The Tories love nothing more than pushing their version of the truth. Their latest effort to make sure their own version gets told is the new guidance on teaching political issues in schools. A 23-page document announced by education secretary Nadhim Zahawi was published on 17 February to considerable debate.
Black Lives Matter (BLM), Israel/Palestine and the British Empire are among the issues highlighted in the document. So it’s worth analysing what the Tories are up to with this new move. An accompanying blog on the guidance on the government’s education hub site states:
Everyone has their own views on particular subjects and issues and teachers are no different, but it is important that teachers explain things to their students in a way that is impartial. Teaching about political issues and the differing views on these is an essential part of the curriculum, helping pupils to form their own opinions and prepare them for later life.
Absolutely no need
That same blog also acknowledges that:
The law states that teachers must not promote partisan political views and should offer a balanced overview of opposing views when political issues are taught.
And here is part of the problem. Laws already exist to ensure educators are fair and balanced. Teachers and senior trade union officials immediately questioned why, if this is already the case, we need more guidance. For example, National Education Union joint secretary Mary Bousted told the press:
There is absolutely no need for new guidance on how to appropriately handle political and social subjects… Very good guidance already exists and this is followed up and down the country.
So is this just about Tories singling out certain issues they want to either exclude or push? Well, that case could certainly be made. Black Lives Matter (BLM) seems to be one of the topics the Tories are worried about. For example, it says anti-racist movements like BLM should be treated with caution:
Where schools wish to teach about specific campaigning organisations, such as some of those associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, they should be aware that this may cover partisan political views. These are views which go beyond the basic shared principle that racism is unacceptable, which is a view schools should reinforce.
And alternatives to oppressive, racialised policing seem to be beyond the pale:
Examples of such partisan political views include advocating specific views on how government resources should be used to address social issues, including withdrawing funding from the police.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, their guidance says material on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands should be carefully navigated, even treated with a sort of ‘both sides’ attitude. As if Israel/Palestine is a simple conflict of interests between two equal groups, rather than the oppression of one by the other. One scenario talks about using information from an outside organisation which may be partisan:
For instance, the apparently factual content includes partisan political views on both historical events in the region, presented without additional context that would make clear that these are contested views. Several quotes from political figures have been inappropriately abridged to present an inaccurate version of what was really said, and important contextual information about these quotes has been omitted.
This simply seems to mean that teachers and schools should check the information they are using. Which, again, already seems to be a legal obligation. Though it could also be argued that requiring massive amounts of Tory-approved context places the burden on individual teachers, already hard-pressed in their jobs and short of time.
Empire and socialism
The British empire and imperialism also make an appearance. While the document says the reformation and renaissance are unlikely to be an issue:
For more recent historical events including those which are particularly contentious and disputed, political issues may be presented to pupils. This includes many topics relating to empire and imperialism, on which there are differing partisan political views, and which should be taught in a balanced manner.
The framing hundreds of years of exploitation and occupation simply as a ‘partisan’ issue, surely downplays the continuing impacts of imperialism around the world.
Two days ahead of publication, NEU officials were questioning the new guidance. Joint secretary Mary Bousted challenged education minister Nadhim Zahawi directly on Twitter, accusing him of engaging in culture wars:
This is nonsense. What child is not swayed by what their parents think? What their friends think? Children do not come to school as blank slates. When ministers engage in culture wars ask yourself what is the news story that they don't want you to think about. https://t.co/aIdYG8LwpI
— Dr Mary Bousted (@MaryBoustedNEU) February 14, 2022
The Tory choice of topics is telling. Why Israel/Palestine, BLM and empire? Of all issues, why are these being treated as if two equally legitimate sides deserve to be heard. Also significant, is the government decision to reinforce with guidance what already appears to be law. We need to question why they are doing this.
The NEU seems to think this is not about enforcement existing rules. And non-impartial teaching doesn’t seem to be a major issue in our schools. So maybe it is the Tories, not teachers, who need a bit of self-reflection. Biased education isn’t the issue here. Biased culture war-style policies, however, do seem to be a recurring problem.
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