New Forest East



The Times editorial – 20 May 1986

A number of amendments have been tabled for today's debate in the House of Lords on the Education Bill. They are designed to prohibit political indoctrination in primary and secondary schools and to require a balanced approach to teaching politically contentious subjects.

They have the support of a broad crossbench coalition from Baroness Cox on the Conservative side through the independent Lord Annan to the SDP’s Lord Harris of Greenwich. The signs are that most of the non-payroll Conservative peers look favourably upon them. A Gallup poll conducted recently for Policy Research Associates suggests that almost two-thirds of the public are in sympathy with their broad drift.

The Government, however, with the support of the Labour benches, resists the proposed amendments. Under pressure, Ministers now propose their own anodyne amendment which, with its heavily qualified injunction that, where "reasonably practical", steps should be taken to ensure that the teaching of political topics should be "responsible", is simply a more devious way of resisting the Cox-Annan-Harris arguments.

The point at issue is not a major educational topic in the modern sense. That is to say, it does not require large public expenditures. It may not affect the great majority of children (though the extent of biased teaching is uncertain.) But it is a major point of principle.

Political indoctrination is objectionable not because it concerns politics – politics in the broad sense cannot be banished from the classroom – but because indoctrination is the opposite of education.

A teacher of history, for instance, will inevitably have to deal with topics that are still politically contentious. But how partisan aspects of such subjects should be taught is crucial. A teacher who conveys the view that there is only one valid way of thinking about political questions is not educating his pupils. He is indoctrinating them into a particular political tradition. And a subject like "peace studies", as it is often taught, carries within itself and within its terminology a set of attitudes which determine what the pupil should conclude rather than encouraging him to consider the various opposing arguments. The very title "peace studies" is an example of the propagandist's art.

No-one who favours education, then, could oppose the intention behind the amendments. Those who oppose the amendments themselves accordingly argue that they are either unnecessary or unenforceable.

It is said, for instance, that there is no evidence of political indoctrination in schools. But the complaints of parents reported in an earlier Lords debate, and the declared intentions of some teachers, are evidence that indoctrination is at least a danger to guard against. These claims might be exaggerated. If so, what harm is done by prohibiting a nonexistent danger? Similarly, if classroom indoctrination is too protean an evil to prohibit with complete effectiveness, a declaratory legal provision might nonetheless deter it.

In short, if Ministers persist in their resistance, their Lordships have cause to override them.

[NOTE: The House of Lords duly passed Lady Cox's amendment banning the teaching of politically controversial subjects in a partisan way in schools. The Conservative Government decided to accept the change, which became law as part of the Education Act 1986 and which remains in force today.]