Schools’ impartiality guidance has ‘chilling effect’ on discussions of extremism

·4-min read
Someone using a keyboard (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Wire)
Someone using a keyboard (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Wire)

The Government’s political impartiality guidance for schools is already having a “chilling effect” on discussions of controversial topics in schools, a union leader has said.

Patrick Roach, Nasuwt general secretary, said that pupils have their “own curriculum” regardless of what might be on the formal curriculum in schools, and that teachers were already raising concerns about what they could and could not discuss with pupils.

Speaking at the Nasuwt teaching union annual conference on Saturday, he said: “One of the biggest concerns that I’m hearing from teachers is the extent to which young people are being exposed to hate speech.

“And there is a concern that is expressed by teachers about the extent to which they feel…the Government, but also their schools, their employers, will have their backs if they raise controversial issues in their classrooms,” he said.

He said that the Government’s recent guidance on political impartiality for schools had “upped the ante a little in terms of teachers’ own sense of ‘Is this OK for me to be discussing this or that issue in the classroom’.”

Teachers want clarity,” he said.

“Any so-called controversial issue is going to be there in classrooms.

“It may not be part of the formal curriculum…to some degree, irrespective of what teachers say at the front of the classroom, kids have got their own curriculum that they’re exploring.”

He said that the guidance was already having a “chilling effect” on the kinds of conversations teachers felt able to have with their pupils.

Members were already asking “What does this mean and how will this impact on me’ (which) tells me it’s already having a chilling effect, it’s leading to teachers asking questions of themselves.”

The conference is due to debate how to tackle the growing problem of “incel” culture in schools, as seven in 10 teachers say they have experienced misogyny at work.

“Frankly, we’re only just beginning to understand the scale and depth of the problem out there in schools,” Dr Roach said.

“Schools…reflect back to us what’s happening in our wider society,” he added.

“Anyone having any illusion that somehow schools are safe from sexist and misogynist behaviours and practices, frankly would be naive in the extreme – it would be reckless to say that.

“So it’s vitally important that we firstly understand and acknowledge the problem of misogyny in schools, and secondly that we have some policy responses to that.”

Patrick Roach (Simon Boothe/Nasuwt/PA) (PA Media)
Patrick Roach (Simon Boothe/Nasuwt/PA) (PA Media)

He added that policy responses needed to train headteachers to deal with the issues of online sexism.

“What do disciplinary and behavioural policies need to look like?

“How can we address the problems of misogyny on social media, not just about what’s happening in the classroom…but actually, even more invidious is how it plays out 24/7, because that kind of abuse and targeting and denigration…has its origin on social media,” he said.

He added that the Government’s Online Harms Bill should be “explicitly” addressing this issue and that it worried him that the Government had not moved ahead with proposals to make misogyny a hate crime.

“We want schools to be safe places for learners and for those who are working in schools,” he said.

“It’s important that schools should operate as a safe sanctuary for children and young people; it’s often one of the only places of safety for many young people in their lives,” he said.

Nasuwt will also debate a motion on how to combat the rise of far-right nationalism and hate speech which is “filtering rapidly into our schools” during its conference in Birmingham over the Easter weekend.

Dr Roach said he was not against police having a role to play in schools but that the Child Q case, where a young schoolgirl was strip-searched on her period by police, was an example of the growing trend of “illegitimate” policing.

He said that young people were being targeted by criminal gangs and that “we’re not in the business as a union of saying schools should have no truck with the police or vice versa”.

“The elephant in the room here is Child Q, of course.

“I’m at pains to see how any behaviour policy which stripped the child… of basic dignity and their human rights, that’s not about whether the police have a legitimate role to play in schools, that’s about legitimate policing.

“And unfortunately we’re seeing far too many examples of illegitimate policing whether that’s in schools or on our streets,” he said.