This week, Nadeem Zahawi told teachers that they have ‘an important role in preparing children and young people for life in modern Britain, and teaching them about the society and world they grow up in.’
Actually, after 26 years in the classroom, I had worked that out for myself. Children spend significant periods of their lives with their teachers, and we have a huge responsibility that goes far beyond drilling our pupils for exams.
But something has gone amiss in schools, and it seems that Zahawi might even realise that as well. In new guidance he has told teachers this week to avoid political bias in the classrooms. The guidance lays out certain topics that ‘should be taught in a balanced manner’ and tells teachers to ‘stop promoting contested theory as fact.’
Part of the problem with politics in schools is about resources as much as ideology. For too long, the agenda in education has been driven by exam results and league tables. Non-examined courses like PSHE – personal, social, health and economic education – have become Cinderella subjects.
PSHE is vital; probably more so to many children than even electric circuit theory, and I say that as a physics teacher. But when we are under huge pressure to perform, it is too easy for stressed-out teachers to divert time, attention and resources to activities that will bump up grades instead.
But PSHE still needs to be taught and we need resources to teach it, ideally pre-prepared and ready to deliver. Third party organisations have been only too happy to step into the gap with their own teaching materials.
Need to teach ‘Trans Inclusive RSHE’ to four- to seven-year-olds? Stonewall has lesson packs just for that. The hard work has all been done: ‘Each of our LGBTQ+ inclusive lessons has a PowerPoint that you can use to support your whole class teaching.’
If the subject is anti-racism, the British Red Cross offers downloads for free. But a charity’s proud history does not guarantee its political impartiality when it comes to education. Throughout the lesson plan, Black Lives Matter is capitalised – linking directly to the political campaign rather than the underlying truth that black lives do indeed matter.
Primary schools looking for a one-stop shop might be tempted by the educational package offered by No Outsiders. Their vision is grand – ‘inclusive education, promoting community cohesion to prepare young people and adults for life as global citizens.’ Make no mistake this is a professional outfit – they even sell merch to ‘wear with pride and show support for teaching equality in primary schools’. But schools are playing a dangerous game by contracting out their thinking.
If something looks too good to be true it probably is, and propaganda is still propaganda when it is branded with rainbows and sparkles. It seems that the Department for Education has finally noticed.
The guidance that Zahawi’s department issued this week pointed out more of the blindingly obvious, ‘Schools should be aware that “partisan political views” are not limited to just political parties. They may also be held by campaign groups, lobbyists and charitable organisations.’
Zahawi added, ‘Clearer guidance on political impartiality is just one part of my wider work to give children the best possible education.’
But it is much easier for a government minister to talk about political impartiality than it is for teachers to deliver it. Zahawi might say 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,’ but to make progress we need to be able to distinguish contested theories from facts.
As a scientist, I can dismiss creationism as a belief with no place in the classroom. But other people do hold the belief that the earth is young. Not only that, but they believe that there is proof of Noah’s flood in the geological record. We can debate who is right and who is wrong, but I am not going to start teaching creationism in the meantime.
But what about gender identity? Again, as a scientist, I see no need to invent something unprovable and unfalsifiable to explain that some people might be unhappy with the sex of their bodies. Is gender identity any different to creationism? Both are based on belief and both have proponents who claim to have supporting evidence. However, while creationism is usually dismissed without debate, there is great social pressure for gender identity to be accepted without debate. Why?
Zahawi’s guidance extends for 9,000 words, and includes 19 scenarios starting with climate change and ending with political systems. Each one can be up for debate – or not. Those who win an individual debate may be content with their prize, but the real power is held by those who decide just what can be debated in the first place. Campaign groups, lobbyists and charitable organisations – to use Zahawi’s words – have been astonishingly successful in this regard.
But identifying the problem is only the first step to putting this right. We need to empower teachers and schools and give children the resources to think for themselves. There, the government has a poor record. I teach physics; I also used to teach critical thinking. I taught my pupils to analyse arguments, identify flaws, assess the credibility of sources, and construct reasoned arguments of their own – all based on evidence and examples. However, in line with the government programme of general qualification reform, the A-Level course was cancelled in 2016.
If Zahawi is serious about rectifying the problem, then he needs to get to the heart of the problem. We might possibly evict those unhelpful influences from schools, but we are less likely to remove them from the internet. In short, we need to teach children to think for themselves.
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