This Academy of Ideas Education Forum discussion is a satellite event for the Battle of Ideas festival 2021.
If classrooms were once considered a safe haven from adult political disputes, schools today seem to have become battlegrounds in the culture wars. Pupils, teachers and parents have been in the crossfire of controversy. Legislation that aims to insulate schools from political controversy seems impotent amid bitter clashes over how and if teachers should engage pupils over biological sex, sexuality, gender identity, and religious and citizenship education. Alongside pupil climate-change activism and the ethics of cultural awareness days and unconscious bias training, few areas of school life now seem immune from broader toxic disputes.
Issues of race and religion have become particularly fraught. The suspension of three teachers from Batley Grammar School for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a religious-studies lesson, with one teacher still in hiding for fear of violent retribution, may be an extreme example of cultural conflict. But demands by students and activists to remove offensive material from school curricula and threats of discipline for teachers who won’t conform seem to be increasingly frequent occurrences.
Meanwhile, in response to the murder of George Floyd in America, many pupils and teachers were keen to use the moment to assess curricula for bias and to pursue unconscious-bias strategies. However, assessing education content and practice through the prism of race has also created new tensions. For example, there was a furore at Pimlico Academy in London last term: a new uniform policy which prohibited hairstyles that ‘block the views of others’ and hijabs that were ‘too colourful’ was cited by pupils as evidence of the school management’s racism. The backlash led to the headteacher’s resignation.
Attempts at diffusing such controversies can also be counter-productive. For example, when ministers demand neutrality in the classroom, some have argued that the government is making matters worse, using education to conduct a culture war against a range of targets, whether radical environmentalist teachers, anti-racist educationalists or traditional religious parents. Yet given that spending on English state schools now tops more than £51 billion, few would argue that the elected government of the day should not set broad priorities for schools.
Is it reasonable to be concerned that NGOs and politicised teacher activists are – as alleged – using state-funded education to ‘indoctrinate’ the young? Or is this a straw-man argument, used by a Conservative government to demonise left-leaning educators? What should political teachers do to confront what they believe to be bigoted views among pupils or their parents? Must teachers really be balanced on every issue? Is it a problem that matters of educational policy are rarely debated on their own terms, and are instead viewed through a culture-war prism? Should education be focused on the transfer of knowledge and the development of critical thinking? Or has an interest in cultural awareness and the political socialisation of young people become as important as academic standards?