The government is quietly trying to destroy freedom of speech in our schools

Boris and classroom
Jasmine Norden

The Department for Education has updated its PSHE guidance to schools with new restrictions banning resources from “extreme political stances”.

PSHE stands for ‘personal, social, health and economic education’. It teaches children skills intended to prepare them for adult life, as well as knowledge about keeping themselves healthy and safe.

But the new guidelines amount to a direct attack on freedom of speech. And many education professionals have expressed concern about how this will affect their freedom in teaching PSHE.

The guidance

The guidance, published on 24 September, includes an outline of appropriate resources for use in teaching about relationships, sex, and health. Part of the guidance reads:

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
Grave concerns

In a joint statement, the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators and Black Educators Alliance, said:

The guidance, which specifies what kinds of resources and external speakers can be used in school PSHE lessons, is a thinly veiled attack on a wide range of movements fighting for urgently-needed social justice causes, and has implications far beyond its apparently narrow scope. As educators committed to anti-racist work, we are gravely concerned about the way this guidance appears to censor materials produced by anti-racist organisations and activists.

Kevin Blowe, coordinator fo the Network for Police Monitoring, told The Canary that the guidance is “incompatible with human rights legislation”:

This guidance is a fundamental denial of the right to freedom of opinion. It will prevent external organisations from working with schools on any challenging issue without some kind of “balancing opinion” from some official source.  It will close down the range of ideas that young people hear and encourage schools to blacklist any organisation that might say anything the government could consider as controversial, out of a fear that this is seen as an endorsement.

It will also be more likely that children and young people are reluctant to talk about or associate with any campaign or cause considered ‘extreme’, even if they have never taken part in “illegal activities” themselves, for fear of the personal consequences.

In our view, this guidance is incompatible with human rights legislation and it is inevitable it will face a legal challenge.

‘Extremist’ organisations

In January 2020, it was reported that counter-terrorism police had listed several left-wing organisations, including Extinction Rebellion and Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), as ‘extremist’ ideologies. These groups were included on the list alongside neo-Nazis groups. After this was revealed by the Guardian, the south-east division of Counter Terrorism Policing was forced to recall the list.

The term extremism has no basis in UK law, and politicians have struggled to define it. As Blowe wrote in an article in The Canary:

‘Extremism’ is, after all, a very scary term, one that is often used interchangeably with violence or even terrorism. It has no legal definition and the government has continually struggled and failed to find one robust enough to stand up in court, leaving the police with complete discretion in deciding what it covers…

However, this is a label that the police have regularly attached to all kinds of political protest and campaigning, even though individuals choosing to take to the streets in opposition to government policy is a cornerstone of our democratic process and is protected by national and international law.

An attack on freedom of speech

Minister for school standards, Nick Gibb, told The Canary:

Our new relationships, sex and health education (RHSE) guidance and training resources equip all schools to provide comprehensive teaching in these areas in an age-appropriate way. These materials should give schools the confidence to construct a curriculum that reflects diversity of views and backgrounds, whilst fostering all pupils’ respect for others, understanding of healthy relationships, and ability to look after their own wellbeing.

We will be issuing further training resources throughout the year so that schools are supported to begin teaching the new RSHE curriculum by summer 2021 at the latest. I know many schools have already begun teaching, and I look forward to seeing all schools follow suit as soon as possible.

But this still leaves significant questions remaining over which organisations and what material will be classified as extremist and therefore banned by the Department for Education.

This guidance could be used to stop teachers using resources from organisations such as Extinction Rebellion or Black Lives Matter. It’s an attack on the freedom of speech, and preventing students from learning about important causes and opinions could have a far-reaching impact on children across the country.

Featured image via Flickr/Allison Meier and Wikimedia Commons/Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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  • Show Comments
    1. At some point the instructions will be re-issued following an amendment to ‘a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections’, which will then red: ‘a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to start free and fair elections’. Oh, and as to XR they are left-field rather than left-wing. Tory ideological pressure is in itself somewhat extreme, but as usual, in practice it manifests as a ‘Carry On’ film script.

    2. In the nineteenth century it was “extremist” to believe working people should have the vote. Into the twentieth it was “extremist” to believe women should have the vote. In the US, it was “extremist” under Jim Crow to believe black people should have the vote. In the 1950s it was “extremist” the believe homosexuality should be legal…On and on. What is taught in PHSE or anything else should be at the school’s discretion. There’s plenty of opportunity for parents to object, governors to intrervene…Funny how the Tories love the Nanny State when it’s on their side. But of course, the Nanny State has propped up property for hundreds of years. That’s why we live under State Capitalism.

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