Teaching and politics have an uneasy relationship. The ways that educators work – from the curricula they follow to the budgets they are set – are heavily influenced by the decisions of politicians, yet expressing our views about politics in the classroom remains controversial.
One difficulty, particularly in subjects like citizenship, history, sociology, and government and politics, is maintaining an objective view of the conflicting political perspectives we teach in class. In sociology, for example, I’ve had to keep my own views under wraps in discussions on immigration policy and its effects on demographics, healthcare and education, to avoid bias in how the students view the competing perspectives.
Issues such as these have been all the more difficult to teach over the past year, as political discourse has become increasingly polarised during and after the EU referendum, and with other big changes, such as Donald Trump’s election as US president, taking place.
Thinking for themselves
Although it’s been good to see students engaged with the topics and linking them to current affairs, their arguments about the EU referendum have veered from an evidence-based analysis of facts, figures and research – which they have shown themselves so capable of in essays and assessments – and focused instead on the questionable soundbites from politicians and dubious statistics presented by both the remain and leave campaigns. These included labelling leave voters as ignorant and believing the seemingly concrete assurance that the NHS would be getting an extra £350m a week.
The passionate classroom debates were often matched by similar ones in the staffroom. But whatever an individual teacher’s views might be, it is important to remember that sections 406 and 407 of the 1996 Education Act prohibit the promotion of partisan political views in schools.
Headteachers, governors and education authorities are responsible for ensuring that teachers offer an objective presentation of opposing political views, and teachers need to be aware of their own biases. This is vital – if we expect students to think for themselves, we must teach them to do so rather than depending on the opinions of others.
Ted Huddleston of the Citizenship Foundation offers some practical strategies, which include giving equal importance to conflicting views; presenting these views as open to interpretation; and avoiding putting forward personal opinions as facts. We should take care not to patronise or dismiss others’ viewpoints, to avoid facial expressions or tones of voice that may prejudice a point of view, and to establish an environment where students are free to express their views. Continue reading “From Brexit to Trump: should teachers talk politics in the classroom?”