What's (not) political?

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

I made a brief input the other to a webinar where I addressed this question:

  • What are the potential conflicts between, say, the agenda of an NGO and the educational responsibilities of a school?

Here's what I said:

The Law

I’m not sure there are conflicts – but there are certainly differences.  Schools and NGOs have different responsibilities and work within different legal frameworks.  School responsibilities are set out in Education Acts.  They have particular legal duties in relation to political impartiality.  In brief, they have to be careful with issues that are political in nature.  The law says that they ...

  • must not promote partisan political views in teaching
  • should offer a balanced presentation of opposing views when political issues are brought to the attention of pupils

Hence schools need to be more careful than NGOs do, though they also have limits.  But this doesn’t mean that schools cannot raise political issues.  Far from it.  It’s a question of being careful and appropriate.


The DfE’s sustainability and climate change policy has a section on political impartiality.

DfE says:

“Teaching about climate change, and the scientific facts and evidence behind this, does not constitute teaching about a political issue and schools do not need to present misinformation or unsubstantiated claims to provide balance.

However, in climate education there is relevant political and scientific debate about the best ways that climate change can be addressed – there are different views and opinions, and different solutions.

Debates on political and policy change need to be grounded in wider citizenship education on democracy and democratic values and topics should be handled in line with schools’ legal duties on political impartiality

So, what are these, and what do we need to know about political impartiality in schools?

DfE says:

"Teaching about political issues and the different views held on these is an essential part of a broad and balanced curriculum, and an important way in which schools help pupils to become active citizens who are prepared for life in modern Britain.

Legal duties on political impartiality do not limit the range of political issues and viewpoints schools can and do teach about.  Instead, they should help ensure teachers and staff do this in an appropriate manner, building pupils’ ability to form their own views and opinions.

You should always take a reasonable and proportionate approach to political impartiality.  This should not interfere with effective teaching and meeting other responsibilities, including promoting shared principles that underpin our society such as tolerance and respect.

It is also important that concerns from parents, carers and others about political impartiality are always treated seriously and handled with sensitivity."

In simple terms, legal duties on political impartiality mean that schools:

  • [i] must not promote partisan political views in teaching

This means you must not encourage pupils to support or adopt a one- sided viewexpressed with a political purpose.  This covers many of the policies of political parties, as well as some views held by campaign groups, lobbyist, charitable organisations and other external agencies.  But,  you can of course teach about partisan political views and explore them with pupils.  This will be an important part of teaching about many historical and political issues

Schools ….

  • [ii] should offer a balanced presentation of opposing views when political issues are brought to the attention of pupils

 This means you should present different views on political issues in a fair and dispassionate way, avoiding bias.  Teachers and staff will need to use their own reasonable judgement when it comes to balance. It is preferable, where practical, to present pupils with a reasonable range of views on a political issue.  This doesn’t mean that different views are always given equal time in teaching or cannot be critically assessed.  When taking steps to ensure balance you should not do anything that would be clearly inappropriate or undermine effective teaching.  You should also continue to challenge misinformation and extreme views, such as those based on discrimination and prejudice.  You may need to think carefully about what is and is not a political issue.  There is DfE guidance providing more detail on this.

Some issues are clearly political, such as those relating to ongoing government activity, whilst other political issues may not relate to government at all.  As NAEE reported last year, Laura Hughes of Lawyers Browne Jacobson said this about the draft climate and education strategy:

“Schools are also directed not to encourage pupils to join campaigning groups, or take part in protests.”

She added: “Crucially, schools are not instructed to actively discourage pupils from taking this path.”


These policies are in place for the protection of students, of teachers, of schools and of society.  If you are doubtful about the wisdom of this, just think of something you don’t like – capital punishment, perhaps, or forced sterilisation, and ask yourself whether you'd like schools to be able to promote this to the young with no restrictions.

In the end it boils down to determining what's political and then dealing with it appropriately – or maybe what's not political ...

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations


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  • Excellent post about balance and the need to educate with discernment when the topics are so often framed through a dominant worldview and politically charged narrative. We should not shy away from teaching the hard questions, but it is crucial that students understand that alternative perspectives exist that influence decision-making. Teaching them discernment is as critical as teaching the 'right' facts.