There is something especially hypocritical about this, of all governments, telling schools that they should not use material that could ‘undermine the fundamental British values of democracy [and] the rule of law’ It was, after all, this government that firstly broke the law by seeking to prorogue parliament and then, having been judged guilty, announced its intention to ‘clip the wings’ of the judiciary. It is this same government that has recently agreed to break international law by unilaterally seeking to amend the EU withdrawal agreement and, in the process, threaten its international obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. It seems however that the leitmotif of the Johnson administration is one rule for you and another for us.
The government has raised widespread concern, both from those in education and those involved with civil liberties, by an addition to the guidance it gives to schools on relationships education. The guidance warns against using material supplied by what it terms ‘external agencies that take or promote extreme positions’ and gives a list of examples of ‘extreme political stances’. One example which has caused particular worry is ‘a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections’. Alongside right and proper examples such as the use of racist or anti-Semitic language, another example of an ‘extreme stance’ is “a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property”.
It is easy to think of historical examples that would fall foul of these broad definitions. The actions of the suffragettes, or the ramblers engaged in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout spring readily to mind, so it is to be hoped that there is no intention to extend this crude censorship from relationship education to the study of history or other aspects of the curriculum. A free and open society needs young people to understand all aspects of its past and current debates, not just a whitewashed version that supports a particular narrative.
Defining opposition to capitalism as inherently extreme is particularly problematic. There is a great deal of evidence that our current economic model, based on ever increasing consumption, is environmentally unsustainable. There is a legitimate and pretty mainstream argument that the deregulated model of capitalism currently championed by the USA and the UK is in need of fundamental reform. This heavy-handed intervention from the Department for Education risks stifling debate on one of the most fundamental questions of our time.
The schools minister Nick Gibb has defended the guidance, asserting that “the materials should give schools the confidence to construct a curriculum that reflects diversity of views and backgrounds, whilst fostering all pupils’ respect for others”. This is not a view shared by all. The fear is that schools will play safe, restricting even the supply of factual information developed by campaigning organisations and unnecessarily limiting the range of views to which pupils are exposed.
Perhaps that is the undeclared intention. Suppressing the expression of ideas that challenge conservative ideology is certainly consistent with other recent actions of this government, whether it is the proposed appointments of known right wingers to chair Ofqual and the BBC or the crude threats made by the culture secretary against museums that remove controversial objects.
There are echoes in this debate of the battles around Section 28 in the 1990s and the early years of this century. In 1988 the conservative government included in the Local Government Act provisions aimed at preventing ‘expenditure by local authorities for the purpose of promoting homosexuality’. This had a predictably chilling effect on what schools felt they could say about gay and lesbian relationships. According to the NUT[AB1] many felt unable to present factual information about non-heterosexual relationships or even to tackle homophobic bullying. The words of Tony Benn opposing the legislation could apply just as well to the current restrictions.
“If the sense of the word ’promote’ can be read across from ’describe’, every murder play promotes murder, every war play promotes war, every drama involving the eternal triangle promotes adultery.”
Yesterday’s bogeyman for those feeling threatened by social change was homosexuality. Today it is Extinction Rebellion and calls for the radical changes needed to counter the threats to the planet from climate change and mass extinction. After first pandering to fear and prejudice, leading conservatives gradually realised that they were on the wrong side of history and in 2003 Section 28 was repealed. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 15 years to rectify this mistake.