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John McLaverty (Oxfam GB) and Safia Mizon Thioune (Protection Approaches) set out why the DfE impartiality guidance provides a narrow interpretation of the 1996 Education Act and engenders confusion, rather than clarity, over the responsibility of educators to foster democratic and active citizenship.

Political Impartiality Guidance:

In February 2022 the Department for Education (DfE) published non-statutory guidance on Political Impartiality in Schools. This arrived quietly without the fanfare and sector-wide consultation that accompanied the DfE’s almost simultaneous Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy.

At Our Shared World – an education coalition advocating for Sustainable Development Goal 4.7 to ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed for sustainable development in England by 2030 – the main question we have asked ourselves is ‘why now’? And what does this guidance mean for schools, students and the wider society?

Background to the guidance:

Political impartiality in schools is not a new concept. Prior to the new guidance it was (and continues to be) a statutory responsibility defined in Sections 406-407 of the Education Act 1996. This means that schools are prohibited from “the promotion of partisan views in the teaching of any subject” and must offer a “balanced presentation of opposing views” on such issues.

To support the teaching of “controversial” issues within the remit of the Act, various education practices and methodologies have developed during the last 26 years. The new guidance is framed by DfE as a means for teachers and school leaders to further add to this body of practice.

In many ways, the need for additional school guidance has never been greater. While social and economic tensions are not new, they are becoming increasingly frequent as we approach the mid-21st century. Such trends are exemplified and exacerbated by recent phenomena including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate breakdown, digital mis- and disinformation and the cost-of-living crisis. Moreover, they are tensions which are actively experienced by young people and their wider communities – and thus they enter the classroom.

Schools as wider communities:

Education systems therefore cannot be neatly detached from the communities within which they sit. Rather they are symbiotic and deeply intertwined spaces: young people bring their lived experiences and human complexities with them into school; in turn, the classroom has a responsibility to be a safe space where caring and responsible adults can help children make sense of the world and have their voices heard.

Research from OSW members shows that such whole-school cultures are more likely to foster kind, compassionate and resilient societies. They embed inclusiveness and democratic participation into all aspects of school life – from governance to classroom practice to school-family partnerships – in order to best enable learners to constructively navigate conflict and to find positive solutions to questions of social justice together.

In some respects, the guidance acknowledges the values of such approaches. For example, there is advice contained in the 19 scenarios presented in the document about how teachers may enable impartial debate in their lessons. However, the guidance has two main shortcomings which place its usefulness into question.

Shortcomings with the guidance and notions of ‘balance’:

The first shortcoming is that ‘balance’ is apparently a concept defined by the DfE and not by teachers, parents or children. This is problematic given that concepts of balance are not static nor fixed but rather which evolve according to value shifts in wider society – and so should flow out from a shared understanding rather than one mandated by government. Concerns about this were raised in 2020 when guidance on relationships, sex and health curriculum banned ‘victim narratives’ and a desire to abolish capitalism, labelling them too extreme for the classroom. Following pressure from antiracist educators and civil society, this guidance was revised with those references removed.

However, a similar trend can be seen in the new guidance. For example, it singles out the Black Lives Matter movement as a topic which could break impartiality rules because it goes beyond the “basic shared principle that racism is unacceptable” by advocating for “specific views on how government resources should be used to address social issues”. Yet there is no guidance around the politicisation of schools through programmes run by the UK Military (the Combined Cadet Force is present in over 500 secondary schools) nor the arms trade which has a foothold in STEM subjects. Such programmes are widely criticised for normalising the use of military intervention, presenting partisan views as fact and advancing political interests.

The second – and linked – shortcoming results from the guidance’s sanitised distinction between political expression and policy change. For example, it presents racism as wrong and climate change as a scientific fact while the act of seeking greater racial, social and climate justice is presented as ‘partisan’ because it seeks to shift government policy at local, national and international level.

This means that school children can design a banner reading ‘Thank You NHS Heroes’ but not ‘We support fair pay for NHS Heroes’. This is because the second banner calls for a change in government policy. One could therefore be forgiven for thinking that, whether by design or by oversight, the guidance interprets school as a ‘walled garden’ where children are guided though ‘balanced’ accounts of partisan issues but where having any agency in the outside world is excluded from the life of the school.

Possible consequences for educators and students:

While many teachers may use participatory resources to help children develop their own values and sense of justice – surely an impartial role if there was one – the guidance instead presents teaching as a rote and didactic activity. The educator is framed as carefully moderating what DfE defines as ‘balance’ rather than enabling the student to nuance this concept through their own critical thinking.

We fear providing such guidance without any accompanying support risks stopping – rather than supporting – schools from addressing the very issues that affect young people. It is often said that citizenship is like a muscle: if not exercised regularly, it goes out of use. While the guidance supports talking about citizenship, it is circumspect about the doing of it which is what actually exercises the muscle and empowers young people to hold decision makers to account. Such rights are not just a ‘nice to have’ but ones on which our collective futures depend.

Following this guidance, we at OSW urge educators to continue their vital work of supporting democratic participation of their students in a safe, responsible and caring way. Young people are in many ways a living resource on the needs, complexities and solutions within our societies. Rather than stifling this important resource, the government must use it. 

Our Shared World

About Our Shared World

Our Shared World is a broad coalition advocating for SDG 4.7 in England by 2030. First chaired by Oxfam and WWF-UK, and currently chaired by SEEd and CoDEC, OSW is a coalition of more than 150 members.