New DfE guidance on RSE curriculum for Schools in England

Throughout the past year schools have been holding their breath waiting for the government’s pronouncements on Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), an area the government has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century to implement. The content of the guidance on RSE is worth another blog but that is not what I am writing about nor what has caused an education twitter storm.

It is strange indeed that a document which purports to be about guidance in implementing RSE suddenly lurches off into diktats about the dangers of exposing children to material ‘promoting extreme political positions’. It is as if learning about the overthrow of capitalism might be relevant to a session on consent in sexual activities. What is the government trying to achieve? Why now? What does it say about its attitude to education?

Because RSE in schools is often taught as part of a PSCHE programme, the government appears to have used this opportunity to issues edicts on the Citizenship aspects of these programmes. There was pressure on Gove from the right during the Coalition to drop Citizenship altogether. This did not happen and it is still part of the national curriculum. How schools are supposed to teach about ‘the role of political parties’ and at the same time ‘forbid the pursuit of partisan political activities by junior pupils’ is not explained. Presumably all those mock elections which Labour regularly win in schools will be banned. In spite of repeated assertions about the importance of our democracy the guidance seeks to prevent access to materials which may argue for the abolition of capitalism. Surely our democracy is about the expression of various orientations to capitalism: support it, let it be, regulate it, reform it or replace it with something better. Preventing discussion along these lines with pupils seeks to limit the democracy the guidance so fervently supports and prevents access to a range of academic thinking pupils will encounter later.

So why now? Despite the fact that only 49% of teachers voted Labour in 2019 the right see teachers as the main reason why young people support the party and are threatening the Tories’ future hegemony. The Bruges Group, in an article called Playground Politics -The Rise of Left Wing Bias in British Schools, with no evidence apart from the anecdotal and one off, claim ‘young people are being trained into a lefty way of thinking’ and are being taught to ‘see the Conservative Party as evil’. This is part of the alt-right’s culture war along with attacks on the BBC the judiciary etc.. Typically, the Tories believe young people have no minds of their own. They fail to understand that recent youth rebellions on climate change and Black Lives Matter do not come from within schools. The guidance clearly targets these two movements. One edict prohibits work with agencies who teach ‘that requirements of English civil or criminal law may be disregarded whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise’. This could be applied to the civil protests of Extinction Rebellion (XR) as well as say Quaker materials on peace and conscientious objection. Another ‘extreme position’ is the promotion of ‘divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society’. This is clearly a reference to Black Lives Matter and the decolonisation of the curriculum agenda. The idea that both these movements originate from leftie teaching in schools is bizarre and plain wrong. Young people in South London have been complaining about the rigid curriculum and the racism not being recognised or dealt with by schools.

Underlying the guidance is the right’s ideology of education which sees young people as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. The consequence of them expressing uncomfortable opinions which do not match the views of the Conservative Party must mean they have been filled with the wrong kind of knowledge. Note the introduction to the guidance;- ‘Teaching should clearly explain the knowledge, facts and concepts needed provide adequate opportunities for pupils to recall the acquired knowledge, facts and concepts to develop an understanding of the topic’

At no point are pupils asked to develop their own points of view based on evidence or come up with critiques of views being presented to them. At no point are teachers asked to challenge pupils’ thinking. Young people are perceived as being incapable of thinking for themselves about complex issues.

An effective RSE programme will address pornography and whilst it cannot be shown in the classroom its content should be discussed openly ion the classroom. Why? Not because schools should be in any way promoting it but because most young people have seen it online and often come away believing that it represents what having sex is about. These attitudes need challenging and the reality of the industry, its exploitation of women and the effect it has developing fulfilling and trusting relationships need teaching.

Similarly, teachers should be trusted to use materials expressing ‘extreme positions’ and I would argue this should cover the gamut from right to left. Questions around democracy, freedom, law and conscience are complex and cannot be reduced to edicts in a government document. There is no reason why, for example, pupils should not be able to consider in an age appropriate way a question such as ‘Should there be limits to Freedom of Speech in a Democracy’? They could explore what is meant by democracy, the law on hate speech, look at examples of left and right propaganda , yes some of it extreme, and come to a view after research, thought and discussion.

The sad reality is that as well as trying to arbitrarily limit what is considered in PSCHE lessons the DfE is actively trying to prevent pupils thinking for themselves about some of the most important and complex issues we face. It is also trying to blame teachers for its own failings in addressing racial equality and tackling climate change.

James Whiting
General Secretary
Socialist Educational Association (SEA)

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