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House of Commons Hansard
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Political Neutrality in Schools
10 March 2020
Volume 673

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered political neutrality in schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I should declare some interests in this topic. I have two children of primary school age and my wife teaches. Clearly, I am also a Member of Parliament, and I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on education. The APPG plans to do some work on the mental health and wellbeing of our children in the classroom, which I will come to later.

We are fortunate in Somerset to have brilliant schools and teachers, and measures to level up funding for rural schools are welcome. As elsewhere, we need to ensure that support for special educational needs makes a difference for the children involved—that is something else I would like the APPG to focus on—but in general we have dedicated and highly professional teachers and support staff in our part of the country.

I did not seek the debate to suggest that classrooms are a hotbed of radicalisation. However, I have been approached by concerned parents—I am sure I am not the only Member in that position—about incidents, in the run-up to December’s general election and at other times, that I am told included the airing of strong and aggressive political views.

The issue received attention in the national press just before Christmas, when the musician Stormzy was criticised for telling a primary school class of seven-year-olds that the Prime Minister is “a bad, bad man” and, like the big bad wolf, would blow their houses down. That was not the first time Stormzy had attracted controversy. Given his previous homophobic rants on social media and the language and themes of his music, it is not unreasonable to question whether he was an appropriate guest at a primary school in the first place.

Stormzy—or Michael, to use his real name—has well-known political views. Most of us will have seen him getting the well-heeled crowd at Glastonbury hot under the collar with his support for Jeremy Corbyn, but those views do not belong in a primary school. I would say the same if he had a strong anti-Labour message; this issue is not about political parties, but about the abuse of a position of influence.

In the last few years we have seen a coarsening of our political debate. In too many cases, reasoned debate has given way to name calling and abuse. Politicians are thick skinned, and we are increasingly used to people firing abuse at us from the comfort of their own homes. Our young children, however, will not understand that, and they should not be asked to.

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I am listening with care to the hon. Member. I absolutely agree that children, and particularly seven-year-olds, should not be subjected to the kind of language and approach that Stormzy was reported to have used, but is it not true that guest speakers who come into schools can be expected to be asked their political views? Certainly, whenever I go into schools I am asked what I think of the Prime Minister, of Brexit, of plastic and of climate change, and whether I have ever met the Queen. Is not the issue more about the appropriateness of the speaker’s response and the respect they give to the children and staff in the school than about their political position?

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I will come on to some of those issues, but the hon. Lady makes some valid points.

One of the big challenges facing us generally is why children are more likely than ever before to suffer from stress or have mental health problems. That is partly due to better diagnosis, which is a positive step, but there has undoubtedly been a rise in the number of young people with high anxiety. The role of social media and mobile phones in that is for another time, but being exposed to aggressive tribal politics and told that the country is being run by a very bad man certainly is not going to help.

This area becomes more complex when we consider that we want our young people to be interested in and engaged with politics. At a time when anything can be researched at the click of a button and the number of sources on any given subject is rising exponentially, it is more important than ever that children are taught the skills to make reasoned assessments and form balanced opinions. I am sure many of today’s politicians were inspired at school by certain teachers to choose the path of politics. The more people who choose to get involved and run for office, the better.

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I am surprised that it is necessary for my hon. Friend to raise this issue. In May 1986 a group of peers, led by Baroness Cox, successfully amended what was then the Education Bill to ensure that politically contentious material, if raised and discussed in schools, must be handled in a balanced way. In June 1986 the Government accepted that. My understanding is that that ban on political indoctrination has been carried forward in subsequent legislation, so I am surprised that this is even an issue today.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will address some of those issues in his response to the debate.

Teachers often bring the same positive attributes to elected office that make them effective in the classroom. Many become councillors or Members of Parliament, and our democratic institutions are richer for having them, along with the skills and insights into education that they contribute. Whether they should remain in education while they do so, however, is a valid question.

There may be no straightforward formula for how to inspire and inform without exerting undue influence, or for where being passionate about an issue undermines reason and constructive debate. Measures intended to ensure political neutrality may lead to schools being less stimulating. An important lesson for young people is to be tolerant and understanding of the views of others. It is also the case that some of our educational institutions, particularly universities, have a reputation for a particular political slant. I am not necessarily against that, but we must look at the age of the pupils and the extent to which they are able to critically assess the information put in front of them.

I do not wish to stray too far beyond the topic of the debate, but I am also concerned that some young people are encouraged into activism on environmental issues in a way that may not be entirely healthy. They may be better served by learning to assess rigorously how they know what they know, to delve deeply into the factual and statistical bases for various claims and to judge between them.

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The hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for bringing forward the debate, may be interested to know that research among young people involved in climate activism has shown that their mental health improved as a result of their undertaking appropriate but self-generated activity to support a cause they believe in. I thought that was very interesting.

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The hon. Lady makes a good point. I do not argue that activism should not be allowed; I just want people to be able to understand, on the basis of facts and statistics, why they might want to be activists.

