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17th Feb 2022 7:14pm Blogs

ACT's Response: New DfE guidance 'political impartiality in schools'

Our counter following the publication of recent political impartiality guidance for schools.

ACT’s Response: New DfE guidance ‘political impartiality in schools’

We welcome the DfE encouraging schools to teach political issues as part of subjects including Citizenship and history – this is essential in a democratic society. In the introduction to the DfE guidance, the Secretary of State, Nadhim Zahawi makes clear that teaching of political issues is an important part of the curriculum.

‘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.’

He goes on to point out,

…nothing in this guidance limits schools’ freedom to teach about sensitive, challenging, and controversial political issues, as they consider appropriate and necessary.

It is important that schools and teachers are supported with training and continuing professional development so that they become confident in teaching about political issues and using an open classroom climate and remaining impartial. We know good Citizenship teachers do this. But often we find teachers, in particular non-specialists, are concerned about getting this wrong, and at present we are a very long way from having a trained Citizenship teacher in every school. Recent research by the University of Sheffield and University of Sussex showed that less than half (36%) of teachers surveyed say they feel well prepared and confident about teaching controversial political issues.

The national curriculum for Citizenship and GCSE Citizenship Studies requires pupils to learn about politics, democracy and government and to participate in democratic action aimed at making a positive contribution to society. This can involve investigating current political issues and campaigns and deciding on how to take action themselves, and this is an important part of the subject as well as more broadly learning how to be an informed and democratic citizen.

Bernard Crick put it well. ‘Education should not shelter our nation’s children from even the harsher controversies of adult life but should prepare them to deal with such controversies knowledgably, sensibly, tolerantly and morally’ Berard Crick, Education for Citizenship and Teaching Democracy in Schools, 1998.

Channel 5 Interview

Non-statutory guidance from the government is helpful, but often focuses on interpreting the law and setting out what teachers should not do. However, we also need to focus on what teachers can and should do as part of good classroom pedagogy and part of our role at the Association for Citizenship Teaching is to provide training, support and guidance for teachers.

We need to trust teachers; they are one of the most respected professions in society. If young people don’t encounter different political issues, opinions and views in the classroom, which is a safe space in which to discuss and debate, they will do so unmediated through the internet and peers – and we are all concerned about the proliferation of misinformation and conspiracies.

Sometimes the guidance appears to be overly concerned with the differences of opinion and in places lacks the clarity which is so important when discussing these matters. What teachers need to do is focus on exploring the evidence behind a particular viewpoint and how we critically evaluate those views. We also need to focus  on what we do want teachers to do well when teaching these issues and topics. In our recent work for the Welsh Government, we set this out as practical guidance for teachers including:

  • Get to know and understand your learners so you are aware in advance of issues that may be particularly sensitive for them
  • Start with short, limited activities to establish norms and gauge your learners’ responses
  • Plan ahead carefully to set ground rules with learners
  • Teach learners how to engage in debates with people with diverse opinions
  • Find a variety of resources to reflect a range of views, perspectives and groups
  • Check the resources you use before you introduce them into your teaching
  • Treat participation in debates as a right
  • Teach learners how to read, interrogate and interpret political sources of information
  • Think carefully about the roles you may adopt in class (e.g. devil’s advocate, neutral facilitator, challenger) and be prepared to change through the lesson
  • Encourage learners to empathise with a broad range of opinions (think about why people have different views)
  • Talk about how we might manage situations where we give or take offence
  • Connect issues back to the broader political debates
  • Develop clear learning intentions relating to knowledge and skills
  • Think ahead about when and most importantly why you might share your own opinion
  • Use a variety of approaches to  encourage engagement and discussion (pairs, small group, discussion)

Make sure practitioners and learners know where to go if they have concerns.
Of course the simplest way to ensure there is balance when teaching political issues is to ensure there is a well planned, sequenced and progressive Citizenship curriculum with regular lessons and opportunities to engage with diverse perspectives on political issues.

Liz Moorse, Chief Executive, Association for Citizenship Teaching

Further Reading

Teaching Citizenship and Politics Education. Guidance for practitioners and remaining impartial

DfE guidance (Feb 2022) Political impartiality in schools