In a recent set of guidance on the teaching of sex, relationships and mental health, the Department for Education clarified its position on political impartiality in schools. The document reminds headteachers of their responsibility to ensure that, ‘where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views,’ and makes it clear that ‘the meaning of political issues does not refer solely to the discussion of party politics.’
I have no desire whatsoever for schools to impose an ideology on young people, but I simply do not think the DfE’s position stands up to scrutiny. The problem arises over what we mean by a political issue. If we go back to its classical Greek origins, the term ‘politics’ referred to matters pertaining to the polis, or city-state. In other words, it described public affairs, in which the entire community had an interest, as opposed to private concerns of the individual household. Unless we confine ourselves to a much narrower definition, consisting of merely the activities of politicians, I think this is the only option on the table. The DfE document certainly appears to subscribe to a broad definition, since it explicitly mentions ‘global affairs, equalities issues, religion and economics’ as potential political matters. If we adopt such an understanding, we end up with an awful lot which counts as political, including plenty of things which schools routinely do not present in a balanced way.
Concerns have been raised by some that uncritical promotion of the Black Lives Matter movement in schools contravenes the ruling on political balance, and they may well be right. I certainly think it would be a wise course of action for school staff to familiarise themselves with the BLM organisation a little more, not least because it describes itself as ‘an ideological and political intervention’ so can hardly be accused of trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes on this point.
However, people tend to be very good at calling foul over the actions and views of those they disagree with, and less effective at spotting the inconsistencies in their own approach. For example, I would argue that the annual Poppy Appeal is also a political intervention and that the Royal British Legion, which states that it aims ‘to represent the interests of the Armed Forces community’ and to influence the government on this issue, is a political organisation. Therefore any school holding an act of remembrance and promoting the Poppy Appeal uncritically is failing to demonstrate the required balance. To be clear, much as I am not entirely comfortable with public remembrance, I am not arguing that schools should be banned from recognising such events, but trying to demonstrate that political neutrality in education is an illusion.
To give another example, adherence to the rule of law is a political issue. Indeed, the DfE identifies it as one of the ‘fundamental British values’. So when I challenge students about their behaviour and explain that we all have a duty to follow rules, since they exist for the benefit of the entire community, am I duty bound to point out that I am merely expressing an opinion and that other people, perhaps those of a more freedom-loving disposition than me, see rules as something to be shrugged off? Nobody in their right mind would think so, but according to the letter of the law, I should do exactly that. The fact that the DfE requires me to actively promote British values, whilst simultaneously insisting that I present opposing views about political issues, reveals the contradictions at the heart of its own position.
What point am I trying to make? It is certainly not that we should seek every opportunity to indoctrinate students into whatever set of beliefs we happen to hold. In fact, I think we should be very vigilant to avoid presenting our opinions as indisputable fact. But I do not think it is feasible to insist that schools should be balanced about every political issue, because this covers so much of school life, including the content of the curriculum and the refusal to tolerate racism or sexism. In the interests of balance, we would be forced to represent every alternative viewpoint on every issue, no matter how poorly informed or damaging, including climate change denial, Holocaust denial and the argument that ethnic minority groups should be expelled from Britain. There is very little we do in schools which does not have a political element when we think about it carefully. Indeed, educating young people at taxpayers’ expense is a political act in itself, since it is about investing in the future of the entire community. There is no education without politics.
So if a blanket ban on the promotion of political positions is futile, how do we prevent unscrupulous individuals from hijacking schooling to push their own agendas? Firstly, the education authorities can stipulate certain positions which should be promoted and prohibit others, as they do with British values (although I would dispute the British label). But it would be unfeasible (and undesirable) for them to attempt to cover everything in this way. Perhaps more importantly, if we cannot, and indeed should not, avoid all bias in our provision to students, the least we can do is give them the tools to deconstruct and critique what they learn. We have a duty to teach disciplinary knowledge through the curriculum, enabling students to understand what constitutes a valid claim in the different fields of study and how orthodoxy can be overturned. In my own subject of history, this is most strikingly represented by high quality work on interpretations, showing students that historical narratives are provisional and contested, rather than received truth. By teaching students disciplinary knowledge, we hand them the tools which will ultimately make it possible for them to dismantle the entire educational edifice we are building. If, one day, they use them for this purpose and reject what they have been taught by applying knowledge and mature reason, rather than as an act of rebelliousness for its own sake, we should take it as the greatest compliment to our work. Empowering students in this way is a far better safeguard against political indoctrination than insistence on an imaginary neutrality, which would undermine the very foundations of state schooling.
Of course, teaching students to challenge orthodoxies is another deeply political act. That doesn’t bother me, but please don’t tell the DfE!