The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Dr Karamat Iqbal

How should controversial issues be handled in the classroom?

In the second of his two-part series, Karamat Iqbal looks at how to teach pupils about controversial issues and instil confidence in staff.

Read part one, What is controversial in the classroom? 

Teaching of some curricula and the resources and methodologies used are left to the schools’ and teachers’ discretion. From time to time, however, specific guidance is provided by the DfE and its agencies. In such cases it is imperative that such advice is followed.

A recent example of this is the DfE guidance concerning relationship, sex, and health curriculum. This makes it clear how schools should approach political issues, advising against being partisan and instead offering a balanced presentation of opposing views.

A cautious approach

So, for example, your teaching on foodbanks (see my first article in this two-parter) leads you to teach about capitalism. You wonder whether you can discuss government policies that give rise to poverty that gives rise to foodbanks. Be careful! This might lead the discussion towards our economic system. As the DfE guidance states:

Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation.

So, given that you cannot avoid capitalism, how should you teach it? My advice would be to play it safe, staying on the right side of the guidance and not using resources from organisations known for their anti-capitalism views.

Using 'safe' resources to ask challenging questions

Two sources I would suggest are Sir David Attenborough, broadcaster and natural historian, and Dr Mark Carney, the economist and previous Governor of the Bank of England. It is unlikely that Ofsted or the DfE would be displeased with either of these people.

In a podcast interview with Liz Bonnin, Attenborough reminds us that our economic system is based on the profit principle: ‘it works in the short term but then it ends in disaster.’ In his view it is possible to live sustainably and for the economics to work on rather a different system from the one that is based on profit.

In the context of the climate crisis, he believes the standard of living of western countries is going to have to take a pause. Sounding like the Marxist he is not, he points out: ‘We will have to live more economically than we do. The excesses the capitalist system has brought us have got to be curbed. It doesn’t mean capitalism is dead but people across the world are learning that greed does not lead to joy.’

He then goes onto make quite radical (are they extreme?) statements, suggesting a redistributive approach.

  • ‘Maybe those who have a great deal should have less and those who have a little have a little more. The pandemic has taught us we are all in the same boat. There is no dominant nation.'
  • ‘A major shift of stance is required. The days of getting the best deal for us are over. Maybe we need to give to the other nations, because they have been deprived of it in the past or because such giving is actually for the greater good, including for us.‘

Dr Mark Carney, in his series of Reith Lectures, asks some challenging questions.

  • Why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies but the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it is stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland?
  • How can we reconcile our celebrations of the extraordinary values of the public service, dedication, and the heroism of healthcare workers with low wages and perilous working conditions?

He mentions words such as fairness, responsibility, sustainability, solidarity, dynamism, resilience, and humility. He reminds us that economics is not a neutral discipline and that markets should be seen in their broader social context as they are living institutions embedded in the culture, practice and tradition and trust of their day.

He reminds us of the short-term nature of government and, like Attenborough, ‘the inability of capitalism to curb its addiction to endless growth.’

Can schools avoid controversial issues?

What teachers teach is generally laid down in some curriculum or policy document from the national government and adopted at the local authority and school level. Teachers then plan their teaching accordingly. They are likely to know what they are going to teach many days and weeks in advance.

So, imagine one day being told that students have been given the morning off, so that the area surrounding the school can be made safe after a riot. This is exactly what happened in the county of Ferguson in Missouri USA. On August 9, 2014, the police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown near the school. Wilson is white; Brown was black and also unarmed.

Within a few days, Ferguson was engulfed in riots... Some schools in the Ferguson area delayed their scheduled opening to allow work crews to clean up the post-riot debris and to make sure that students could be transported safely. When they finally opened their doors, the schools had to decide how – and whether – to address the Brown shooting and its aftermath. Across America, demonstrators chanted that ‘Black Lives Matter.’ How would Ferguson-area teachers make the controversy matter, and to what end? (The Case for Contentious Curricula)

There were three types of school responses.

  1. Some decided to be proactive and start teaching about the riots.
  2. Others waited until students raised the subject.
  3. And a third set of schools were told to change the subject if the riots were brought up in the classroom.

In a similar situation how would your school or academy trust respond?

Teacher preparation

Do our teachers know how to handle controversies in their lessons? Are they prepared for this in their initial training or during their CPD?

In my earlier career I spent many a lesson in secondary and post-16 classrooms discussing race and racism. In those days, such teaching to equip our students with the appropriate knowledge was allowed.

This guidance document, which includes ground rules and a self-evaluation framework, is still available. The stance taken here is that racism feeds on ignorance and cannot be examined without being ‘political' to some extent. Neutrality is described as inappropriate when dealing with racism and prejudice as pupils need to know where the school and the teacher stands. It advises that opportunities to explore issues and reinforce key messages need to be developed within the whole school framework wherever appropriate and from Year 7 upwards.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought race back into our schools in an explicit way, including in spaces which were supposedly colour-blind. Are our teachers prepared to educate children against racism? Would they be allowed to use the P and N words to teach against the use of such offensive words?

Teaching about race and prejudice takes courage, practice and expertise and appropriate teaching approaches can be built up over time. (See the article talking about race and racism for more ideas.)

Teaching controversy with confidence

Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury has argued that all teachers should be equipped with ‘racial literacy' – the capacity to understand the ways in which race and racisms work in society, and to have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to implement that understanding in teaching practice.

Teachers wishing to equip themselves with the skills for dealing with controversial issues may like to refer to a recently published set of resources from the Council of Europe. One of particular relevance is Living with Controversy. It explains what controversial issues are and why they should be taught in school and provides a set of training activities on how to teach controversial issues in school.

The main approach is encouraging teachers to create safe spaces in which children and youth are given the opportunity to explore and discuss controversial issues within the framework of education for democratic citizenship, human rights, and inclusive education.

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