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“Teachers should be impartial, but not apolitical”

As the government reminds schools of their obligations to ensure impartiality in their classrooms, John Lawson explains why teachers are way ahead of them…

John Lawson
by John Lawson
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The rules regarding impartiality and indoctrination in school classrooms have been in the headlines again lately, after the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, challenged a primary school for ‘encouraging’ Y6 students to criticise the Prime Minister.

Mr. Zahawi urged schools to root out ‘activist teachers’ and ensure that their teachers offer “Balanced presentations of opposing political views to their students.” Now, primary schoolchildren might not be as partisan as politicians, but they’re often remarkably astute people watchers.

My own great-niece adores Ant & Dec, and thinks Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, and Vladimir Putin are “Fibbers who belong on the naughty step!” And having missed out on being able to have parties for her 7th and 8th birthdays, she wants whoever attended the Downing Street parties to be grounded indefinitely. Seems fair.

Apoliticism versus impartiality

Mr. Zahawi went on to remind England’s educators of the 1996 DfE directive to refrain from ‘explicit partisan politics’. On the whole, teachers generally accept this ruling, so long as it doesn’t amount to advocacy of propaganda or apoliticism.

Apoliticism serves to falsely imply that politics only concerns politicians. Since politics will now and forever touch students’ lives, it’s important that they’re able to identify and understand political processes. Impartiality requires fidelity to open, critical, and truthful discourse in all subjects – which for teachers, should be as natural as breathing.

Thus, it’s possible for teachers to state that the discovery and use of vaccines to treat disease should be applauded as an exceptional scientific achievement, while maintaining that the exams fiascos we’ve seen in the last two years were abysmal and entirely avoidable. Teachers may not always know the truth, but we certainly can and will expose nonsense when we see it.

If teachers are only ever permitted to highlight political positives, then the process of teaching itself becomes a mere propaganda exercise. If, back in February, teachers had briefly discussed ‘Partygate’ with students asking for their views – as teenagers do – the safest thing would have been to say ‘Let’s wait for Sue Grey’s findings’, despite that being a partisan position at the time.

(Though if teachers want to maintain the respect of their smartest students, they won’t wait for them to point out that a civil servant who didn’t attend the gatherings can’t tell us what happened at them…)

A communal activity

Mr. Zahawi was correct when he asserted that, “The next generation is more than capable of making their own decisions.” That’s because trustworthy teachers teach them to think critically, carefully and as objectively as possible.

Students are taught to carefully assess the facts and opinions of others before forming opinions of their own. Even if rogue teachers attempt to promote certain sociological, religious, or political doctrines – it occasionally happens – the balanced curriculum, rights of free speech and diversity of opinions within the school community will make any subsequent indoctrination all but impossible.

I was a teacher in the US when George Floyd’s arrest was first shown on TV. I told my students then that I’d witnessed the most cowardly act of policing in my life, and that I’d cried for a man I’d never meet. I later heard from a friend that a teacher at their school told his students that Floyd might still be alive if he hadn’t ‘Stupidly resisted arrest’. Moments later, more than half of his students spontaneously walked out or switched him off.

Learning is a communal activity that’s primed to root out prejudice, ignorance, rhetoric and dishonesty, and draws on the kind of classroom dynamics that have been sorely missed throughout the pandemic. Teachers can’t dictate the direction of teenagers’ views, because we demand that they think for themselves from primary school onwards.

Despite all the recent talk of ‘levelling up’, many poorer students feel the government is making it harder to access further education. The less affluent their family is, the more likely it is that a student will fear the prospect of getting into debt. That’s not a party political view promoted by radical activists – if low-income families feel that their council or government isn’t listening to them, teachers will advocate on their behalf.

By the same token, we’ll happily sing the praises of any authority that treasures free speech and equal opportunities as much as we do. If that makes us partisan activists, so be it.

John Lawson is a former secondary teacher, now serving as a foundation governor and running a tutoring service, and author of the book The Successful (Less Stressful) Student (Outskirts Press, £11.95); for more information, visit prep4successnow.wordpress.com or follow @johninpompano

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