It's (political) party time for pupils - but not teachers

27th March 2015 at 00:00
As election fever builds, schools take care to follow rules on bias

It will prove difficult to escape from politics in the next few weeks, as media coverage escalates ahead of the general election on 7 May.

But schools that want to bring the national debate into the classroom will have to tread carefully to avoid falling foul of guidance on political neutrality. Academies and maintained schools are duty-bound not to do anything that gives an advantage (or disadvantage) to any party or candidate.

One teacher, who asked not to be identified, said that some local authorities' approaches to impartiality made it difficult to engage students. When arranging a hustings in his school to allow students to grill local candidates, the authority asked "a lot of questions" about the event, he said.

"They were asking about whether we were doing the right thing, whether we were providing political impartiality and whether candidates from certain parties would be there.It's one of the barriers that makes it difficult for schools to be involved and to engage students in politics."

Schools are not allowed to simply invite candidates from a selection of parties to appear, according to Lloyd White, head of democratic services at Hillingdon Council in West London. Rather, they are obliged to invite every candidate standing in the local constituency. In some parts of the country, this could prove quite a challenge: in former prime minister Tony Blair's Sedgefield constituency in 2005, for example, a remarkable 15 candidates contested the seat.

"Anything that involves public resources has to be completely non-political and cannot disadvantage any candidate," Mr White said. "You must make sure you offer the opportunity to all candidates standing in a particular constituency, not just those that might win the election nationally.

"Even if schools are educating people who are not old enough to vote, they could be influencing them for the future, or influencing their parents, if they are seen to be partial."

However, Mr White said, schools should not be "nervous" about getting pupils to talk politics. "These events are an entirely good thing," he added.

A report published by the Scottish Parliament's devolution committee this month says that many teachers north of the border were effectively banned from discussing the independence referendum with their students in the run-up to the vote last September.

"The restrictions some education authorities placed upon schools were overly restrictive during the purdah period and acted to restrict the ability of 16- and 17-year-old voters to discuss the issue in school and in particular with their teachers," the report says.

South of the border, St Bede's and St Joseph's Catholic College in Bradford is among the schools planning to capitalise on election fever to teach students about politics (see panel, below). Head of citizenship Leigh Canning said she was not concerned about breaking impartiality rules.

"As a citizenship teacher, you've always got to be impartial," she said. "When pupils ask me what I think, I tell them I'm in a position of authority and I don't want to influence them."

Ben Miskell, a citizenship teacher at Bradfield School in Sheffield, told TES that his school was holding a mock election and a hustings event. An individual student will represent each of the political parties and must persuade their classmates to vote for them in the mock election.

"For citizenship teachers, a general election is a bit like Christmas," Mr Miskell said.

During the 2010 election campaign, 40 per cent of Bradfield School's students voted Conservative. Local MP and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg will no doubt be hoping for a different result this time around.

Pupils play politics - with their own party

St Bede's and St Joseph's Catholic College in Bradford is planning to teach its students how to register to vote, as well as holding a hustings event for local candidates and organising a mock election.

But Year 8 pupils at the school are going even further: they have been tasked with creating their own political party, complete with a name, logo, leader and manifesto.

The party that wins the most votes from pupils will appoint a Cabinet and prime minister, with the other students split into groups to represent Whitehall departments.

Much like chancellor George Osborne and his senior coalition colleagues, the school's Cabinet will then have to decide which departments' budgets should be cut.

Last time the exercise took place, students decided to make savings in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - until it was pointed out that it had helped to organise the 2012 London Olympics, says head of citizenship Leigh Canning.

"They never cut much from defence, education or health," she adds.

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