Yesterday, during a House of Commons debate about Black History Month, the minster for equalities, Kemi Badenoch, said: “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt.
“Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views, such as defunding the police, without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”
This shouldn’t be a remotely controversial thing to say. After all, it’s long been a legal requirement for schools to be non-partisan, and to cover political issues in a balanced fashion. Just as we expect schools and teachers to abide by health and safety legislation or the Equality Act, so they must follow the law on political impartiality.
(For those of you wanting to pop a question about this into your next Zoom quiz: the key legislation in this regard for maintained schools is the 1996 Education Act, sections 406 and 407. And, for academies and private schools, it’s the Independent School Standards, parts 5 (c) and (d). Yes, I’m great fun at parties.)
The Equalities Minister could not have been clearer:— Calvin (@calvinrobinson) October 20, 2020
Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory are political and do not belong in schools.
Teaching ideas such as 'white privilege' as a factual reality is breaking the law! 🚫👨🏫 pic.twitter.com/6VoIDVJxLi
For me, more important than the legalities is the need for all our schools to be genuinely inclusive places. Every family should feel that they and their child would be welcome at a school, should they choose it. But this just isn’t possible if institutions adopt controversial ideologies as the basis for how they run or endorse partisan organisations.
And it’s not just the government, or geeks like me, who feel this way, either. The general public thinks that this is what schools should do, too.
Schools should be politically neutral
In national polling carried out for my group, the Campaign for Common Sense, 83 per cent of people agreed that “schools and teachers should be neutral when teaching children about political issues.”
The same proportion agreed that “schools and teachers should provide a balance of credible views and resources when teaching political issues”. And only 20 per cent agreed that “schools should encourage pupils to get involved with campaigns like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter.”
Importantly, there was consistent overwhelming support for impartiality across all ages, regions, socioeconomic statuses, or voting habits.
Providing pupils with accepted facts
So, given the overwhelming case for balance when discussing political issues, what’s the problem? Why did the minster for equalities feel the need to say what she did yesterday?
Let’s be clear: teaching young people about important and controversial issues is an essential part of any education. Life is not black and white, and teachers should not pretend otherwise.
The question, therefore, is not whether schools should teach about political issues or partisan organisations, but which ones and how they go about it.
It should be done in a balanced way. This means providing pupils with the generally accepted facts and consensus on an issue – the common ground, if you like – and then presenting a range of credible alternative opinions on the aspects that are contested, in a neutral fashion.
For some topics, there will be much more common ground and less disagreement; others may have less consensus and far more aspects up for debate. The key is that schools carefully curate the information presented to pupils, and don’t take a stance on them beyond that required by the law. This allows pupils the chance to engage with the range of views, and form their own opinion on them if they wish.
None of this should be controversial. Indeed, this is exactly how brilliant teachers address sensitive topics every single day: RE teachers covering abortion, history teachers discussing the miners’ strikes, school assemblies delivered in aid of food banks, and so on.
The problem is that, in recent times, growing numbers of schools and teachers seem to have forgotten about the need to be impartial, or don’t consider that the views they hold are political and contested.
So while ideas like “white privilege” and “systemic racism” are really interesting ways of looking at society, they are absolutely not provable facts, and are very much contested by people from all walks of life and political backgrounds. To tell pupils that they are a given, or to base school policies on them, would be morally wrong and definitely illegal.
In a similar vein, groups like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion have massive profiles and fascinating analyses of the challenges we face as a planet. However, they are explicitly partisan organisations, with biased policies on issues around the nuclear family, ending capitalism or defunding the police. They should be examined critically, alongside credible opposing alternatives, and should no more be endorsed by schools than any other political party or movement.
The public reaction by many teachers, on social media and elsewhere, to the Department for Education’s recent guidance on this topic, and to Kemi Badenoch’s statement yesterday, suggests that there is work still to be done in ensuring that everyone understands where these important lines lie.
Yes, children are entitled to a balanced education. But, equally, the last thing we want is colleagues pulled in front of a teacher misconduct panel or schools being pulled up by Ofsted for breaking the law.
After all, the vast majority of us want the same thing: for pupils to study the world as it is, to prepare them for a fulfilling future. It’s just really important that we do this in ways that are legal and inclusive, and that we don’t force our own beliefs on them, so that they’re free to form their own.
Mark Lehain is director of the Campaign for Common Sense. He was founding principal of Bedford Free School