This week Nadhim Zahawi’s Department for Education issued new guidance to schools on how to teach contentious subjects such as the Israel-Palestine conflict.
This is an overdue step in the right direction. It clarifies that schools mustn’t parrot the talking points of partisan organisations on sensitive issues, but should approach them in a balanced manner. It reminds schools that they have an obligation to be impartial, unlike a Nottingham School where pupils who, after watching a documentary critical of the Prime Minister, were then encouraged to write letters calling on him to resign.
However, the guidance operates at an abstract level, with little indication of how partisan teaching will be monitored, or what the scale of penalties is for repeated non-compliance. The devil is always in the details, and here we find precious little on how Britain’s misdeeds should be contextualised (did other places have slavery and empire?), the definition of balance (50-50 or 99-1?), and positive guidelines on what should be included in the curriculum (i.e. the excesses of communism and utopianism).
In all these respects, the guidance lags far behind important developments in America which have outlawed, for instance, teaching that white children are part of an oppressor class because they share the same pigmentation and culture as those who instituted racism in the past. While such bills have occasionally departed from liberal values by banning books, their main thrust — which seeks to protect children’s right to equal treatment — is sound and should be emulated in Britain.
Many also include a requirement for materials on controversial subject areas to be placed online, which British guidance should include. Newer American legislative initiatives also mandate that schools must teach about the genocidal excesses of the Left as well as the Right in civics classes, rather than skewing instruction solely toward the sins of the latter. This is vital for a more balanced view of the past to take root in future generations.
In addition, the guidance shies away from precision over the contentious topics most likely to cause problems.
For instance, it says that certain values are consensual not political, such as ‘challenging discrimination and prejudice, including racism.’ That is true for traditional racism, but what if a teacher decides to broaden its remit to include ‘structural racism’, which holds that gaps in racial outcomes are prima facie evidence of discrimination? Or that saying ‘anyone can make it in Britain’ reflects unconscious bias? Nothing in this guidance would prevent the teaching of an unscientific Critical Race Theory (CRT) approach.
The guidance gets concrete on questions such as climate change, but avoids setting out examples of what balance might look like in controversial subjects such as empire, the trans debate and racism. While Black Lives Matter is mooted, the only stipulation is that teachers don’t advocate for defunding the police. Stonewall goes unmentioned. Nothing would prevent the teaching of CRT or a strongly Left-biased approach to British history so long as a minor chord of centrism was included. Teachers are told they ‘should ensure’ they are not expressing their personal views as fact, but allows school leaders to decide if they wish to enforce this or not.
Without more clarity around the definition of contentious terms, enforcement mechanisms, curriculum content and transparency, this guidance is unlikely to achieve its objectives.