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Should schools be politically impartial?

The new guidelines on political impartiality in schools might not be so impartial

By Caterina Fumero

Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks via Flickr

A few days ago, the Department for Education has released a new report on ‘Political Impartiality in Schools’, which is supposed to give teachers a guidance on how ‘the relevant legal duties (…) can be considered when teaching about political issues’.

Now, this document might seem like good news, and indeed one can see how the intention behind it could be to create a ‘multi-opinioned society’, as the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi claimed at the beginning of the guidance. Nevertheless, some articles around these proposals have sparked a series of criticisms on how young people, and minorities in particular, might be harmed from this report.

The main goal of the guidance is to forbid the promotion of partisan political views in schools. The interesting factor is how it provides a series of examples of potential scenarios that the teacher might encounter and how they should face them. Reading these scenarios, I would personally agree with some of them, but others left me a bit dubious. I can agree on creating a broad understanding of the subject, where one gets to create his own critical opinion, but I personally don’t see the necessity to create guidelines on how teachers should or should not deal with political issues.

First of all, there are certain issues where I don’t believe one should be impartial; almost everything can fall under the label ‘political issue’, and I don’t really see how teachers who are impartial about climate change for instance can be helpful.

Moreover, how exactly can you teach about British Imperialism offering a ‘balanced presentation of opposite views’? What does balanced really mean?

Should a teacher offer the same number of arguments from both sides, or just teach a series of facts like a robot?

I see a bigger issue with the way our history books are written. If we want to create a truthful picture of what Europeans have done during colonialism, for instance, why don’t we replace ‘Slave Trade’ with ‘Human Trafficking’. That might offer a more realist view on what happened, and certainly less biased.

It is undeniable that many countries in Europe have blood on their hands, and that our history books haven’t really addressed these issues in an impartial way. It is literally the best case of history written by the winner. So, it feels wrong that the new guidelines are addressing issues with partisan political views, when the other side of the story hasn’t been told yet.

Now, I understand that it might feel like I am reading this whole thing in bad faith, and indeed when going through the guidelines there is room for interpretation in most of the examples that are provided.

Until you get to Scenario I.

That just felt wrong. The section starts by claiming that ‘racism has no place in our society’, and the following sentence warns teachers that to teach about Black Lives Matter may include partisan political views. But it gets better with Scenario J, where schools might invite an outside speaker to explain the danger and impact of racism, but that person should not have publicly advocated for political partisan view on that topic. In that case, the person’s view on it should be kept outside the school context. Again, I wonder what kind of people are allowed to hold these meetings?

Someone who has studied racism, but has never advocated against it?

I personally think that these guidelines were made with the best of intentions, even though this reform was warmly welcomed by the Conservative party which, according to Left Foot Forward (indeed a politicised website), was concerned with teachers who might be ‘too ideological’. A series of tweets have shown that indeed many right-wing politicians and supporters have welcomed this document as they feel like it is protecting pupils.

At this point the Department of Education should be able to answer teachers’ questions on how they are supposed to follow these guidelines, and clarify some of the scenarios that they offer. Everything is political, and to take a stand on what is considered a partisan view is already biased.