The cyber waves have been boiling recently with dire warnings about England's descent into fascism because of guidance the Department for Education [DfE] recently published. Really! Some people should get out more, read some Nazi or DDR history, or talk to a few Jewish families before they sound off carelessly about fascism.
It seems that the DfE has warned schools against using resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters, and cited anti-capitalism as one example of an extreme political stance. I saw one MP quoted as saying: "On this basis it will be illegal to refer to large tracts of British history and politics including the history of British socialism, the Labour Party and trade unionism, all of which have at different times advocated the abolition of capitalism."
As Joanna Williams wrote on Spiked, a writer at the ever-hilarious Canary tweeted: "Under new guidelines the Johnson government is banning from schools in England works by William Godwin, William Morris, JB Priestley, Noam Chomsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Orwell and many others who critiqued the economic model of the established order." And some teachers (unnamed) were said to see this as a ban on the work of Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge. All merely hyped hysteria.
As it turns out, the new curriculum guidance is about relationships, sex and health education, not radical Romantic poets. This is part of what it had to say:
From September 2020 all schools must consider the statutory guidance when teaching relationships, sex and health education. Working with , we have developed these training modules to help schools:
- improve teacher knowledge and confidence when teaching this curriculum
- develop and plan their curriculum
At all times when developing curriculum and teaching relationships, sex and health education, maintained schools must comply with their duties under the 1996 Education Act regarding political impartiality. The local authority, governing body and head teacher must:
- forbid the pursuit of partisan political activities by junior pupils
- forbid the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school
- take reasonably practicable steps to secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views
You should be aware that the meaning of political issues does not refer solely to the discussion of party politics. Schools are advised to consider the range of issues on which there could be political views, which may include global affairs, equalities issues, religion and economics. The Independent School Standards, which apply to all independent schools (and most of which apply to academies) have similar provisions relating to the promotion of partisan political views and offering a balanced presentation of opposing views.
Much if not all of this is a restatement of the existing law in an updated context. This is what the guidance goes on to say:
Schools should not under any circumstances work with external agencies that take or promote extreme positions or use materials produced by such agencies. Examples of extreme positions include, but are not limited to:
- promoting non-democratic political systems rather than those based on democracy, whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise
- teaching that requirements of English civil or criminal law may be disregarded whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise
- engaging in or encouraging active or persistent harassment or intimidation of individuals in support of their cause
- promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society
- selecting and presenting information to make unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions
If such agencies are mentioned during lessons, for example as a result of questions from children, teachers should ensure they discuss them appropriately and impartially. In cases where an agency endorses extreme positions as well as moderate positions or positive goals, teachers should carefully explain the distinction between the two and, where appropriate, point out other agencies which are working towards the same goals but which have not adopted extreme political stances.
It is important to be clear about what you want from an external agency, tool or resource. You should consider the range of options available to ensure what you use is best suited and appropriate to your school and pupils and are of a high quality and sufficient value. If you are using external speakers to deliver part of the curriculum, then it is important to make sure the expert and any tool or resource they might use meets the outcome of that part of the curriculum. External experts and resources can also be useful for developing curriculum planning ideas, activities and identifying age-appropriate outcomes. It is important that you review any case study material and look for feedback from others they have worked with. You should be clear what they are going to say and what their position on the issues to be discussed are. You should ask to see any materials that external agencies may use in advance. Make sure you know the named individuals who will be there, any need for Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks and that there is an agreed protocol should any safeguarding issue arise, for example from a disclosure. You should also conduct a basic online search (as parents and carers may do this). It is important that anything you or parents and carers would be concerned about is addressed beforehand. Before a session with an external speaker, it is important to check protocols for taking pictures or using any personal data the external speaker may get from the session. Remember teachers should not be afraid to say ‘no’, or in extreme cases stop a session. These are your pupils and you are responsible for what is said to them. It is good practice for the teacher to be in the room, so they know what was discussed and can follow up with their pupils. They will also understand what has been discussed if a pupil makes a disclosure later.
"Any materials you intend to use should align with the teaching requirements set out in the statutory guidance. Many organisations actively promote external resources to schools. You should assess all resources carefully to ensure they are age appropriate, meet the outcome of the relevant part of the curriculum, and are in line with your school’s legal duties in relation to impartiality. Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances include, but are not limited to:
- a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections
- opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience
- the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications
- the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity
- a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property"
So, nothing to do with Shelley, Orwell, Priestley or, say, David Hare. Just a restatement, for our distressed times, of the rules of engagement around impartiality in the classroom. Would I have gone quite as far as this had I been Secretary of State? Probably not. For example, I would not have included "capitalism," in "a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections". But I'd have placed a duty on all advocating this to explain what would be in its place, and the advantages and disadvantages it offered. But that's the thing about political pendulums, there's a tendency to over-swing.