Education figures hit out ‘censorship’ of anti-capitalism in new teaching guidance

"It's laughable to put talking about alternatives to capitalism on par with racism."

Youth organisations and democracy activists have hit out at new teaching advice for schools in England, which critics say risks censoring left-wing perspectives.

A coalition of organisations and activists has written to the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, to challenge new guidance for Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) released last week.

The DfE’s Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum document urges schools against using resources produced by organisations that take “extreme political stances”. Examples cited by the Department for Education include “a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections,” SchoolsWeek reported.

Now a letter coordinated by Shout Out UK, an educational platform and social enterprise which works with young people, warns that the new guidance risks creating a culture of censorship.

The 31 signatories include the Association for Citizenship Teaching, the Centre for Education and Youth, Young Citizens, as well as progressive campaigners including LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell and Compass director Neal Lawson.

It is not clear how many schools ever draw on explicitly anti-capitalist resources in the RSE teaching.

The Socialist Educational Association said it was ‘strange’ that a document which purports to be about guidance in implementing RSE ‘suddenly lurches off into diktats about the dangers of exposing children to material ‘promoting extreme political positions, adding: “What is the government trying to achieve?” The guidance has been seen as a new plank of the government’s ‘culture war’ against ‘cancel culture’, no-platforming, and trans issues.

In response to a question from Left Foot Forward, Keir Starmer’s spokesman said: “Gavin Williamson should stop seeking cheap headlines and start sorting out the crises he has overseen in his department.”

Matteo Bergamini, CEO and Founder of Shout Out UK, told LFF: “I am proud to be leading a coalition of organisations in the political education and democracy promotion sectors in response to the latest RSE guidelines. It’s laughable to put talking about alternatives to capitalism on par with racism. Learning about alternatives enhances positive debate and democracy. Censorship solves nothing.”

Letter in full

Dear Mr Williamson,

We write this joint open letter as a coalition of organisations in the political education and democracy promotion sectors to raise our concerns about the Department’s guidance on relationships, sex and health education (RSE) issued on Thursday 24th September 2020.

We acknowledge that this guidance has been issued to schools in the context of RSE, not the PSHE umbrella it sits within, but we are nonetheless concerned about the precedent this may set for other aspects of the curriculum, and the impact it may have on teachers’ confidence to cover political topics.

The guidance states that: “Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters”, and provides a non-exhaustive list of examples. Our concerns revolve around this point in particular.

As advocates for widening access to education about political issues, we implore the government to consider that this regulation has the potential to censor the already minimal discussion of politics in schools. The guidelines serve to deny students the opportunity to engage with material from ‘extreme’ sources in a classroom environment, precluding informed debate and discouraging critical thinkingPolitical education continues to be either inadequate or completely absent for most students in the UK; we want to ensure that any window of opportunity to discuss politics is as wide as possible.

With respect to this guidance, which is non-statutory implementation guidance, we seek urgent clarification on the following points:

  1. How schools are to facilitate a sufficiently diverse dialogue on topics within the RSE curriculum without limiting themselves unnecessarily for fear that the resources they wish to use could be interpreted as being in breach of the guidelines;
  2. Whether the Department can assure educators that these stark restrictions will not be extended to other subjects in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, leaving schools free to continue to teach an array of contested ideas and viewpoints without fear of recrimination; 
  3. Whether schools can continue to work with, and draw on the resources of, civil society organisations and education providers who embrace open dialogue and diversity of thought to achieve a nuanced approach to complex social and political topics.

Students must be armed with the Political and Media Literacy skills to ensure that they can understand and discuss political issues with a critical mindset. ‘Extreme’ political organisations will exist whether or not schools are allowed to discuss them in the classroom, but this guidance deprives students of the chance to tackle them head-on. Politics necessitates dialogue and the continual contestation of ideas. Schools should be a safe place for this to happen without fear of recrimination or censorship.

Signed By

  1. Matteo Bergamini, CEO & Founder of Shout Out UK
  2. Kate Harris, CEO & Co-Founder of VotesforSchools
  3. Caroline Hunt, Equal Education Spokesperson, Women’s Equality Party
  4. Tom Franklin, CEO, Young Citizens
  5. Harriet Andrews, Director, The Politics Project 
  6. Klina Jordan, Co-CE, Make Votes Matter (personal capacity)
  7. Tom de Grunwald, Co-founder, Forward Democracy
  8. Ayesha Garrett, Director, Sortition Foundation.
  9. Mete Coban, My Life My Say
  10. Greg Sanderson, Smart School Councils
  11. Keith Garrett, Leader, Rebooting Democracy Party
  12. Peter Dunphy, Director, Unite to Reform
  13. Dr James Weinberg, Political Scientist, University of Sheffield (personal capacity)
  14. Dr Andrew Mycock, University of Huddersfield
  15. Matilda Lawrence-Jubb, Director, Split Banana
  16. Sarah Matthews, Director, Sortition Foundation
  17. Philipp Verpoort, Director, Sortition Foundation
  18. David Jubb, Director, Sortition Foundation
  19. Tom Lord, Project Manager, Sortition Foundation
  20. Anna Alexander, Director, Split Banana
  21. Molly Scott Cato, Professor of Green Economics, Roehampton University
  22. Steve Williams, Education Consultant, former headteacher and schools inspector
  23. XR Citizens’ Assembly Working Group
  24. Neal Lawson, Compass
  25. Liz Moorse, Chief Executive, Association for Citizenship Teaching
  26. Loic Menzies, Chief Executive, The Centre for Education and Youth
  27. Shelley Metcalfe, Founder and Director, The Digital Life Skills Company/
  28. Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation
  29. Professor Matthew Flinders, Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, University of Sheffield
  30. Emily Evans, Chief Executive of The Economist Educational Foundation
  31. John McGowan, General Secretary, Social Workers Union

The views expressed in this letter represent those of the signatories and not necessarily their organisations or employers.

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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