Where do schools stand legally on teachers airing their political views in the classroom? Michael Segal explores this sensitive issue
QUESTION: May political views ever be promoted or presented in the teaching of a subject in a school?
ANSWER: In Dimmock v Secretary of State for Education and Skills  ELR 98, the Secretary of State decided to distribute to every state secondary school in the UK a copy of the former US vice president Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, a film about ‘the dangers’ of climate change. With the film came reference to a guidance note on a website.
The father of two sons at a state school applied for a declaration that the decision was in breach of s.406 and s.407 of the Education Act 1996.
- Section 406 says that the LEA, governing body and head teachers must forbid the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in school.
- Section 407 says that the LEA, governing body and head teachers must take reasonable steps to ensure that, where political issues are taught, pupils are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.
By the time the case came to be heard, the film had already been distributed, but the court heard the case, because its guidance could be useful in future.
It was agreed that the film was not simply a science film, although it was clearly based on scientific research and opinion, but that it was a political film. But was it ‘partisan’?
The judge considered that the best synonym for ‘partisan’ was ‘one-sided’. On this basis, the Secretary of State conceded that the film was partisan.
The second question was the meaning of ‘offer a balanced presentation of opposing views’. Opposing views existed: a Channel 4 film, The Great Global Warning Swindle.
The father said that there is a breach of s.406 any time a partisan political film is shown to pupils.
The judge disagreed: s.406 is not breached whenever such a film is shown. If, for example, a history class is shown Nazi propaganda, or a citizenship class is shown a racist film, this is not ‘promoting’ the views shown, but merely presenting them.
The judge said: ‘What the statute forbids is political indoctrination. If a teacher uses … a classroom to promote partisan political views … then that would offend against the statute.
‘If on the other hand a teacher … presents to his pupils … with the appropriate setting and with proper tuition and debate, a film or document which itself promotes in a partisan way some political view, that cannot possibly … be the mischief against which the statute was intended to protect pupils.
‘It would not only lead to bland education, but to education which did not give the opportunity to pupils to learn about the views with which they might … agree or disagree.’
The guidance note
The judge also referred to the guidance note. After noting a DfES news release that referred to ‘making sure that every secondary school in the country has a copy of the film to stimulate children into discussing climate change and global warming in school classes’, the judge said that it was not sufficient simply to refer to the website, but that the guidance note must itself be a part of the pack.
A balanced approach
The father argued that if political issues were to be brought to the attention of pupils, then there should be ‘equal air time’ for opposing views.
But the judge preferred the Secretary of State’s argument that the statute cannot require in relation to every political issue an identical presentation of the opposite view.
What is required is a balanced approach. The word ‘balanced’ in s.407 means nothing more than ‘fair and dispassionate’.
The guidance note had in fact been amended, to say: ‘The film promotes partisan views (that is to say, one-sided views about political issues); teaching staff must be careful to ensure that they do not themselves promote those views; they should take care to help pupils evaluate the scientific evidence critically; they must be careful to offer pupils a balanced presentation of opposing views, and not promote either the view expressed in the film or any other particular view.’
The judge said that, with this amendment, the Secretary of State had set the film in a context in which teachers could show it without promoting partisan views it contained.
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