School Activism and Action Competence

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

I see that the Ministry of Eco Education is hosting an online panel discussion exploring Activism in Schools on Monday December 4th.  The event is "to enable young people, academics and educators to discuss the role of activism in education" exploring: What do we mean by activism?  What examples have you seen of activism working well in schools?  Where, for you, is the line?  How can we encourage and facilitate more activism in schools?  These questions suggest a bias towards activism which is fair enough.  You can sign up here.

If I were a school / academy trust Chair of governors, I’d want a clear policy on student and staff activism, caught as the governing body would be between student / staff interest and passions, the legal framework erected by parliament, and local sensibilities.  I’ve no idea how many such policies exist; my pretty-uninformed guess would be few rather than many.  I've asked the NGA.
The DfE thinks it's pretty clear in what it says about such matters although it's couched in terms of political impartiality and "activism" is not mentioned.  There is also more of a focus on what might be overtly taught rather than what might be experienced and thus learned; ie, on the formal rather than the informal curriculum.  Whether this is intentional is a moot point.  DfE says:
"Teaching about political issues, the different views people have, and the ways pupils can engage in our democratic society is an essential part of a broad and balanced curriculum.  It is an important way in which schools support pupils to become active citizens who can form their own views, whilst having an understanding and respect for legitimate differences of opinion. ...
Schools should also continue to reinforce important shared principles that underpin our society, whether that be upholding democratic rights or more generally promoting respect and tolerance. Understanding where views and opinions go further than this and where the legal duties on political impartiality may be relevant, is an important part of doing this effectively."

Statutory requirements on political impartiality cover all schools.  These legal duties mean schools:

  • must prohibit the promotion of partisan political views

  • should take steps to ensure the balanced presentation of opposing views on political issues when they are brought to the attention of pupils

The onus on schools is to take steps that are "reasonably practicable" to meet obligations which is, perhaps, how it ought to be in a liberal democracy.

DfE says that:

"Not all areas of ethical debate are political issues. There are some concepts and views that can be considered as shared principles that underpin our society and not political issues in this context. Examples include a belief in upholding certain rights, such as freedom of speech and protection from violence and criminal activity - or challenging discrimination and prejudice, including racism."

Equally so, maybe, it's the case that not all activism is necessarily helpfully seen as political.  Would a student campaign to improve school dinners be political?  To refurbish the toilets?  To install solar panels?  Probably not.  What about campaigning for a local Council to build a skate park?  Maybe not.  But campaigning for the local council to offer local housing for refugees?  Trickier because both housing and refugees are political issues, locally and nationally.

A wider issue, drawing on the action competence literature (eg Jensen & Schnack, Environmental Education Research 1997 3(2), 163–178) would be to see all activism as an opportunity for learning – the core business of schools after all.

I remember Bjarne Jensen talking about a student initiated and led Danish folk-school campaign to lobby the local council for a swimming pool.  He described in detail a student campaign which was well conceived, energetically conducted and exemplary in the way it engaged with both the public and local councillors and officers.  In the end, however, the pool was not built.  He then asked us how we might view this outcome.

Opinion varied.  For example, the more socially-critical amongst us said that this merely illustrated (yet again) the impregnability of the power structures inherent in late-Capitalist society.  The more pragmatic said that it was a pity about the outcome, but at least the issues had been raised, and, hey, better luck next time.

But Jensen said that he viewed it, from a Danish educational point of view, as a great success as it had never been about building a pool.  Rather, it had been about students learning about interacting with local political structures.  Viewed in these terms, he said that the students had had the opportunity to begin to develop a wide range of valuable citizenship skills.  They had, he added, been learning to be Danish citizens.

I'm not sure that the notion of "action competence" has ever crossed the shared mind of the DfE's curriculum team, but they might just approve of Jensen's view if it ever it did.

As a generalisation of sorts I'd say that with any school-based activism, it's like experiential learning; it's not the activism / experience that's the purpose, it's always the learning.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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