citizenship summed this up nicely way back in 1998 when it stated: “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.”
Hopefully these strategies are helpful and put wary teaching minds to rest. I also hope they reassure my local MP that we are not all overly woke “social justice warriors”. I am sure Mr Dowden is no modern day Meletus, but if he remains unconvinced he could always come and observe me teach.
Further information & resources
- ACT: New DfE guidance ‘political impartiality in schools’, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3Di2xOb
- Advisory Group on Teaching Citizenship in Schools, September 1998: https://bit.ly/3rqPqqc
- Byford: I’ve been talking to conspiracy theorists for 20 years – here are my six rules of engagement, The Open University: https://bit.ly/3NrZLup
- DfE: Teachers’ Standards, July 2011: https://bit.ly/3egw6Dv
- DfE: Guidance: Political impartiality in schools, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3s0EFLi
- DfE: Help for teachers and families to talk to pupils about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how to help them avoid misinformation, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3vOF0Tm
- Dowden: Standing up for our values, February 2022: https://bit.ly/36Xu7o8
- Hayward: Teaching Controversial Issues, Amnesty International, 2011: https://bit.ly/3tK2rfe
- Peerbacos: Dem tell me wha dem want to tell me, SecEd, March 2022: https://bit.ly/3iEPiO3
- SecEd: A chilling effect: Unease at political impartiality advice for schools, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3H0cSP5
- Welsh Government/Association of Citizenship Teachers guidance on remaining impartial, May 2021: https://bit.ly/3qCZwD6
Photo credit: Michael D. Beckwith via Wikicommons (used under a Creative Commons Licence)