The government has published new advice for schools on maintaining political impartiality in the classroom.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said the guidance, which gives tips on how to teach about issues like climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement and the British empire, should help “all parties to understand how schools should go about meeting their legal duties”.
But the non-statutory guidance has prompted warnings it could create confusion and discourage schools from teaching some issues.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said there was “no need” for new guidance, and warned the document “does not so much clarify existing guidance as add new layers of mystification and complexity to it”.
“This could induce such a level of uncertainty and caution in schools about ‘political issues’ that they are less likely to engage with them.”
Zahawi claimed that “nothing in this guidance limits schools’ freedom to teach about sensitive, challenging, and controversial political issues, as they consider appropriate and necessary”.
Here’s what schools need to know.
1. No new legal duties for schools
The new guidance is non-statutory, meaning schools do not have a legal duty to follow it.
However, the DfE said the guidance is meant to reinforce existing legal duties on schools to prohibit promotion of partisan political views, to ensure the balanced presentation of opposing views and to promote “fundamental British values”.
2. Report agencies that ‘fail to meet standards’
The guidance repeats advice issued in 2020 telling schools not to work with or use materials from external agencies that take “extreme political positions”, such as a desire to overthrow democracy or capitalism.
The new document also encourages schools to tell their local council, academy trust or “wider school network” if external agencies have “failed to meet the standards a school expects”.
This could include scenarios where an agency has failed to “stick to an agreed plan” or attempted to “engage pupils in political activity”.
This will allow other schools to be “alert to these risks and consider carefully whether they wish to work with the agency in question”.
3. Try to handle concerns ‘informally’
Where concerns are raised about political impartiality at a school, the DfE recommends they are raised in an “informal” manner “as most issues will be able to be resolved without using formal complaints procedures”.
In some cases, “it may be appropriate for a school to take steps to ensure that pupils, who have been subject to imbalanced teaching, receive a balanced account of any political issues raised, as soon as possible”. This may “involve further teaching or some form of clarification”.
But where parents and carers “remain dissatisfied”, they can raise a formal complaint.
4. Don’t present climate change misinformation
The guidance states that teaching about climate change and the “scientific facts and evidence” behind it would not constitute a political issue.
Schools therefore “do not need to present misinformation, such as unsubstantiated claims that anthropogenic climate change is not occurring, to provide balance here”.
However, where teaching covers the potential solutions for tackling climate change, this “should be taught in a balanced manner, with teachers not promoting any of the partisan political views covered to pupils”.
5. Teach about empire in a ‘balanced manner’
Legal duties on political impartiality are “unlikely to be relevant” when teaching about political events from previous historical periods – like the renaissance and reformation.
However, 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 DfE said.
6. Resources on Israel-Palestine need ‘context’
The guidance states schools should choose resources “carefully”, avoiding those that “may contain bias and undermine a balanced account of the political issues being taught”.
It gives an example of a resource on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict including “partisan political views” on events in the region which are “presented without additional context that would make clear that these are contested views”.
The guidance states it “may be advisable” to avoid such resources “given that it might not be clear to pupils that the resource promotes a contested partisan political view in this way”.
7. Stick to the facts with younger pupils
The DfE warns it may not be possible to offer a “balanced presentation of opposing views” where pupils are “not old enough to understand the distinction between relevant contested views and facts”.
For example, schools are “free” to teach younger pupils about political figures with “controversial and contested legacies”.
However, it “may be advisable to focus on teaching about what these figures are most renowned for and factual information about them”.
Discussions about these matters “might be reserved for older pupils who are more likely to be able to understand and engage in this debate and develop a balanced understanding of opposing views”.
8. Don’t present homophobic views unchallenged
In providing balance, teachers should not present “dangerous and discriminatory views unchallenged”.
For example, when teaching about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, it “may be important to teach about the prejudicial views held by those that opposed the change”.
However, teachers are not required to “present these discriminatory beliefs uncritically or as acceptable in our society today”.
“They can and should be clear with pupils on the dangers of present-day sexist views and practices, including the facts and laws about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
9. Offer a ‘balanced account’ on defunding the police
When teaching about discrimination, teachers should “still be mindful to avoid promoting partisan political views or presenting contested theories as fact”, the DfE said
They should draw a distinction between the “shared principle that discrimination and prejudice are wrong, and partisan political views that go beyond this or advocate political reform”.
For example, where schools teach about campaigning organisations like Black Lives Matter, they “should be aware that this may cover partisan political views”, which “go beyond the basic shared principle that racism is unacceptable, which is a view schools should reinforce”.
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”.
Schools should ensure this content is “taught appropriately taking steps to offer pupils a balanced account of opposing views on these points”, the DfE said.
10. Thank the NHS, but don’t call for reform
The DfE said there was “no reason” that schools can’t have public displays and communications “to mark significant awareness-raising or community events or for other reasons, provided they do not promote partisan political views”.
For example, schools may wish to display a banner showing their “appreciation to NHS staff” for their efforts during the Covid pandemic.
However, if the school were to display a banner “demanding reform to the NHS or changes to NHS funding levels”, this would “not be appropriate and risks breaching their requirements on political impartiality”.