New government ‘impartiality guidance’ advises teachers in England to provide ‘opposing views’ to campaigning movements such as Black Lives Matter – and to discourage students from taking any action that aims to change policy. John McLaverty and Safia Mizon Thioune set out their concerns
It’s often said that citizenship is like a muscle: if it isn’t exercised regularly, it goes out of use. In this blog, we set out why we are concerned that the UK Department for Education’s recent non-statutory guidance on Political Impartiality in Schools in England may stop young people from exercising this vital muscle – by limiting their opportunities to learn about and exercise their rights as citizens to hold decision makers to account. Learning to be an active citizen and exercising such rights is not just a “nice to have” for young people: we think our collective futures depend on it.
As members of Our Shared World (OSW) – an education coalition that includes Oxfam which advocates for SDG 4.7 to ensure all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed for sustainable development by 2030 – the main question we’re asking ourselves about this guidance is: why now? And what does this guidance mean for schools, students and wider society?
Why has the government issued the guidance now?
Political impartiality in schools is not a new concept. Prior to the new guidance it was (and continues to be) a statutory responsibility defined in Sections 406-407 of the Education Act 1996. This means that schools are prohibited from “the promotion of partisan views in the teaching of any subject” and must offer a “balanced presentation of opposing views” on such issues. The principle is clearly right – and we support it – our worry is that the new guidance goes too far in applying it, and in fact risks shutting down legitimate, healthy debate and citizenship activities, including use of many excellent resources, under the pretext of impartiality.
The guidance for England – released quietly in February 2022 without the fanfare and sector-wide consultation that accompanied, say, the DfE’s almost simultaneous Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy – is framed as a means for teachers and school leaders to add to their existing body of practice.
In many ways, the need for such guidance has never been greater as the world grapples with new challenges changing everyone’s lives, from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate breakdown, to digital mis- and disinformation, to the cost-of-living crisis. It is generally accepted that the classroom should be a safe space where caring and responsible adults can help children make sense of such global issues and have their voices heard.
‘Schools should ensure this content [about Black Lives Matter] is taught appropriately taking steps to offer pupils a balanced account of opposing views…’New UK Department for Education guidance
Indeed, research from OSW members shows that embedding inclusiveness and democratic participation into all aspects of school life – from governance to classroom practice to school-family partnerships – is more likely to foster kind, compassionate and resilient societies. Such schools support learners to navigate conflict constructively and to find positive solutions to questions of social justice together.
In some respects, the guidance acknowledges the values of such inclusive approaches. For example, advice contained in the 19 scenarios presented in the document show how teachers can enable impartial debate in lessons. However, we think the guidance has two main shortcomings which place its usefulness into question.
The thorny issue of ‘balance’
The first shortcoming is that “balance” is defined by the DfE, not by teachers, parents or children. But concepts of what views are “political” and so need to be balanced are not static but rather evolve according to value shifts in wider society. We would therefore argue that decisions over which views are deemed “partisan” and which are simply presented without question should flow from a shared understanding that comes from consulting with schools, teachers and pupils, not be mandated by government.
For example, the guidance singles out content about the Black Lives Matter movement as breaking impartiality rules because it goes beyond the “basic shared principle that racism is unacceptable” by advocating for “specific views on how government resources should be used to address social issues”.
“Schools should ensure this content [about Black Lives Matter] is taught appropriately taking steps to offer pupils a balanced account of opposing views on these points,” the guidance tells staff. “Partisan political views must not be promoted to pupils, including by encouraging pupils to support campaign groups advocating such views.”
In effect, it seems, the guidance is telling teachers they should present Black Lives Matter as one side of a “balanced” debate.
There’s so much potential for confusion and uncertainty for teachers here. Here are some questions teachers might have: are they expected to explicitly raise and “balance” individual BLM goals (and presumably teachers would have to decide which ones) such as defunding the police? Are students not allowed to follow standard teaching methods that put an emphasis on exploring the issue for themselves? Are teachers expected to find and present opposing views to Black Lives Matter more generally? There is also a question over what would the “opposing views” to Black Lives Matter be? The guidance does not spell out answers to these questions clearly.
The overarching concern of course is that this confusion and teachers’ worries over “balance” will stop them mentioning the hugely important global BLM movement at all.
Yet other views do not seem to require such “balancing”, which leaves the guidance open to charges of inconsistency. For instance there is no guidance around offering balancing viewpoints to the widespread promotion of the UK military (the Combined Cadet Force, which promotes military values is present in over 500 secondary schools) nor on the arms trade which has a foothold in STEM subjects. Such programmes have been criticised for normalising the use of military intervention, presenting partisan views as fact and advancing political interests.
Limits on activism?
The second – and linked – shortcoming results from the way the guidance appears to limit pupils who might want to act on social justice or causes they believe in. For example, though the guidance is clear that there is no room for debate over whether racism is wrong and climate change is a scientific fact, it seems to suggest that children should not act at school in support of racial, social and climate justice. To get involved in such activism when in school – even in support of an ideal that is accepted across the political spectrum – would be “partisan” because such actions seek to shift government policy at local, national and international level.
So for example, while schoolchildren could, say, design a banner in a citizenship lesson about climate change that says “Reduce, re-use, recycle”, they could not, on our reading of the guidance, create one saying “Rich countries must pay the costs of climate damage”. That’s because the second banner calls for a change in government policy: allocating funds to pay for climate loss and damage in poorer nations.
The guidance seems to make school a walled garden where children are guided through rigidly “balanced” accounts of social justice issues but don’t have any agency to act to influence the outside world.
Squeezing the space for citizenship?
Many teachers use participatory resources to help children develop their own values and sense of justice without prescribing certain viewpoints, surely the essence of impartiality. Yet, rather than enabling the student do their own critical thinking, the guidance instead seems to ask adults to carefully moderate and place limits on what students can hear, discuss and do.
We fear that such guidance risks stopping – rather than supporting – schools from addressing the big global issues that both affect young people now and that will have a profound effect on their futures. We therefore urge educators to engage with this guidance critically, to ensure they continue their vital work of supporting democratic participation and critical thinking of their students in a safe, responsible and caring way.
Young people are a living resource who, through free, critical thought and action, can shine a light on needs, complexities and solutions in our societies. Rather than stifling this important resource, the government should liberate and use it.
Read the full UK Department for Education’s non-statutory guidance on Political Impartiality in Schools in England.
Want to explore teaching resources on citizenship? Check out the Oxfam global citizenship guides for teachers. Oxfam’s education resources are at www.oxfam.org.uk/education and Protection Approaches’ schools programme is here. Find out more about the Our Shared World coalition here