EDUCATION – POLITICAL NEUTRALITY IN SCHOOLS – 10 March 2020
Dr Julian Lewis: I am surprised that it is necessary for my hon. Friend [Marcus Fysh] to raise this issue. In May 1986 a group of peers, led by Baroness Cox, successfully amended what was then the Education Bill to ensure that politically contentious material, if raised and discussed in schools, must be handled in a balanced way. In June 1986 the Government accepted that. My understanding is that that ban on political indoctrination has been carried forward in subsequent legislation, so I am surprised that this is even an issue today.
The Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb): ... As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) correctly said, that is provided for in legislation. Section 406 of the Education Act 1996 requires teachers to provide a balanced political view in relation to the direct teaching of pupils by forbidding
“the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject”.
Teachers may express their personal views, which can sometimes be useful in prompting debate and discussion within the classroom, but in doing so they must have regard to the teacher standards governing professional competence and conduct to ensure that they show tolerance of and respect for the rights and views of others.
Dr Lewis: I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that the 1986 amendment was carried forward in subsequent legislation. Does he agree that, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) said, it is perfectly normal for politicians to go and talk about politics in their local schools? However, when I put forward a view – I speak for myself and I hope for her and most other hon. Members – I always emphasise that there are other politicians who would put forward a contrary view. That is perfectly allowed, is it not, by the legislation?
Nick Gibb: My right hon. Friend is right, and I try to do the same thing. One piece of advice in the legislation is that, when teachers teach about political issues, they do not express their views in a way that would exploit pupils’ vulnerability or undermine fundamental British values. When I speak to young people, I always bear that in mind and point out that although I am a passionate supporter of the free market, which I think creates and helps spread wealth in the most effective way across society, there are others who believe that a planned economy and more regulation is a fairer and better way of running an economy. I try to make those points before saying that my personal view is the former. I am delighted to hear that he takes a similar approach.
Section 407 of the 1996 Act requires that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, they are offered
“a balanced presentation of opposing views.”
Balanced in that context means fair and dispassionate. The law does not require teaching staff to adopt a position of neutrality between views that accord with the great majority of scientific opinion and those that do not. Therefore, if a particular theory represents mainstream opinion, there is nothing to prevent a school indicating a strong preference for that theory while making minimal but dispassionate reference to the minority view. However, many of the issues to which my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend refer are not in that category but those where large sections of society take opposing views.
Dr Lewis: The circumstances of 1986, which led to the legislation, were that some people were advocating the introduction of anti-imperialist studies in schools, and peace studies – anti-nuclear propaganda – was also being spread. It was those paradigm cases that led Parliament to legislate, and I am grateful to the Minister for his clear utterance that such legislation still holds good today.
Nick Gibb: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That legislation is still in force. Being from the same era as him, I too recall the debates that took place at that time.