A question of bias, or is that truth?

Earlier last month, and perhaps not unexpectedly, the DfE (Government department responsible for children’s services and education, including early years, schools, higher and further education policy, apprenticeships and wider skills in England) published a new document entitled Guidance – Political impartiality in schools. It’s a brave government indeed that chooses to step into this minefield, particularly in the light of the incredibly active political scene as it has been in 2022, as short as it has been so far. You can find the whole guidance here.

Now I am accepting that our current Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Nadhim Zahawi MP looks likely to be a ‘good’un’. His background seems impeccable for a politician: his family fled Iraq in the early years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, and Nadhim commenced his secondary education in the state sector, before moving to a fellow ISA school, Ibstock Place, Sixth Form at KCS, Wimbledon before gaining a BSc in Chemical Engineering at UCL. He made his fortune in business through setting up the YouGov poll organisation and was elected to parliament for Stratford, and in recent times has made a fairly meteoric climb to lead the Education ministry, partly enabled by his successful management of the vaccination programme.

The background to the new guidance in my view is more than a bit murky, but let’s take at face value the statements the reader encounters in the introduction. I am selectively quoting for ease, and for no other reason. There is certainly nothing not to like about the following paragraph (para 2) from his forward : “Teaching about political issues, the different views people have, and the ways pupils can engage in our democratic society is an essential part of a broad and balanced curriculum. It is an important way in which schools support pupils to become active citizens who can form their own views, whilst having an understanding and respect for legitimate differences of opinion.

The next paragraph begins to ring some alarm bells: “Over the last few years, there has been much discussion about political impartiality in schools, often in the context of specific political issues and movements. I know that this has at times been difficult for school leaders, teachers, and staff, as they navigate how to handle and teach about these complex issues sensitively and appropriately. That is why I’m pleased this government is publishing clear guidance explaining schools’ existing legal duties on political impartiality.

Since the election of the current administration, we find ourselves in the hands of politicians, of whom some are are at least economical with the truth and at worse just bare faced liars who have betrayed the trust the electorate have placed in them. Whilst these opinions are personal to me as an adult member of our democracy, I hope I do not overstep the mark when as a headteacher and I certainly don’t plan anytime soon to call out individuals in parliament as part of my school duties. I won’t though be the only headteacher appalled to learn this morning that the last Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson has been knighted with immediate effect. The simple statement from Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street could not be simpler: “Knighthood. The Queen has been pleased to approve that the honour of Knighthood be conferred upon The Rt. Hon. Gavin Williamson CBE MP“. I will leave it to the reader to make up their own minds about the suitability of such urgent appointments made with little relevance to the international emergencies of the day the country faces.

Back to Zahawi’s foreward: “Legal duties on political impartiality ultimately help schools command the confidence of our whole diverse and multi-opinioned society. Parents and carers want to be sure that their children can learn about political issues and begin to form their own independent opinions, without being influenced by the personal views of those teaching them. I know teachers themselves feel similarly.” (para 5).

Herein lies the ‘rub’. Teachers cover a vast wealth of content in the curriculum, and have to tackle some of the most challenging issues of the day carefully and without too much emotion. Our next parents’ consultation is to cover the raft of materials now expected to be taught in schools, that being on Relationship & Sex Education. To say that this is a challenge when the curriculum is already ‘busy’ is an understatement, though as a school we have prioritised health & care with nurses and counselling being appropriately resourced throughout this century. Our teachers and nurses work together to educate, inform and awaken in our young people the knowledge and understanding they need in a world beset with perils. Children have never been more at risk from sexual exploitation, though the risks (and crimes) have been with us throughout my professional life. This week’s report from the Independent Inquiry Child Sex Abuse (ICSA) is evidence of this, in which it makes the following statement in its executive summary:

“The instances of the sexual abuse of children presented in this report will shock and horrify.
They represent the antithesis of everything that a school should be. For many victims
and survivors, the impacts have been profound and lifelong. Some perpetrators have
been brought to justice, but many have not. Some of those in positions of authority and
responsibility have been held to account for their failures of leadership and governance in
varying degrees, but many have not.

Schools have been at the heart of the problem, and in the many cases researched by the enquiry, it’s been the headteacher that has been to blame:

“Headteachers need to ensure that there is a positive culture of safeguarding in their
schools and be aware of the heightened vulnerability of children to sexual abuse in specific
educational settings. Too often, however, the Inquiry saw examples of headteachers who
found it inconceivable that staff might abuse their positions of authority to sexually abuse
children, were unaware of current statutory guidance or did not understand their role in
responding to allegations against staff. Some were more focussed upon protecting the
reputation of the school than protecting the interests of the children.”

It’s a problem shared though across the sector, with local authorities and national government also a cause of the problem:

The report identifies many shortcomings and failings in current systems of protection,
regulation and oversight which need to be addressed and it makes recommendations to help
remedy them. The report also highlights more systemic questions concerning the efficacy of
those current systems which will be returned to in the Final Report of this Inquiry.
Regulation of education in England and in Wales is complex, there being a multiplicity of
types of provision and providers, and systems of inspection and oversight. Since the early
1990s, there has been a plethora of statutory and non-statutory guidance concerning how
to keep children safe in education which has changed greatly over time. That guidance is not
always fully understood or adhered to, in part because it is not sufficiently precise and clear.