It is hard to gauge the size of this problem and to compare it with previous times. The evidence tends to be anecdotal. I suspect there have always been teachers with strong views who have not held back in sharing them, although perhaps in the past those views were sublimated in interests in particular texts or topics. However, I can say that I have received complaints from constituents, and I doubt I am alone. I also know that those cases were less about the examination of political ideologies and focused more on personalities—an approach sadly reminiscent of Stormzy’s.

I sought the debate because I wanted to reflect the concerns of my constituents and to express my own views about the importance of our children’s mental health. Surely, learning that we can disagree with one other without using the language of hatred is one of the most important lessons there is. I accept that there is fault across the political spectrum, but we have only to look at Momentum’s contribution to Twitter to see how corrosive it can be when abuse becomes a normalised part of political discourse.

I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister is able to offer some reassurance that the Department is active on this issue. Parents should have a route to voice concerns in a way that does not affect their children, and teachers should have guidance that helps them to be confident in judging where the line is between passionate and coercive.

I have seen rather colourful comments on social media by teachers, who should be mindful that their pupils may be on the same platforms. Whether online or at school, teachers must inspire and equip our children to make up their own minds not just on politics but across a whole range of issues. I end by paying tribute to the overwhelming majority, who do just that.

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It is a pleasure to debate yet again under your careful and, if I may say so, unbiased stewardship, Mr Gray. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) for raising this important issue and the excellent way in which he opened the debate. He is right to warn about the coarsening of political debate in the country, which concerns many of us in this House. He is also right that young people should be encouraged to be passionate but not coercive in political debate and how they engage in it.

One of the most important principles that we want to uphold in education is political neutrality, in relation to both the knowledge taught through the school curriculum and the professional conduct of teachers in how they support pupils in and out of the classroom. Political education is an important part of a broad and balanced education that prepares young people for adult life, and we want young people to be informed and engaged citizens. To ensure that they receive such an education in an unbiased way, all state-funded schools must meet duties regarding impartiality and balanced treatment of political issues in the classroom.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) correctly said, that is provided for in legislation. Section 406 of the Education Act 1996 requires teachers to provide a balanced political view in relation to the direct teaching of pupils by forbidding

“the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject”.

Teachers may express their personal views, which can sometimes be useful in prompting debate and discussion within the classroom, but in doing so they must have regard to the teacher standards governing professional competence and conduct to ensure that they show tolerance of and respect for the rights and views of others.

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I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that the 1986 amendment was carried forward in subsequent legislation. Does he agree that, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) said, it is perfectly normal for politicians to go and talk about politics in their local schools? However, when I put forward a view—I speak for myself and I hope for her and most other hon. Members—I always emphasise that there are other politicians who would put forward a contrary view. That is perfectly allowed, is it not, by the legislation?

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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.

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The circumstances of 1986, which led to the legislation, were that some people were advocating the introduction of anti-imperialist studies in schools, and peace studies—anti-nuclear propaganda—was also being spread. It was those paradigm cases that led Parliament to legislate, and I am grateful to the Minister for his clear utterance that such legislation still holds good today.

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That legislation is still in force. Being from the same era as him, I too recall the debates that took place at that time.

The Government have actively supported teachers in developing their school curriculums beyond the national curriculum. Most relevant to this debate is the Government’s educate against hate website, which hosts resources for schools to support the promotion of democracy, including those on media literacy. Between September and November 2019, the website was visited over 80,000 times.

Schools do many other things across the curriculum to ensure that pupils are equipped to question and challenge what they read, watch and listen to. An online piece written by the headteacher of Passmores Academy in Harlow on the topic of fake news comments on how vital it is to teach young people to check their own facts. The head of English at that school organised activities including students learning the truth behind the scaling of maps in geography, how propaganda has been used throughout history, diet myths, the manipulation of statistics, and the role of computer-generated imagery in the creation of fake news. Additionally, media bias was debated, leading to extended pieces of writing being produced on the subject.

Online safety is an important component of the new relationships, sex and health education. From September 2020 it will be mandatory for schools to teach those subjects. They are about empowering pupils with the knowledge that will support their current and future relationships and health, enabling them to become active and positive members of society. Pupils will be taught about online relationships, the implications of sharing private or personal data online, harmful content and contact, cyber-bullying and where to get help and support.

In Ofsted’s new inspection framework, the personal development judgment focuses on the development of pupils’ character, their confidence, resilience, independence and knowledge. It includes matters such as pupils’ ability to recognise and respond to online and offline risks to their wellbeing.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil for securing this debate. He has raised important concerns, shared by other hon. Members, as we have heard. I hope that he is reassured that there is legislation and support for schools in place, to mitigate the threat of political bias in our school system and to help young people be resilient to the concept of fake news.

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Would Mr Fysh like to reply?

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I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his response, and I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. It is critically important that our young people are resilient to the impact of fake news and different types of propaganda, as he has set out. I thank him very much.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.