Brexit. Donald Trump. Teachers strikes. Politics is a major part of the lives of our students. But just how much should we be talking about politics in the classroom?
Political discussions are becoming more polarised. From the ongoing EU debate, Donald Trump’s presidency, even teachers pensions, people are increasingly aligning themselves fundamentally against an opposing view. Especially with increasingly insular political networks on social media.
Whilst 50 years ago students might have had no interest in talking about politics, today there is a thirst for knowledge, discussion and debate. And students have an increasing pool of knowledge already built through news, social media and debate at home.
Take the Parkland Shooting students as an example. Students are political. Across the UK, campaigners are calling for the voting age to be reduced to 16. In Scotland, it’s already happened. If there were to happen across the nation, politics would surely need to become a more integral part of the learning environment.
Talking about politics remains controversial
Despite this, talking about politics in the classroom has always been controversial. Some teachers flat out refuse to engage. Potentially, a single step out of line could lead to a disciplinary, parental anger, and even social media outrage. So it’s understandable why politics in the classroom is often questioned and rejected by teachers.
For some teachers, rejecting some form of political discussion is nearly impossible. In subjects such as history, citizenship, sociology and even geography, questions around leadership, immigration, society and climate change are bound to arise.
Flat out rejecting to speak around these issues can hinder students’ knowledge and understanding of a subject. For this reason, it is important for some teachers at least to talk about politics in the classroom. But should all teachers engage with politics in the classroom? Should politics arise in a maths lesson, for example?
Teachers shouldn’t promote their own political agenda
It’s important to note that sections 406 and 407 of the 1996 Education Act prohibit the promotion of partisan political views in schools.
Regardless of how strongly a teacher feels about a political issue, they cannot actively promote their views in the classroom. But that shouldn’t stop us allowing our kids to involve themselves in healthy political debate.
For balance, classroom discussions on a political issue should always remain neutral. Every viewpoint should be allowed the space to be aired — even those that are diametrically opposed to a teacher’s.
Likewise, views should be presented as open to interpretation, with evidence given for and against. If the class can’t offer an alternative view on a political issue, a teacher can play devil's advocate to raise potential counterpoints. In this scenario, opposing views should be explicitly expressed as not being your own.
A student’s stance can be questioned too. Especially if they provide no evidence to back up their opinion. For a student to become educated in democracy and critical thinking, they need to learn that an opinion is just that — an opinion. For a reasonable political debate, evidence is key. From the classroom to the polling booth, all the way to The House of Commons.
What should you do if a student asks for your
Even though most teachers understand that teacher neutrality is vital for an authentic, lively political debate in the classroom, what often happens is that a student will ask for your personal opinion. This is where potential issues lie.
Being the inspiring teacher that you are, school students respect your standing. But our personal views can be more penetrating than you might imagine. And if a parent or a person of authority discovers you expressing them in the classroom, it can lead to serious problems. For this reason, teachers more often than not choose to keep their political opinions to themselves.
A former alternative approach that some teachers engaged with was to offer their opinion, whilst also making it very clear that it is only one perspective amongst many, simultaneously offering opposing perspectives. For many teachers, however, this approach was problematic. There is a very fine line between sharing opinion and forcing children to think in a certain way.
In September this year, the Department of Education also warned teachers against expressing political opinions in front of pupils. So though some teachers may have once advocated airing their political opinions, today it’s not only controversial, it’s potentially career-ending.
Political topics that can be discussed risk-free
Politics doesn’t have to be Donald Trump, Brexit or immigration policy. There are some topics that can be discussed openly without risking heated controversy. These topics are almost always uncontroversial and built on already established facts.
For example, we know that climate change is scientifically proven. We know it’s happening. This makes it a great political discussion for students. Especially with increasing coverage in the media.
However, the debate shouldn’t be whether climate change exists. On this topic, the debate could, for example, be centred around what we could do to help to solve the problem. Likewise, a class could debate which countries are offering the best solutions to climate problems.
On both of these topics, encouraging students to create and engage in opposing campaigns, and then debating them with each other can give them a solid grounding for how democratic debates work. They can also encourage listening to opposing views, as well as understanding how to critically assess opinions that they don’t initially align with. Often, during this process, teachers can learn as much as their pupils!
Politics is an essential part of our lives. Whether we watch the evening news, are involved in political activism, or write to our council to collect our recycling bins more regularly, politics underpins our existence. And with social media, we engage with politics more regularly than ever.
From a young age, students form political opinions based on things they’ve overheard from their parents, family or from social influencers online. It is important for our students to understand how critical, democratic political debates work. The classroom is the perfect place for this to happen.
Though teachers shouldn’t express their own politics in the classroom (especially considering the latest DoE guidelines), political debate shouldn’t be written off. When a teacher remains neutral and enables authentic debate to develop, our students can leave school with all the tools they need to healthily engage with politics now, and in the future.