As the Independent enquiry keeps surfacing, there remains a huge issue with resourcing in schools, which is coupled to the utter fragmentation of the sector, so that it is almost impossible to join the sector up. Where once there was a local authority with the education, health and care resources in its hands to manage its 100 schools and such like, most of those schools have been removed from local authority supervision by the government’s academisation programme which is now set to be for 100% by the end of the decade. As with so many other changes wrought over the last 15 years, these changes have been largely to move schools into the government’s direct care, without having the locally based oversight in place to keep tabs and manage safeguarding. 

In summary, the government will d to respond positively to the raft of independent reports that continue to surface the uncomfortable truth that the national estate is not quite in the robust condition their fine words in parliament and for the media suggest. And anecdotally, I sense that most of the health & care sector is on ‘blue light’ only locally, and even then , only if you are lucky!

This Wednesday, one of my pupils banged his head at the end of the day, and so the ambulance was called to attend; 4 hours later and the service had been still unable to locate one! As qualified first aider, I then sat in the family car with the child alongside, with the parents driving to the A&E at the hospital, some 8 miles away. We are into the 3rd year of enduring such poor capacity locally, and no sign yet of any potential signs of improvement.

Today, I was contacted by the local authority with oversight of a child who left us in December, whose personal mental health problems were far too extreme to permit day school attendance. They still have not managed to secure for him either visiting private tutor support or residential care placement, initially identified over 12 months ago.

The government is really worried that, in highlighting that we must teach about citizenship, equality, RSE and manage the reality of living in multi-racial Britain where inward migration remains not just a necessity but a right for so many, that the ‘realpolitik’ of doing so will persuade future voters (current students) that any government other than the present would do better.

So let’s go back to the guidance for teachers on this:

Understanding terminology: School leaders, staff and teachers will need to interpret the terminology in schools’ legal duties on political impartiality using their reasonable judgement. The following descriptions of some key terms from the legislation may be helpful in supporting this.

… forbid the promotion of partisan political views

In relevant case law – Dimmock v Secretary of State for Education and Skills [2007] – the court considered that the best synonym for the term ‘partisan’ is ‘one-sided’ and suggested that ‘political views’ are those expressed with a political purpose, such as to further the interests of a particular partisan group, change the law or change government policy. This could be on a wide range of matters such as economic and social issues at a local, national, or international level. Schools should be aware that ‘partisan political views’ are not limited to just political parties. They may also be held by campaign groups, lobbyists and charitable organisations.

Let’s consider the statement below, which reaches the nub well:

…take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that, where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.’

Within science education at the moment, and a very big issue for our generation, Global Warming is now an agreed scientific fact, not a political issue, so we should be able to use source material and solutions from COP26 as part of the roadmap for our classes. NOT SO FAST, I hear some of you say, because of course the solution to the problem will remain a political decision, and depends upon the actions of the government of the day. We must not use the materials published by Greenpeace for example, because they are partisan.

Within History education, we have to teach in considerable detail about Slavery, its British context, its ‘abolition’ as well as its ‘ongoing presence in the 21st century’, both the past and present, the benefits its practice brought to our economy but many of the obvious sources of material from Amnesty international would be forbidden. Current observers of the government can see just how vexed they became when the perpetrators of violent riot and damage in Bristol were discharged by the judge at their trial.  The three men and a woman who helped pull down a monument to the slave trader Edward Colston at a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest were found not guilty by a jury after they successfully argued they had a lawful excuse. Here’s a fact, our position in law, and covered by that glorious freedom we have because our judiciary are free of government control. So we should be able to teach that then.

The government is now trying to race through parliament its 2021 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, including new powers addressed at assembly and damage to remove from the public their rights to assemble at protest. I’ve chosen Wikipedia rather than some more colourful source choices to highlight why the bill is now in difficulty:

The bill’s second reading was on 15–16 March 2021, by 359 votes to 263. As of 30 April, the bill had passed to the committee stage for consideration by the public bill committee. The committee was due to report back to Parliament by 24 June. The Big Issue subsequently claimed that this date was delayed, partly due to pressure from protests. The third reading of the bill was agreed to by the House of Commons on 5 July 2021 by 365 votes to 265, a majority of 100. On December 15, 2021, the House of Lords continued the report stage after accepting a number of amendments.

On January 17, 2022, the Bill came up for debate in the House of Lords amid widespread protests. The Lords subsequently rejected many of the bill’s key provisions, with one peer branding the restrictions on protests “repressive” and “nasty”. The bill will now go back to the Commons to be discussed and amended, as it cannot be passed until both houses agree to the changes.

On Monday this week, the government updated the Policy paper: Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021: protest powers factsheet in order to assuage the second house and thousands of other informed opposition groups that the bill doesn’t really set out to do the things its opponents say it will. Methinks these issues are going to take rather longer to settle, particualrly when the international picture highlights that governments elsewhere can’t be trusted.

I worry that this government cannot stop trying to manage huge change to our ways of working and civic understandings with regulation and law at such a pace. I fear that the pandemic has given 10 Downing Street and the close Civil Service a further taste for powers they might yet acquire, as evidence for which I receive almost daily briefings and direction. Causing us to have yet more regard for how we teach and educate our youngsters may seem an innocent suggestion but it’s far more controlling than that. And the sheer disregard for the professional views of our sector is made even more obvious by the Prime Minister’s valediction of Sir Gavin. I’ll leave it to the Yorkshire Post (not yet a prohibited organ) to spell out those feelings:

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
This entry was posted in Possibly related posts. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.