“Nothing has changed,” Theresa May was fond of saying, just as it was clear that things, in fact, had changed. The Dept. For Education in England has felt the need to release new guidance on how to tackle politically sensitive topics in an ‘impartial’ way. Teachers’ Unions are uncomfortable, saying this guidance might impinge on what schools might teach and, indeed, this is very much a curriculum issue. Nothing has changed in law but the guidance is being released because things have changed in the wider culture.
Reporting on this, The Times focus on ‘Stonewall’, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Churchill’, as well as deciding on what to teach, in what detail and when. Should younger children be taught that Churchill saved this country in its ‘darkest hour’ or that he was a flawed and complex character who could be classed as a racist… or both? (As an aside, if children were to watch the film ‘Darkest Hour’ they would have witnessed Churchill not being at all racist in an underground train during the war, but that throws up all sorts of other issues… I digress) Should children ever be taught that there are ‘one hundred genders’ and that there is such a thing as ‘White Fragility’?
The issue has been exemplified recently by a primary school, allegedly, getting pupils to write to their MP calling on the Prime-Minister, Boris Johnson, to resign due to the notorious ‘Partygate’ scandal.
There are many issues at play however, on the whole, I think teachers should teach a variety of perspectives, but things can also catch them unawares. Two of the ways that teachers can be caught unawares is the change in culture around them and also by operating in ideological bubbles in which they think that certain views are ‘common-sense’.
When I began at Infant School, Homosexuality was illegal, it was legalised but homophobic attitudes persisted. An enlightened teacher in 1967 might be the one who, at the time, went against the grain but retrospectively, looking back from 2022, might be the teacher we would all want to be. There is also, in teaching, the desire to cure societal problems. On the whole we would want to talk children out of joining gangs, of carrying a knife, of being racist and, quite rightly too, but when definitions and difference of opinions abound then should we avoid difficult topics or skirt over them, or teach them?
I think we should not teach white fragility as fact or that there are over one hundred genders but we should teach these things as perspectives on different topics – what the arguments are and why they might be considered controversial. Empire alongside Colonialism. Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, states that: “No subject is off limits in the classroom, as long as it is treated in an age-appropriate way,” which gives me hope that this ends up being a call for dialectic, for discussion – for perspectivism as an essential part of how and what we teach. Yes, even in science.
Then there are the so-called ‘British Values’, these, whatever they are deemed to be at a given time, should be up for question – firstly: what is British? Secondly: ‘what might those values be’? Thirdly: ‘Are they ‘uniquely’ British? And Fourthly: In times of conflict, whose side are ‘we’ on and why? Which brings us into direct conflict with the idea of perspectives, which are thrown into stark relief in times of war, what about the contrarian, the dissident, the enemy – how far to go to understand a perspective and how to be aware when a perspective is actually propaganda and/or a tissue of lies. Truth matters. As for opinion, as a democracy, we must be able to contain a variety of views, as a Nation state we must be aware of how we have to sometimes ‘come together’ in order to protect our democracy – free speech is not free if it costs us our freedoms. And sometimes we have to hold this negative capability tightly.
What happens to ‘age-appropriate’? I wouldn’t legislate about this, and hope that it is left to chalkface expertise, but I would point out that if politicians don’t want primary age children to take exception to their behaviour perhaps they should examine their behaviour? Though if the teacher was steering the lesson in that direction and not offering a range of views and opinions that might end up with some pupils writing letters of support for Johnson, I’d worry.
What of the primary school where John is no longer John and wishes to be known as Jane? Is there an age-appropriate way to handle this (hypothetical, but not unreal) issue, which doesn’t end up taking a side in a controversial topic yet still enables the school to support and take the side of the child? If the school were to say that Jane is a girl, that would fall foul of, some-people’s definition of what a girl/woman is. Would this fall foul of the guidance? If the school were to suggest that the child wishes to be treated as a girl, or some other identity that they feel fits them, then would this enable the school to deal with the issue in an age appropriate way without offering a lead as to ‘the facts’ of the matter? I’d be interested to hear what people think.