Last week a student asked me who I voted for in the general election. I faltered. I couldn’t decide whether or not my personal political beliefs had a place in the classroom. It’s a question that many teachers struggle with. However, in the current political climate, the question of how teachers engage with politics feels increasingly urgent.
The institution of public education is inherently political. Regardless of whether or not you think it’s a good thing, our school system reinforces certain social and cultural values. For example: the division of knowledge into specific disciplines and the preeminence of maths, English and science; the concept of having our work and intelligence assessed and graded; the imposition and acceptance of authority and rules; the belief in a capitalist system; and the belief that formal education is of value.
Totalitarian leaders will have a tight, politically motivated, hold over what is taught in schools. They will erase swathes of history and promote obedience to the regime. Education institutions are a powerful tool for pushing an agenda. Though not so heavy-handed and pernicious, politics still comes into the curricula and classrooms of democratic countries.
Take the English GCSE syllabus. We have moved from studying poetry from a range of cultures to a renewed focus on the English literary tradition. Neither approach is inherently better suited for the study of literature, but they have different implications for what we signal to young people is worthy of study and what we, as a society, deem to be high art (and what type of people we consider to be great artists). There are political motives behind both approaches: and students notice. As John Agard writes: ‘Dem tell me bout Columbus and 1492 / but what happen to de Caribs and de Arawaks too’ (incidentally, this is the one poem by a black writer in the new AQA Literature anthology).
History is especially politically charged; it is often more telling what is left out than what is put in. Currently, there is a clear movement towards a more Anglo-centric curriculum that seems to chime with a Conservative government’s vision of what every British student should know about. Are we giving students a grounding in their own culture and national identity or are we depriving them of a broader understanding of the world and our relation to it? This question is political rather than historical.
The most discussed element of this debate, however, is that of teachers’ own political beliefs and biases. The Telegraph, Daily Mail and Spectator all carry articles arguing that there is a left wing bias in British schools. Some of these arguments are hysterical in their tone and fail to realise their own biases, while former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s condemnation of ‘the Blob’ (his term for what he perceived to be the change-resistant majority of UK educators) was a divisive, political term that allowed him to shrug off any dissenting voices.
However, some make a legitimate point. It’s true that, generally, teachers lean left. For example, in the UK, far more teachers vote Labour than Conservative while most teachers are members of trade unions, many quite actively. This is likely the case for a number of reasons. As public sector workers, teachers have had their pay frozen while schools tend to expect budget cuts from right wing governments. Moreover, teachers work closely with young people and their families and so tend to see first hand the effects of cuts to child mental health services, welfare and other social institutions.
This is unlikely to change anytime soon, but is it a problem? There is a clear concern that teachers will unduly influence the political beliefs of their students. Members of extremist political parties such as the BNP have already been banned from the classroom but clearly, there is a difference between racist fringe groups and centre-left political views. In my experience, though teachers do tend to lean left on issues such as education spending, LGBTQ rights and the NHS they have much more varied views when it comes to foreign policy, immigration and even welfare spending. Politically, teachers are much more heterogeneous than many people suggest.
I don’t think we should be too concerned. Firstly, we have already legislated against political indoctrination. Section 406 of the Education Act, 1996 bans the promotion, by teachers, of party political views and section 407 compels teachers to provide a balanced treatment of political issues.
Secondly, most teachers are not affiliated to a specific political party and have no interest in pushing a partisan agenda. Not least because this would be poor pedagogy. The idea of political influence is largely irrelevant in subjects such as maths, languages and PE. It only comes up in science around sex education and, in the US, the teaching of evolution. The real concern must be in subjects like history and English. However, a good teacher would feel uncomfortable offering students a biased analytical lens. Of course it happens but these teachers need to be picked up on their teaching practice rather than their political persuasions.
In fact, I would argue that teachers are not political enough. Many teachers are wary of discussing politics with students because of a fear of appearing biased. Moreover, while it is illegal to push a specific partisan agenda in schools, teachers do have an obligation to promote the values of a pluralist democracy such as: social justice; political equality; tolerance; human rights; respect for the rule of law and a commitment to negotiation and debate as the ideal way of resolving public conflict. This is clearly a political agenda, but one with which, I would hope, most British citizens would agree. There is a danger that in a rush to condemn teachers who hold political beliefs, we discourage others from teaching young people about basic democratic and moral principles.
With older students, in classes where I am teaching non-fiction texts, I have taken to declaring my bias. I will say that I tend to have left of centre political views that will consciously and unconsciously affect my interpretations of pieces of writing and that they should call me on it. I stress that I understand that other members of the class will have different perspectives and I will respect their views (though this could include challenging their ideas). My aim is to model how to hold a political view while also being able to engage with others. If we create a political vacuum in schools, how will students be able to respond to politics when they leave?
The problem comes with someone like Donald Trump. The US President has endorsed torture and singled out millions of people because of their religion, banning many of them entry to the USA. Trump has made the support of basic human rights a partisan issue. His actions are clearly in contravention of the principles of a pluralist democracy and the UK government’s 2014 definition of ‘British Values’. It is unacceptable to pretend that his is just one side of the argument. There comes a point where the pursuit of balance distorts reality. Yes, we should explain to students why torture is not effective (as well as morally reprehensible) but we should not feel obliged to treat it as a debate, in the same way we should for issues such as Brexit.
Schools should never become a recruiting ground for political parties, nor should they privilege one version of history (or reality) over another. However, if we tip too far the other way, educators will become hesitant or fearful about approaching political issues. Teachers should expose students to a wide range of political beliefs and perspectives. They should also actively and unashamedly uphold common values that have been enshrined in UN and British law. And when political leaders such as Trump and his apologists attack these values, teachers should be unafraid to challenge these dangerous hypocrisies.