Limiting political topics in English schools will hurt minority pupils, critics say | Schools

Restrictions on political topics in schools will hurt young people by stifling discussions of the polarized arguments and issues they are exposed to on social media, according to the former government mental health champion.

Natasha Devon said minority young people would be the biggest losers if the new guidelines meant teachers in England were afraid to provide students with a safe environment to discuss issues.

“I work with young people aged 14 to 18 and my experience is that young people bring ideas from social media, from activists they admire, into the classroom,” said Devon, who was the very first mental health champion for schools. .

“Teachers try to help them make sense of these ideas and discuss them in a non-partisan way. But the desire to address these things in the classroom comes 100% from young people, it is not a case of indoctrination by teachers.

This week, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, published guidelines aimed at teachers in England, as part of a government effort to dampen critical debate over the history of the British Empire and controversy over the role of leaders such as Winston Churchill.

The guidelines – which are a restatement of statutory regulations and existing legal obligations – stress the need for impartiality when teaching “contentious” issues such as imperialism. He cautions teachers against adopting or defending “extreme” political positions such as those he claims are being taken by the Black Lives Matter movement, which is named by name in the document as needing to be balanced.

But Devon likened the guidelines to the Section 28 regulations regarding classroom discussions of homosexuality in effect in the late 1980s and 1990s.

“With article 28, it was not forbidden to talk about homosexuality, it was forbidden to ‘promote’ homosexuality,” she said. “But what happened is nobody talked about it and I think the same thing is going to happen now which will hurt minority students by taking away their space to explore issues like race. and social justice that affect them all the time. .”

Rowena Seabrook, Head of Human Rights Education at Amnesty International UK, confirmed: “Government guidelines for schools are unnecessary – and they will have a chilling effect in classrooms across the country.

“Suggesting that teachers not use material from social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter is entirely partisan and lacks balance and safe spaces for students to explore issues labeled as ‘controversial’.”

Natasha Robinson, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies how controversial subjects are taught in history lessons, said the advice “leaves teachers feeling like they could be bludgeoned for most of what ‘they teach”.

She added: “Giving teachers a list of things they shouldn’t talk about, or things they should avoid, is very different from giving them practical strategies in the classroom. When a student makes a racist comment or a highly partisan political comment, how do teachers respond? It takes a lot of talent. And this report – because it’s so vague – just comes across as alarmist.

Nick Lowles, chief executive of Hope Not Hate, a campaign group against fascism and anti-racism, said the DfE guidelines appeared designed to create headlines on “culture wars” rather than improve education.

“Turning the need to teach children about racism and prejudice into political football is cynical and does little to help schools navigate this complex subject,” Lowles said.