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Political Neutrality in Schools

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:10 am on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 11:10 am, 10th March 2020

My right hon. Friend is right, and I try to do the same thing. One piece of advice in the legislation is that, when teachers teach about political issues, they do not express their views in a way that would exploit pupils’ vulnerability or undermine fundamental British values. When I speak to young people, I always bear that in mind and point out that although I am a passionate supporter of the free market, which I think creates and helps spread wealth in the most effective way across society, there are others who believe that a planned economy and more regulation is a fairer and better way of running an economy. I try to make those points before saying that my personal view is the former. I am delighted to hear that he takes a similar approach.

Section 407 of the 1996 Act requires that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, they are offered

“a balanced presentation of opposing views.”

Balanced in that context means fair and dispassionate. The law does not require teaching staff to adopt a position of neutrality between views that accord with the great majority of scientific opinion and those that do not. Therefore, if a particular theory represents mainstream opinion, there is nothing to prevent a school indicating a strong preference for that theory while making minimal but dispassionate reference to the minority view. However, many of the issues to which my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend refer are not in that category but those where large sections of society take opposing views.

My hon. Friend raised the reporting of Stormzy’s visit to a primary school. Schools remain responsible for what is taught and we expect them to have in place robust safeguarding policies that should set out clear protocols ensuring that visiting speakers are suitably supervised. The school should have a clear understanding of why the speaker was chosen and make guests aware of the school’s expectations, such as: abiding by its equality commitments; there must be no statements that might cause offence to others or otherwise undermine tolerance of other faiths or beliefs; and there must be no extremist material.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more to equip children to question and evaluate the information they are presented with, whether that is in newspapers, on television or online. Apart from how teachers present political or any sensitive or controversial subject, the content of the curriculum they teach is vital. Schools have a role to play in teaching children to be savvy consumers of media and information. The best way to do that is by providing them with the fundamental knowledge they need to be able to make informed decisions and critical judgments. That is why we reformed the curriculum to provide the core knowledge that children need to understand the world.

Daniel Willingham, the American academic, author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”—I highly recommend that book to anyone interested in the education debate—and proponent of the use of scientific knowledge in the classroom, says that processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought—that is, domain or subject knowledge. Therefore, if a student is reminded to look at an issue from multiple perspectives often enough, he or she will learn that they ought to do so, but if they do not know much about an issue, they cannot think about it from multiple perspectives. We can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice they will probably not be able to implement the advice they have been asked to memorise. Therefore, just as it makes no sense to try to teach students factual content without giving them opportunities to practise using it, it also makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content.

The national curriculum we inherited in 2010 had been stripped of too much knowledge, with a heavier focus on the skills of learning. The Government therefore embarked on significant reforms to the national curriculum with the aim of restoring the importance of subject knowledge in all its complexity and fascination. In 2014 the new, more ambitious and knowledge-rich national curriculum came into force in England, and from 2015 we introduced more rigorous GCSEs. That is the most efficacious approach to helping young people to be more discerning and challenging of the views expressed online and in wider society.

The reformed national curriculum sets out a core body of knowledge that should form part of a school’s curriculum, giving schools the autonomy to decide how to teach it to maximise pupil understanding and address their misconceptions. The 12 national curriculum programmes of study not only avoid political bias by focusing on core subject knowledge, but enable teachers to consider how pupils can better evaluate and challenge fake news or misleading information, which can often be presented to them in social media as facts.

My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend referred to guidance. We issued amended guidance in summer 2018 to remind schools of their responsibilities. The online staffing and employment advice for all schools was updated to say:

“All staff have a responsibility to ensure that they act appropriately in terms of their behaviour, the views they express (in particular political views) and the use of school resources at all times, and should not use school resources for party political purposes.”

I hope that provides my hon. Friend with some reassurance that we take these issues extremely seriously.