Diamond Jubilee jubilation could land schools in court

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
Republican group says 'partisan' celebrations are against the law

They could be as simple as a party in the playground or a lesson on the life of the UK's second longest serving head of state. But events that celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee this summer will break the law, republican campaigners have warned.

Education secretary Michael Gove has already publicly declared his enthusiasm for the anniversary, suggesting that a new royal yacht should be commissioned as a present for Her Majesty. While this proposal has not gained much traction, schools and businesses will close in honour of the jubilee, a record-breaking chain of beacons will stretch across the country and, as the centrepiece, 1,000 boats will sail down the River Thames in a celebratory flotilla.

Almost every school is expected to plan some kind of event for pupils and children can even enter a competition for a chance to cook for the Queen. But pressure group Republic claimed this week that, just by mentioning the festivities or pageantry, teachers may inadvertently be in breach of the law. In a letter to Mr Gove, the organisation's chief executive, Graham Smith, warned that schools hosting Diamond Jubilee events could be taken to court.

Sections 406 and 407 of the Education Act 1996 ban schools from "the promotion of partisan political views". Teachers have a duty to "secure balanced treatment of political issues" and to present children with opposing views. As such, Mr Smith believes that teachers and heads who celebrate the Queen's reign without giving other views on the monarchy will be breaking the law.

"We know that many schools are planning to hold their own jubilee celebrations. It is quite clear that most of these events and activities will treat the monarchy as self-evidently benign and universally supported, without any indication of the controversy that surrounds it," Mr Smith wrote in his letter. "The effect - whether or not it is intended - will be to influence young people to support one contested political viewpoint (monarchism) against another (democratic republicanism). That is exactly what sections 406 and 407 were intended to protect children against.

"The jubilee is, of course, a significant political event. It is right that pupils discuss it in the classroom. But this should be done from an engaged and academically critical perspective, not one of unquestioning celebration. It is the difference between presentation and promotion."

Mr Smith went on to claim that any parent wishing to take legal action against their child's school on this matter would have "a good case". Republic would support them in this, he added.

However, there can be little doubt that schools planning to pay tribute to the Queen will have the full support of an entity somewhat bigger and wealthier than Republic: the Department for Education. "The law is designed to stop children being indoctrinated by biased and unbalanced political views, not from joining in a national celebration with millions of others," a spokesman said. "Individual schools can choose how to mark the event. It is difficult to see how a cooking competition could possibly be construed as inherently partisan or unbalanced."

And, as long as Mr Gove remains in office, the DfE's position is unlikely to change.

For celebrating

Sue Evans, head of Flash CofE Primary School near Buxton, Derbyshire, is planning several Diamond Jubilee events with staff. Pupils at the primary, which is the highest-altitude school in Great Britain, will help to light one of the celebratory beacons.

"We are taking part because we want to be involved in living history; this occasion is social not political," Ms Evans said.

"It's also useful for teaching - one of our topics this term is Queen Victoria, so we are able to use the jubilee to make comparisons. It's a way of children getting involved in their community as well."

Against celebrating

Sam Gardner, a primary teacher from Bradford, will not be marking the occasion at all in his school.

"I know other people will say we are spoilsports for not stopping lessons and making children eat jam sandwiches, but we have a duty to promote equality and cultural diversity, and everything the monarchy stands for goes against that," said Mr Gardner, who is an elected member of the Republic board.

"It would be fine if we could have an open and free debate, but it seems to be taboo when it comes to the monarchy. The only thing people can think to do is celebrate it."

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