Battle for the classroom: education or indoctrination?

Buxton Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 25 November, Devonshire Dome, Buxton


School has a key role in encouraging pupils to become engaged, independent thinkers. But this task has become highly contentious as newspapers reflect many parents’ concerns that classrooms are becoming as concerned with political activism as passing on ‘the best which has been thought and said’.

In the Policy Exchange research report The Politics of the Culture Wars in Contemporary Britain, academic Eric Kaufmann suggests that activist teaching is now widespread in the UK and beginning to have an impact on the views of young people. Six out of 10 school leavers say they were either taught about ideas associated with critical race theory – such as white privilege, systemic racism and unconscious bias – or they heard about them from an adult at their school. Sixty-five per cent say they either encountered the concept of patriarchy or the idea that there are multiple genders from adults at school. What’s more, the government has become embroiled in widespread concerns that parents are being sidelined by schools when it comes to gender transitioning that often takes place with the encouragement of schools but without parents’ consent or even knowledge.

However, some argue this narrative of politicised teaching is a caricature, itself a political act of dragging schools into the Culture Wars. Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), warns that politicians’ hype about impartiality could induce such uncertainty and caution in schools about ‘political issues’ that students will be ‘denied the opportunity to engage with the most challenging issues of our time’, including racism and climate change. Furthermore, political matters – such as teaching ‘British values’ – have always informed school curricula.

Do accusations of indoctrination simply reflect political disagreement with a new ‘woke’ emphasis? Should schools go beyond narrow academic goals and teach our children how to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty and promote environmentalism? Should we accept social justice in schools as a natural reflection of discussions in wider society, or is it time to insist on a clear distinction between the political and educational domains? Can contested political ideas be dealt with in classrooms by allowing a range of views to be discussed or should schools steer clear of tackling political controversies altogether? Have education and indoctrination become blurred?

Penny Lewis
lecturer, University of Dundee; author, Architecture and Collective Life

Agnes Snow
art foundation student, Manchester Metropolitan University

Ruth Wareham
lecturer in Philosophy of Education, University of Birmingham; education policy researcher, Humanists UK

Clive Wright
headteacher, St Martin’s Catholic Academy

Dr Ruth Mieschbuehler
senior lecturer in education studies, Institute of Education, University of Derby; author, The Racialisation of Campus Relations