A chilling effect: Unease at political impartiality advice for schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Partisan? New DfE guidance suggests teaching about movements such as Black Lives Matter could break impartiality rules (image: Adobe Stock)

“A chilling effect.” Deep concerns have been voiced about the impact that the government’s guidance on political impartiality in schools could have on open classroom discussions.

The guidance suggests that teaching about movements such as Black Lives Matter could break the rules on teaching about “partisan political views”.

It suggests that advocating specific views on “how government resources should be used to address social issues” could be considered “partisan”.

It states on climate change, “where teaching covers the potential solutions for tackling climate change, this may constitute a political issue”.

It advises that when teaching younger students about historical figures, “it may be advisable to focus on teaching about what these figures are most renowned for and factual information about them”.

Critics of the guidance (DfE, 2022), which has been published by the Department for Education, say that rather than clarifying existing legal duties for schools, it adds “new layers of mystification and complexity” and introduces “obfuscation about what is and is not a ‘political’ issue”.

For his part, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has stressed that “no subject is off-limits in the classroom”, as long as it is treated with “sensitivity” and without “promoting contested theories as fact”.

The guidance itself states: “We are clear that this guidance does not seek to limit the range of political issues and viewpoints schools can and do teach about. This guidance should support those working with and in schools to understand the relevant legal duties.”

These duties include the Education Act 1996 which forbids the promotion of “partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school” (Section 406) and requires that when political issues are discussed, pupils are “offered a balanced presentation of opposing views” (Section 407).

The Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011) also state that teachers must ensure that “personal beliefs are not expressed in ways which exploit pupils’ vulnerability or might lead them to break the law”.

Critics say that the existing legislation makes the new guidance “unneces-sary”, but many are concerned about the Orwellian feel to many of the “scenarios” the DfE uses to illustrate what political impartiality might look like in school.

The most controversial is perhaps on Black Lives Matters. The guidance states: “Where schools wish to teach about specific campaigning organisations, such as some of those associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, they should be aware that this may cover partisan political views. These are views which go beyond the basic shared principle that racism is unacceptable, which is a view schools should reinforce. Examples of such partisan political views include advocating specific views on how government resources should be used to address social issues.”

Rowena Seabrook, humans rights education manager at Amnesty International UK, said: “Suggesting that teachers should not use material from social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter is entirely partisan, and lacks balance and safe spaces for students to explore issues labelled ‘controversial’.

“The government’s guidance points out that freedom of speech shouldn’t be undermined, so it’s perfectly reasonable to allow schools to examine topics like these from a variety of viewpoints – including leading social justice organisations.”

Ms Seabrook said that the guidance is “unnecessary and it will have a chilling effect in classrooms across the country”.

The guidance does clarify that the requirement for a “balanced presentation of opposing views” on political issues does not mean that pupils must be taught about an opposite view to every view which is covered or that those views cannot be critically assessed. It adds: “Schools can teach about partisan political views effectively, without breaching their legal duties on political impartiality.”

Elsewhere, the guidance also advises schools that if a teacher suggests to pupils that a certain political system is the “fairest” or “best”, they could be asked to “clarify” this statement: “It may be advisable and proportionate to ask the teacher to clarify during their next lesson that this is not an uncontested fact and was in fact their own personal partisan political view.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We note Nadhim Zahawi’s intention that he ‘does not seek to limit the range of political issues that schools can and do teach about’. But in practice his guidance will have the opposite effect.

“The guidance does not so much clarify existing guidance as add new layers of mystification and complexity to it. This could induce such a level of uncertainty and caution in schools about ‘political issues’ that they are less likely to engage with them.”

She accused the DfE of playing a “game of obfuscation about what is and is not a ‘political’ issue” which will ultimately deny students “the opportunity to engage with the most challenging issues of our time”.

The guidance comes after a Nottingham primary school was criticised for asking its year 6 pupils as part of an English lesson to write to their local MP to share their views (Noble, 2022).

This led to a letter which criticised prime minister Boris Johnson over the “partygate” affair. It sparked a backlash from right-wing commentators, with Mr Zahawi commenting that schools should not encourage pupils "to pin their colours to a political mast". The school says that pupils were simply being encouraged to “express their thoughts”.

In launching the new guidance, Mr Zahawi said: “I don’t want there to be any barriers – real or perceived – to teachers’ vital work in this space, which is why I am reinforcing 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.”

School leaders are also cautious in their “welcoming” of this guidance. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Schools must be enabled to feel confident in approaching political, sensitive, or controversial issues in the classroom and this guidance should offer clarity and support where that is needed. There remains a risk that it could create unnecessary anxiety or fear about tackling these issues and we must ensure that does not come to fruition.”

His counterpart at the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, added: “It has never been more important to facilitate and encourage discussions about political and contemporaneous issues as it is now. Young people are exposed to a swirl of misinformation online, and an increasingly toxic discourse on social media as well as in political debate among those who should know better. Schools have a vital role in providing a safe space in which young people can examine and understand controversial issues.

“The vast majority of teachers are very good at managing these discussions in a way that is balanced and impartial. We welcome anything which helps them to navigate this difficult territory. However, we are keen that this should not be over-prescriptive as it could have the unintended consequence of deterring open discussions.

“We will be studying the guidance carefully to understand its implications.”

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