In the discussions teachers and leaders are having in their schools about what to teach, there are going to be a hundreds of decision points where alternative choices are being weighed up. These will happen at the macro level: what subjects to offer; how much time to give them; which choices students can make. It will happen extensively at a detailed level within subjects: topics, concepts, points of view; facts and opinions; interpretations and biases. It will also happen at the level of themes and causes that are promoted through assembly and PSHE programmes and awareness-raising events (all the X Day and Y months that pepper the calendar).
The challenge for leaders and teachers is to get enough of a grip on all of these decisions so that the curriculum aligns with the school’s stated values; so that there is a coherence to the messages students are receiving; so that everyone knows where things stand. There’s a two-way challenge:
- It shouldn’t be left to individual teachers to make big values judgements alone, in isolation from the school’s position, filling a vacuum left by unclear or unstated policy.
- It also shouldn’t be allowable for teachers to go off-piste, undermining established collective positions, imposing their personal world view on the curriculum regardless of the wider context.
It should be possible to set out a set of positions that are arrived at through consultation and consensus-building amongst a school’s stakeholders – not fixed in stone, not beyond debate – but regularly reviewed, updated, refined and bolstered as needed and always communicated clearly.
Ideally these are not just background positions – they are defining statements of intent that shape the school ethos in every corner, proclaimed boldly at every relevant opportunity.
Here are some specific areas that will need to be explored in most schools.
Now more than ever schools should be looking at their stance on racism and the extent to which their curriculum supports students to understand and tackle racism. Anyone who says ‘there’s no racism in our school’ is likely to be kidding themselves. And as increasingly being said, ‘no racism’ isn’t even good enough; there’s an imperative to engender pro-active anti-racism. Part of this is considering the content of the curriculum so that issues around colonialism and the persistent legacy of slavery are understood. There’s so much to say about that – I’m nowhere near the point of being able to offer specific informed suggestions although I’m working on it. Everyone should be. The point is that school leaders should know exactly how their school curriculum develops anti-racist thinking, how it deals with Britain’s colonial past and where the knowledge and understanding needed is located across the curriculum. It’s far too important for a couple of teachers in History and PSHE to sort out amongst themselves based on their personal beliefs. (This happens).
LGBT+ Rights and Sex Ed.
There are so many aspects to this. It’s still the case in many schools that amongst staff, let alone amongst students, – and definitely amongst parents – there is work to do to establish a solid position on homosexuality, homophobia and LGBT+ rights in general. Plenty of teachers are uncomfortable talking about gender issues, sexual orientation and challenging homophobia and transphobia outside of specific teaching moments. Increasingly schools need to catch up on their attitudes to protecting the rights of transgender people in their community, understanding the issues around gender dysphoria and the challenges and complexities that emerge as between childhood and adulthood. As with racism, it’s not just about gestures and collecting the badges of kudos – being a Stonewall Champion, for example – or having a few gender neutral toilets; it’s a much deeper ongoing process of attitudinal change that’s needed and that takes a lot of sustained work.
There’s a whole raft of issues related to Sex and Relationships Education that are all too often given the most cursory treatment in the curriculum. One ‘drop-down day’ per year on Sex Ed isn’t good enough; barely better than nothing. It needs care and attention given the issues at hand: contraception, abortion, sex for pleasure, masturbation, gay sex (often absolutely absent), pornography… etc etc. Who has the skills and knowledge to manage this ultra-sensitive curriculum? Who decides the messages that are given and values that are communicated? It can’t be left to chance.
There are lots of science facts that are sometimes distorted into ‘debates’ as if it’s legitimate for people to simply choose to adopt an opposing view because they feel like it. Schools need to take clear standpoints supporting teachers to hold the line in the face of ignorance. Some examples are:
- Vaccination: It’s not ok to discuss the ‘anti-Vax’ position as if its some kind of 50:50 debate or ‘Celtic vs Rangers’. It’s actually irresponsible. Schools should be approaching vaccination-denialism for what it is: quackery. Same goes for homeopathy and astrology – there’s no place for giving them legitimacy in a school curriculum. Why? Because they are untrue; provably so.
- Climate Change: We can discuss multiple factors for climate change; we can explore issues around long-term cycles and short term cycles – but we’re not going to sell children short by indulging their youtube-filled notions that climate change is some kind of hoax. (See also moon landings.) We have a responsibility to ensure all children understand how global heating works as a direct consequence of human activity. Do we preach veganism yet? We probably should – but that’s not something a school or individual teacher can do without engaging its community in a very big debate.
- Evolution. It’s a fact as secure as any other in science and should be taught as such. Any curriculum that elevates ‘intelligent design’ or creation myths of any sort to something approaching a reasonable plausible alternative to the science of evolution is a scandal. Again, teachers shouldn’t be left high and dry; schools need to make their position crystal clear so that any folklore alternatives, any “well my Dad says…” alternatives are anticipated and teachers know what to say. They teach the science and locate the myths where they belong
Political Engagement; Matters of Faith and No Faith.
I’ve always believed that it is patronising to children and deeply inhibiting for teachers if they have to hide their political persuasions, their faith or their atheism. I’m a life-long Labour voter. I don’t believe there is a God; I’m a staunch atheist; a humanist. I can’t hide those things even if I pretend to. However at the same, I am duty bound as an educator to recognise that other people have entirely opposite views: faiths and political persuasions of all kinds.
Are children best served if we create the illusion of neutrality – or if we create a culture that celebrates constructive political engagement and philosophical debate about our evolved existence on our lonely pale blue dot.? I think it’s the latter – provided that there are multiple voices. For some this is controversial but I’m happy for children to know (or work out) their teachers’ political affiliations and whether they are Christian, Jewish, Hindu or don’t believe in god at all – if that’s evidently part of how they identify themselves. There are official guidelines on this but, in practice, schools still need to police the reality of any policy according to their own agreed values.
If dress codes allow some teachers to identify faith affiliation, it should be ok to identify as having a no-faith position. If teachers can canvass during elections in their own community, and campaign on specific political issues then political leanings are there to be known even if they are never expressed as ‘party political’. The point here is that teachers need to operate with the protection and guidance that ensure their convictions are not suppressed but keep within an agreed set of principles and values aimed at educating children to form their own views; not compelling them to accept theirs.
The list could go on.. including, for example, approaches to speech. If a student says ‘Today we done an experiment. It went good’ – what’s the appropriate response? Is this something each teacher works out for themselves or is there an agreed approach informed by discussion and training?
Each issue needs care and attention. Mainly I think schools need to understand how often these issues arise, to locate them firmly within the ‘curriculum’ remit and be mindful that, unless formal positions are taken, teachers will fill the vacuum on an ad hoc basis putting themselves and the school at risk and creating a philosophical muddle that is confusing and even potentially damaging to children.
The task of leaders is to engage their communities in these debates so that they can stand in front of any audience and proclaim confidently and proudly: This is what we believe. This is what we teach. This is who we are.